Apple and Oranges

From Subtraction (a very nicely-designed blog I stumbled upon tonight), I found a blog post about “The Genius of Apple’s User Interface Themes.” The writer of this article did some stumbling of his own over an article about “15 Things Apple Should Change in Mac OS X.” He disagreed with this article’s take on Apple’s user interface design. I’m having trouble sleeping tonight, so I figured I’d try to explain why I’m pretty sure he’s wrong.

The authors of the “15 Things” article hit just about all the high points I’d hit in my own list of complaints, including issues with column view and refreshing, the inability to “cut” files like you can in Windows, and the lack of consistent user interface. John over at Daring Fireball has already written quite capably about Mac user interface inconsistencies, so I welcome you to go over there and watch him do his thing. Some examples: the Mac’s built-in web browser and address book application have a “brushed metal” look to their windows, while its music application has a flat metal look with non-shiny scroll bars, and its email app is somewhere in between. A small quibble, to some, but kind of glaring and unprofessional when you pay extra for something that’s supposed to be prettier than what you get from the competitor.

Tim (of the “Genius” article) argues that the violations described in the “15 Things” article must be both intentional and brilliant. He offers an analogy: if all your remote controls looked exactly the same, wouldn’t it be hard to figure out which remote control to use? But hey, I can make up weird analogies too: if your TV came with six remote controls and they all looked different, could you tell it apart from the remote for your VCR? Or: if your TV remote had buttons in the shape of a bear, a wombat, and a cherry, which would you use to change the volume? (Hint: second analogy may be less useful. Update:Seven hours of sleep later, turns out the first analogy makes no sense either.)

Actually, Tim’s argument has some merit. Variation makes it easier to distinguish between objects with different functions, which is the rationale behind making different shapes for each of the buttons within an application. In fact, Apple is supposed to do that with its buttons according to its own user interface guidelines, but it now neglects this guideline in several applications. Which leads me to my own (and John’s) guess: Apple has been dropping the ball on policing its own UI guidelines. And come on, there’s a difference between making applications look distinct enough from each other that you can tell what each does at first glance and making apps that have clashing styles.

This is why I use Uno on my own Macs: being able to customize what metal texture each type of application uses means that everything looks consistent and pretty, but the apps with smaller windows that don’t really need a metal “frame” around each can be left alone. I appreciate that Apple got rid of the kind of ugly brushed metal for some applications, but I lost patience with their inability or unwillingness to offer a smoother metal when navigating files and folders. All this complaining and customization probably sounds pretty picky and stupid to the less nerdy folks out there, but again, when you spend extra to buy a computer in part because of its superior user-interface experience, you might as well get your money’s worth. Until Apple gets the rest of its ducks in a row, thank goodness for people who make free software.

Hi, thanks for continuing the debate! I’ve written a follow up here:

[…] Last night, I was having trouble sleeping, so I did what people with blogs do: babbled semi-coherently about my interests (and maybe inadvertently insulted a nice guy, a corollary of John Gabriel’s Greater Internet F***wad Theory). Much to my surprise, however, my babbling does not exist in a vacuum: see exhibit A, in which Dan gets paid to ride my coattails, and exhibit B, in which Tim (the blogger I said was wrong about user interface consistencies on the Mac) delivers a response. Well, this time I will be nicer, though I’ll still disagree somewhat. […]