“Innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it.” - Steve Jobs

Wow, that was so easy!!!!! How could I have missed that????

Ya ever have one of those moment when you are using software when you just tell yourself, “How could I have missed that??” You search and search for how to do something that you KNOW is possible, but you can’t figure it out. Then … when someone tells you how to do it and you succeed in following their directions you just feel like the biggest idiot in the world.

I just faced that moment with a piece of software that is supposed to be the most intuitive and easy to use in the world, Mac OS X (10.3.7 for those keeping score; though I doubt it makes a difference). So I want to take this moment and not exactly rake Apple designers over the coals, so much as analyze what the heck went wrong. I think this follows my anti-“less is more” theme of late.

Mac OS X: Display Preferences

A simple preferences screen. Look at it closely. What can you do with this screen? Well, you know even before you saw it that you can arrange something b/c that is he name of the tab you clicked to get here. But once you arrive you are completely focused on the center of the dialog. The screen displays are pretty all focusing and because the title of the screen itself, almost beg you to play with them. But to what end of detail can you engage with these two images? I mean, it does say “Arrange”, so maybe I can drag one screen to the other side and see what effect that has, right? This seems plausible.

What is important to realize in the above discription is not once did I ever notice the text. Even the cursory glance I took with it, all I saw was “To rearrange …” I never got past that point because I already figured out that part on my own and the way th rest of the text is written, there is no way to really tell that what is under it is anything other than the continuation of the top text.

What is so interesting is that 4 very good computer users (software designers at that) couldn’t figure out the simple task of moving the menubar from one screen to the other. I won’t give names, but they all know who they are and we are all embarrassed quite enough.

But I think the question of “why” didn’t we figure this out, let alone intuit fro what was there what to do. Well, here are some easy changes to help this screen:

1. Make the tab name less exact, or more exact, depending on how you think of it, like “Arrangement and Layout”. As already noted, the use of the word “Arrangement” by itself sets the user up so that they don’t think there is a lot more to do on this screen.

2. put whitespace between the 2 separate lines of text, so my eye will catch them as distinct from each other.

3. make the screens themselves slightly bigger. Not exactly sure why there needs to be so much space around them.

4. When you make them bigger you can then put more into the screens themselves. I see two possibilities:
a. make the menubar look grabable
b. add text in the bar that says “drag me” (obvioiusly, not literally; I’m not a copy writer)

5. Why in the world do I have to drag and drop … I was trying to “context menu” this thing forever. A great context menu would have just been … “make default”, or “place menubar”. As a relatively recent Mac OS X user, I often think they rely too much on the whole drag and drop thing, and don’t take really good advantage of menus. (see below for another example).

6. Just in case, why the heck not have a tooltip to help the user find these things. Like I said above, it is definitely playful.

If I was to characterize some of these suggestions into some guidelines, or qualities required for better design, i would start with the following:

1. not all labels can be summed up in 1 word

2. labels for navigation set up expectations for what to do on arrival and limit the user’s perspective; so choose wisely. I think lables are often the most under thought about part of a GUI.

3. Ok, I’ll be a broken record. Affordances are really difficult in a 2D virtual space and well, drag & drop requires strong affordances to work well. This all reminds me of the phillips design site that required drag and drop to navigate (using flash). Looked great, but every designer who used it criticized it to death. (it no longer exists).

Ok, then … Here is another example of missed opportunity for a menu in Mac OS X. iTunes has 2 views. Admittedly, I’m totally biased from first using iTunes in Windows, but it just makes sense to me.

The default view (smaller here) for iTunes is the full view:
iTunes Full View

Then there is the Mini view:
iTunes Mini View

Toggling between them is actually quite simple. But I had to go to the help system to find out. Just so people know where I’m coming from. In windows there are two easy ways to do this: 1. go to the menu and either under View or Window is the option “Mini View” or something like that. (I’m doing this from memory.); 2. just do ctrl-H from the keyboard.

So I know that ctrl-H won’t work on a Mac an I also know that cmd-H would make the whole thing go hidden. Still haven’t found the hot-key (anyone?). Well, I go to the menu and hunt away. Nothing, nada, no where in the menu is there anything.

There is this curious item called “Zoom” … To me that would change the text size, so I wouldn’t even think of clicking it (turns out that is the answer).

So I go to the help and it says that if you click the “+” sign that is in the top left corner that would do it. I’m like “WHAT!!!!!” And this time in a bad way. That is counter to my understanding of the GUI guidelines for the behavior of that widget. The widget is supposed to change the size of the window from max to restore (don’t know the equiv language in mac). It does NOT change the actual view of the window. I have been using lots of apps w/ Mac OS X so far and never has that convention been broken before, so why would I think it does it this time.

Again, so many missed opportunities:
1. Why the heck not make this a button on the window itself in clear view. It is particular to this application, and should not be assumed that a user will try different conventions to mean the same thing.

2. Labeling again. Why call it Zoom. Yes a great simple label, but since I’m actually trying to make it smaller (not bigger), why would I choose zoom. I have noticed that the behavior of the menu is to not change the label for the “Zoom” feature, or note the difference between zoomed and not zooomed (a simple check mark would suffice) or change the label to expand, and then when it is expanded to collapse, or some other easier antonyms.

3. But even better when it comes to labels, is just call it what it is. Mini View and put it under the “view” menu item b/c that is what I’m changing … THE VIEW.

I think that everyone should switch OSes every so often, just to feel the pain of the switch. It’s fun!!!!

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