Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

21 Jun 2007, 0:35 a.m.

John Gruber Talk on Mac UI Design

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2007 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Tonight I watched Ten Things I Hate About You for the first time (TiVo thought I'd like it), and hoo boy did I ever go to high school in the 1990s. You could reduce me to a pile of nostalgia by playing that soundtrack at me in an enclosed area.

But! More interestingly, tonight I saw John Gruber give a talk on conventions, consistency, and uniformity in Macintosh design. I got to meet him, and Khoi Vinh, and I sat next to Jason Kottke wowzers! A summary of interesting points:

  • We've overloaded the term "consistency." "Consistency" in user interface design might mean visual uniformity, following conventions within your application/website, following conventions set by your environment, or just "it's in the Apple Human Interface Guidelines!"

  • Perhaps we needed strict visual uniformity in the early days of the Mac, because users were learning GUIs for the first time. But user experience has increased, and they're used to the wild and wooly UI diversity of the web. They've punched the monkey and won (phrasing Sumana's).

  • So now maybe we can have suites and subsets of UI designs, all with basic Mac-like look-and-feel. Instead of complete visual uniformity across Apple applications, for example, apps like GarageBand or iTunes each have a feel of their own with internal uniformity. As long as Apple and indie developers honor the really important conventions (bound in muscle memory), slavish adherence to the HIG isn't necessary -- or even possible, since Apple isn't conscientiously updating or following it.

  • What are the primo conventions, other than Command-S to save? There are some new idioms that you have to simply "suss out" to fit in and keep a Mac sensibility. Example: the "source list," otherwise known as the list of categories or top-level elements in a left-hand navigation bar in a window. It's in the "implicit HIG," which is like the British Constitution (analogy Sumana's) (and it's in the indie HIG), and you should follow that convention. Probably.

  • Apple optimizes the whole experience and relationship with the customer, not just individual UI transactions ("how many pixels should she have to go to double-space?") (phrasing Sumana's). And where Microsoft apps make it easy for a medium-skilled user to achieve high efficiency (look at how many shortcuts they crowd onto toolbars), Apple makes usability obvious, so it's easier to switch from Windows to Mac than vice versa.

There were good anecdotes and examples and analogies I won't ruin, so you can see the talk sometime when it's iterated more. I can tell that it will, since Gruber was plainly in rumination mode.


Gareth Hay
22 Jun 2007, 5:58 a.m.

While I have no real basis to wholeheartedly agree with the final point (I've been a mac user since about 86), I can agree that is more than infuriating when trying to work on Windows PCs having a solid base in MacOS user interfaces.

The differing behaviour of option-arrow key and the up and down arrows in single line entry fields had me swearing at the windows box on more than one occasion. This is only one example of differing behaviour.

I fear that linux is in danger of pandering too much to the windows camp in terms of UI conventions, which is completely understandable, I just hope they correct enough of the mistakes to make Mac to linux a less painful experience, especially as it's feasible to run something like xubuntu with decent speed on a low powered G3 now.

22 Jun 2007, 6:25 a.m.

Its very interesting that Apple has chosen (at least in a hand-waving "look, it's a feature!" kind of way) to bring back some kind of conformity to OS X. But we have yet to see how a uniformed window-style will impact the current "wild west" that Gruber talks about.

In many ways I think he's right, and it would explain Apple's last few years of neglect very nicely. I think one could describe John's idea that apps have "internal consistency" more aptly by saying that we're moving away from a system-wide metaphor ("all open windows are documents on a desk!") to application-specific metaphors. We started seeing this with QuickTime, I think -- a radical departure from UI standards at the time.

Today we have applications like Delicious Library, Disco and to a lesser extent Voice Candy, iTunes and Awaken that break some minor and some major UI conventions, but all adhere to their own metaphors.

I think we've had indicators of this happening sooner or later as early as the 1980's. Games have always had their own UI's, be it as simple as differing menus but similar controls, all the way down to incredibly intricate and unique ways to control and take in information.

What we're seeing now is that, like John said, we're post-conformity in many ways. All signs point to different UI's depending on apps. Just look at Time Machine, Dashboard and Garageband.

Since people can, and have, obviously migrated from OS 9 to OS X 10.1 through 10.4 and will soon jump onto the yet-again differing 10.5...

And since people can, and have, obviously migrated from Windows 3.11 to Win95 through WinXP and are now making the jump to Vista... Can we stop arguing over what shade of Aqua "has to" be used? Nothing looked the same yesterday, but we're just as, if not more, productive today. Despite UI-inconsistency between upgrades and applications.

22 Jun 2007, 9:16 a.m.

i can't vouch for linux pandering to the windows crowd, as gareth states, but i have noticed that 10.5 is taking cues from the "more is more" approach of Vista. i'm REAALLLLY disappointed in the useless & junky additions to the UI in 10.5

was our dock really that boring that it need a floor? personally, i use haxies to get rid of the semi-opaque white background & lines around my icons anyhow. please, Unsanity, start working on a haxie for 10.5. also, the semi transparent menu bar is just awful. why? because Vista has hard to read, gray bars everywhere?

Cupertino, turn off your photocopiers...

22 Jun 2007, 10:46 a.m.

I was happy to attend this evening as well.

I think an argument can be made that muscle memory can be retrained, especially at simple levels, fairly easily. Even putting your watch on the "wrong wrist" wouldn't take long to get used to. I have a zippered sweater, for instance, that I bought in a men's store but has the zippers reversed (like a woman's shirt). I got used to it very quickly, and although it was frustrating the first couple of times I tried to zip it, my muscles quickly adapted to the motion. Similarly, I think if a whole OS (like the Next example Gruber gave) goes with left-side vertical scrollbars, that is something users will get used to. If it's logical, why not break the convention? I think that's the overrulling principle, coupled with consistency of convention throught an OS and the applications developed for it. It would be bad if some apps within had left-side scrollbars and some had them on the right.

A good real world example given by a friend of mind is the window controls in Windows and Macs. Window's close, minimize, maximize and close buttons are on the right and Mac OS's are on the left. But does anyone who lives in a cross-platform routine (like me) have any trouble closing windows in either? It's certainly no worse than the Command/Control differences in the two.