Leopard UI vs Usability

In a post entitled, Satisfying UI Design is Often Illogical, Scott Stevenson defends recent changes to Leopard’s UI. Under a heading of “A Design Strategy” he writes:

So we need a fresh experience. What’s the criteria?

There are tens of millions of existing Mac users all over the world, and millions of new ones waiting in the wings. They need to an experience that is both brand new, and yet familiar. Stop short, and it will not spark the user’s interest. Go too far, and you may alienate your user base. So the task is finding the balance.

This is additionally complicated by the fact that Leopard must look like it belongs in the same universe as the iPhone, iPod, the Apple Store, and a wide range of Mac applications. It’s difficult (impossible?) to come up with something which satisfies all tastes, so compromises have to be made.

I think it’s a mistake, though, to assume that the shipping designs are ever reached via apathy for a particular audience. Finding the perfect balance is hard, but some version ultimately must ship to keep things moving forward. The goal, I think, is maximum user satisfaction for the target audience. This may mean making changes that some audiences would disagree with (because not everyone experiences things in the same way), but I really doubt it’s apathy.

However, rather than the subjective views to which he alludes throughout the post, much of the criticism about Leopard, voiced very consistently by developers and users alike, is that many of the changes actually degrade usability, making the user experience less satisfying.

Some examples:

  • The new folder design makes it more difficult to recognise folders at a glance.
  • The new Dock’s “lights” do a worse job at showing an app’s running status than the triangles in the previous versions of the Dock, by offering less contrast.
  • Stack icons in the Dock make it more difficult to see which folder is represented.
  • Stacks can only access a limited number of items in a folder before falling back to the Finder; the pop-up menu listing all items is gone.
  • The menu bar is harder to read with some backgrounds.

You’ve read such a list a thousand times by now, I’m sure.

None of these things are so terrible that your Mac becomes unusable and overall Leopard looks good, but people expect better from Apple. The impression is that Leopard’s UI designers were unable to fuse form and function as well as we have come to expect. It’s both disappointment and frustration fuelling the complaints.

On the plus side, I would say Spaces, the unified window style, new Finder (undoubtedly my favourite change) and Spotlight results window are generally regarded as worthwhile improvements.

Taken as a whole, it appears more was lost than won with Leopard’s UI changes.

Scott ends with this:

If history can be used as a benchmark, the UI discussion cycle we’re currently in with Leopard is a natural part of the process. Any sort of change will bring disagreement from some users, but eventually it all settles down as people get used to it and various tweaks are made. That’s been my experience, anyway.

I would agree that some changes require an adjustment period and various issues will be addressed in time. Normally, this would happen in the next major version of the OS, but maybe we will see some changes sooner thanks to all the discussions going on.

6 Responses to “Leopard UI vs Usability”

  1. Scott Stevenson Says:

    The point I was getting at is that for a majority of the target audience (mainstream users), the overall feeling of satisfaction may be improved, even given the things you list as drawbacks. I don’t think the average person considers these issues a big deal at all, and are more than compensated for by the sensation of just doing something new and (subjectively) pleasant to look at.

    I’m not necessarily saying I agree with all the changes, I just think the dedicated developer community closely scrutinizes things that the average user doesn’t notice or care about. Completely ancedotally, I let my mom play around Leopard and she was thrilled. I specfically asked her about the menu bar and she made no comment about legibility. It’s an isolated case, I realize, but far less biased than most of us. Certainly, only a minority of users will ever notice the fact that all the window looks are unified now.

    An alternative where everyone is pleased would be great, of course, but I haven’t seen any examples of anyone offering up their own mockups. 🙂

  2. Steve Harris Says:

    Scott, I’m sure you’re right in that many users would neither notice nor care about many of the things we rant on about, I would just like Apple to do better.

    Since you mentioned mockups, there was Rory Prior’s Dock.

  3. Scott Stevenson Says:

    I admire having the guts to post a mockup. For the purposes of Apple’s goals, I think it’s too small of a change. It has good elements, but it feels more like a Tiger rev than something new.

    The difference in philosophy here, I think, is that Rory is looking more for functional changes than visual flourishes. I think that’s backed up by his commentary about Delicious Library and such. He has a particular set of beliefs about it, and I completely respect that.

    > I would just like Apple to do better

    I’m sure the HI folks would always like to do better, as well. Who doesn’t like making people happy? The thing is that it’s not always obvious what that is. It’s easy to make something better in the eyes of one sort of person, but we’re talking in the millions.

    I don’t disagree that the changes Rory suggests would make Rory happier. The question is would the Mac come out ahead after all is said and done if the UI took a more conversative route? I don’t think it’s clear.

    So far, the Mac and iLife UI haven’t backed down from their bold UI moves, and it seems to be working in those cases. It also seems to work pretty well for Delicious Library and Pixelmator. In that light, I think it at least leaves the possibility open that there’s more to this than it seems.

  4. Rory Says:

    The issue, as I see it, is the difference between whether something works well or badly. You can make something that works well or that works badly look pretty, and yes people will buy something solely because it looks pretty because there is an expectation that pretty things are better made. However in the end you just end up damaging your reputation when you ship pretty software that doesn’t work well. It might be a good short term strategy but ultimately I think people will wise up. There is no reason other than perhaps bad management or greed that Apple would be shipping software which isn’t both functional and beautiful. iLife and iWork have fantastic user interfaces, the problems seem to almost exclusively reside in the software bundled with the OS.

    This whole shock doctrine of UI design is painfully short sighted, how is Apple going to top of the 3D dock in terms or visual pizzaz? Either it steps backward to something more utilitarian and minimal or it goes further overboard. Does the Mac come out better at the end of that strategy or not?

  5. Andy Melton Says:

    Without reading any of the wonderful comments from the wonderful people above I have to say that I feel as though Apple is simply trying to appeal to the “Gimme Shiny Shiny Objects” fan base.

    There is one thing that does bug me and I was going to blog about it but it doesn’t deserve an entire blog entry. That topic is the stupid thing with the network share icon for a Windows PC. I haven’t read much into it. It’s retarded to get annoyed by it but I in a way feel as though Apple is becoming too smug and one of these days it’s seriously going to come back to haunt them. As a person who is tri-platform (Windows, Mac and Linux) it makes me wonder how Apple looks to people who are looking at interoperability. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful demonstration? Pull up a Windows share and it shows a BSOD as the icon. An operating system shouldn’t judge people, it should do it’s job. Leave judgment and criticism to the advertising folks. Maybe if they had used an LCD display with a BSOD I wouldn’t be so bitchy 😉

    Anyways. My comment is retarded, mostly, twice but I really needed to get that out of me. Still love Macs. Plan on buying a new one ASAP (as usual). Call me a retarded idiot if you must. Anyways. Whatever. Byes.

  6. chris hildreth Says:

    The stacks and grid view would not bother me as much if I could adjust the settings (font size, transparency, etc.)