What I’d Like to See in Tiger: Part 3, A Consistent User Interface

by Hadley Stern Mar 02, 2005

Maybe it’s because I’m a graphic designer by training but I like things to be visually consistent.

One of the beautiful things about the original Mac operating system was its visual simplicity and consistency. A window in Macpaint had a similar look and feel (such a funny expression, look and feel!) to a window in the finder.

This consistency was, well, consistent throughout the entire classic operating system. OS X appears to have thrown all that out the window. Now we have some Apple applications with a metallic look and some without. Why does iPhoto get the metallic look and Mail doesn’t? Or, even more egregious, within the finder itself some windows are metallic and some aren’t. I’d like to see the dartboard at Apple where they figure this stuff out. Actually, I wouldn’t.

Consistency in a user interface is a good thing. At a certain point the UI should fade into the background. The early innovators on the Macintosh knew this, Windows copied it, and to see a somewhat scattered interface in OS X is disappointing to say the least. Yes, some of this visual vertigo has to do with the superfluous (albeit beautiful) over-the-top eye-candy in OS X. But a lot of it has to so with interface differences where they are not needed.

Let’s hope Tiger cleans up its act and bring the Mac back to the refined interface it was famous for.


  • Yes. Totally agree, Hadley.

    Like, Safari. Where is the customize toolbar option?  It’s a series of tickable items in the View menu!

    Chris Howard had this to say on Mar 02, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • Panther actually did have guidlines as to which applications could use the metallic look and which couldn’t.  ArsTechnica wrote about it.  I think it was something like “anything with a Finder-style” interface, i.e. a “Library” or “Source” column on the left side.  So basically, anything that is a “Finder” for something, iTunes for music, iPhoto for pictures, has the metallic look.

    Taco John had this to say on Mar 02, 2005 Posts: 5
  • Agreed.  OSX looks like a hodgepodge of different design elements.  Man make up your mind Apple. 

    hmurchison had this to say on Mar 02, 2005 Posts: 145
  • Come on people… the Finder DOES have a unified appearance.  You are talking about applications (Safari, Mail, etc.) like they are actually part of the OS.  Albeit heavily integrated and bundled, they are not.

    In any event, I do agree that the entire iLife suite and most Apple apps should share the same interface design, unless of course it conflicts with the functionality of the apps.  Hey, at least we don’t have a different menu bar on each app. like Win apps! smile

    I vaguely remember Steve announcing that Tiger apps (like mail) would adopt the newer metalic interface, so I think what you desire is already in the works (err.. done) - works for me! smile


    Mark Lindsey had this to say on Mar 02, 2005 Posts: 20
  • You should read Fireball’s article on this if you haven’t. He defines the usage and purpose of both aqua and brushed very neatly.

    piecetogether had this to say on Mar 02, 2005 Posts: 13
  • Mark Lindsey makes a good point. The OS and its window managers and GUI APIs and interface are one thing; apps which run UNDER the OS are another thing. We should keep these things separate. I want the developer of an OS to design a user interface which is optimal for the OS—not to design one which is optimal for a web browser, mail client, etc. Conversely, developers for web browsers and mail clients should design UI’s with the specific use (or “applicaton”) of software they have in mind.

    Now this isn’t to say some UI concepts are not universal—of course not. And where possible I agree that UI guidelines should be followed by third-party developers. Nor do I suggest that Apple gratuitiously departs from some of its own such published UI guidelines. But I think Hadley Stern overstates this and I also take issue that the Aqua window manager’s UI is “over the top” as he puts it. Quite the contrary, I find Apple’s interface to be largely minimalist and muted—especially in contrast with the in-your-face colors and interface of Windows XP.

    The pity is that if Hadley were only to moderate his comments then some of his valid points would be more likely to survive. There ARE indeed interface problems with OS X and it’s best to surgically call attention to them individually rather than to give vent to broad-brush sermonizing.

    Jeff Mincey

    Jeff Mincey had this to say on Mar 02, 2005 Posts: 74
  • Oops—in my post above (which isn’t editable apparently—I make this statement: “Nor do I suggest that Apple gratuitiously departs from some of its own such published UI guidelines.” What I had meant to say instead was this:

    Nor do I suggest that Apple NEVER gratuitiously departs from some of its own such published UI guidelines. (The point being, I do acknowledge that the OS X UI could stand some refinement in this regard.)

    Jeff Mincey

    Jeff Mincey had this to say on Mar 02, 2005 Posts: 74
  • Good article.  I am also a graphic designer and find OS X more difficult to use than OS 9 - which makes it, from a design point of view, a failure. 

    What I think gets a it lost in all the praise heaped upon the OS X eye-candy is that - as a GUI - it tends to be more of an obstacle to a user than its predecessor. Not MUCH more, but more enough to be noticeable and frustrating.

    It could be argued that a simple point and click routine which in OS X takes a second - rather than OS 9’s half-a-second - isn’t something to really make much of a fuss about.  But, of course, another way of putting this is to state that OS X’s design faults add up to every project (whether it traditionally takes a few minutes or several weeks) now takes twice as long to do.

    In the same way of thinking, each of OS X’s many GUI faults is minute when looked at in isolation… (and, when criticised in isolation, perhaps seem too trivial to be taken seriously by Apple) but viewed as a whole they add up to a significant impediment to anyone who has always relied on their Mac for work.

    slopes had this to say on Mar 02, 2005 Posts: 17
  • A “significant impediment” slopes?  What is it that you’re trying to do that consistently takes twice as long in OSX?  I’ll admit that there are annoyances in OSX, but would you really prefer to go back to regular crashing in OS9 just to save 500mS here and there?

    Mark Lindsey had this to say on Mar 02, 2005 Posts: 20
  • Mark - I’m just trying to work at my natural speed (fast). Yes OS 9 crashed more often, but the point I wanted to make was that a whole days worth of 500mS’s add up to quite a bit of wasted time and a very real sense of being held back by the unnecessary limitations of an overly ‘fancy-looking’ OS X GUI.

    From a design point of view, OS 9’s ‘clunky’ visual architecture was far more successful in adhering to a form-follows-function philosophy the OS X is.  All its elements were laid out logically (and followed a strict metaphor for a real environment), it’s interface graphics were simple and usefully representative of the functions they performed. Its typography was concise.  All these small issues - and a lot more besides - add up to a sense of interacting with, and manipulating, a real tool rather than the rather queazy ‘never quite in control’ feeling I live with on OS X.

    slopes had this to say on Mar 02, 2005 Posts: 17
  • Slopes,  I completely disagree with you.  I find myself much more productive in OSX than OS9, even on my aging 1GHz PowerBook (and even with my older 400MHz G4 until recently).  Perhaps you just haven’t wrapped your head around OSX enough yet or your working style is vastly different than mine (music/web/graphics, etc.). smile


    Mark Lindsey had this to say on Mar 02, 2005 Posts: 20
  • I’m afraid I must disagree with Slopes as well. My first exposure to the Mac was way back with System 3.0—so I was well versed in Systems 6, 7, 8, and 9 before OS X came along. OS 9 has very few UI advantages over OS X (though it does have a few). But on balance, in the aggregate, OS X is much easier (and efficient) to navigate, provides the user with more navigating options—if you exclude third party software from OS 9 and OS X for an equal comparison of native functions—and in fact I can cite some examples in the beloved OS 9 of BAD interface.

    Foremost (and the easiest target) is the abominable Chooser. I defy you to sit a NEW user down at an OS 9 Mac and ask him to guess how to set up a printer. Even Windows is more intuitive at this. Same goes for file sharing. Also, if you sit down two people who have never before seen either OS 9 or OS X and ask them to see who will be the first to install a new font, who do you think would win? I say the OS X user would win because he would naturally think to look in the Applications or Utilities folders for anything named “Font” something. The poor OS 9 user might look in Control Panels (only to come up empty) and would search the hard drive in vain for native font tools.

    Now you would tell me that ease of learning is one thing and ease of USE is another—and of course in this you would be right. But what does it say about OS 9 that a mighty UNIX OS would be more intuitive for a first-time user (for such basics and adding a new printer or installing a new font)?

    Also, I couldn’t bear the window clutter of OS 9. Under OS X you can opt to open a new window for as many folders as you like but you need not do so if you don’t want. No such option with OS 9. For the longest time there was no Window menu available and then finally when it was added, I would find it very cumbersome to click on that thing to navigate through all open windows. It’s much easier and quicker to use OS X’s back and forward buttons for two or three iterations or just to use the Sidebar for commonly accessed folders.

    I will confess that the Apple Menu in OS 9 was a nice feature, (though it was underpowered without the aid of third-party utilities). More often than not, the “Recent Items” menu is quite sufficient for me under OS X anyway—plus the Dock. And as long as we must get a third party tool to enhance navigation and invocation functions, I find the DragThing and Launch Bar are powerful enough so as to never make me look back again.

    I fail to understand the nostalgia for OS 9. As Mark points out, it crashed VERY frequently—even when well tuned (with incessant desktop rebuilds and the like). It didn’t do pre-emptive multitasking or protected memory—a crash of one program meant rebooting the whole system—which is absurd. And it had no native support for scroll wheels which is a considerable loss to those who cite ease of navigation as important.

    OS 9 had its strengths, but I find that Apple is slowly but surely re-incorporating the best OS 9 had to offer into OS X and Aqua—without all the spaghetti code and instablity and inflexibility.

    So, in light of the foregoing, for me it’s no looking back.

    Jeff Mincey had this to say on Mar 02, 2005 Posts: 74
  • Wow, there’s a lot to address. 1st. I’ll give windows the only nod ever - the ability to tone xp down to a classic windows look. I still hate it, but there’s that.
    2nd. keyboard shortcuts rock. I thought buying an external mouse for my laptop would be useful, but i found that it slows me down. that’s because i used keyboard shortcuts like a maniac. in combination with the trackpad, i can use both hands to mouse around AND bang keys. that’s just the best.
    finally. i do like the stability of osx, os9 wasn’t too bad either, for most of the basic stuff. i don’t do much more than mail, news and net, so os9 didn’t crash all that often for me. of course, when it did crash, it always crashed hard. osx is certainly better about that. as far as aqua vs metal is concerned, i like aqua better. metal is so less appealing to me. i can do without the swoopy genie effects, and i do like the tabbed interface of safari. if that were to extend to other apps like the finder (which is the os, not the app, i know), that would be pretty neat.

    anyone losing productivity to the interface should take the time to learn how to mash buttons for effect. ultimately, it’s faster.

    oasisob1 had this to say on Mar 03, 2005 Posts: 1
  • When I first started using OS X I thought it was fairly inefficient. Nothing worked quite the way I expected though it was close. When I stopped trying to use OS X like I used OS 6,7,8 and 9 and started to use it, well, like I use it now I find to be much better than 9. In fact I have to make a conscious effort not to think of 9 as a very bad operating system. For the time it was nice but compared to OS X it is light years behind.

    chrisseibold had this to say on Mar 03, 2005 Posts: 48
  • As this discussion is about GUI and not about how often a OS crashes - it concentrate on the topic.

    Jeff - ‘Fonts’ is a good example.  A simple (single window!) search on OS 9 would reveal ONE Fonts folder for the whole system (not THREE).  How much simpler can you get than that?

    The OS 9 GUI worked as a design because it emulated a dependable real-world environment in which the ‘Subject’ (the user) had complete freedom of choice in the way he related to ‘Objects’ (his hierarchical organisation of containers and their contents within that space). Apart from a few (non-intrusive) system utilities within their own fixed containers, the space OS 9 offered the user respected this fundamental ‘Subject/Object’ relationship rather than make itself an ‘obstacle’ by attempting to interfere in, pre-empt or otherwise influence the user’s organisation of his environment. Compare that to the barmy OS X world where the ‘Desktop’ container holds a ‘Mac HD’ container, which contains ‘My’ folder, which contains… wait for it… the ‘Desktop’!  Click on that ‘Desktop’ and it contains all the objects I’ve left there… except, bizarrely, the ‘Mac HD object’.  Metaphorically, this Esheresque maze is like me entering my house, walking into the kitchen, opening the cupboard and finding…my house (with it’s kitchen, for some reason beyond me, GONE).

    Another way in which OS 9 had its boundaries very clearly defined (you know where you are with boundaries), is that its graphical elements always did what they illustrated.  A clearly demarked window let you know - for example - where the scroll area begun and ended and its boarders both separated it from other information as well as giving you (literally) a useful margin for error when pointing the mouse. The scroll tab clearly indicated a tactile ‘grippable’ object - rather than the completely inappropriate (slippery-looking) liquid lozenge of OS X.

    As I have already said, these ‘faults’ (and many, many more) on their own don’t really seem that vital (just minor irritations) but added together they represent a seriously inferior GUI.

    slopes had this to say on Mar 03, 2005 Posts: 17
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