Matt Gemmell

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Apple UI: a brighter note

interface 4 min read

Picasso Macintosh

Buzz posted a very interesting follow-up article in response to various of my and Erik’s posts. I really sat up and took notice when he said:

I usually try to steer clear of such discussions, because, for me, they only bring back unpleasant memories of joyless usability "gurus" like Jakob Nielsen [or Tog]"

It occurred to me that, with the recent chain of negative articles, I’m perhaps in danger of being pigeonholed as a curmudgeon and a luddite; another person “who simply can’t abide any departure from the classic Mac OS”. Particularly, the idea of being labelled as some kind of “wannabe Nielsen” scares the hell out of me.

Accordingly, today I’m going to talk about aspects of Apple’s recent UI and design decisions that I really do like. Here are 12 examples of clever design that I’ve noticed since Jaguar was released.

Address Book: Swap First/Last Name

Whole applications (well, certainly AppleScripts at least) are created on an almost weekly basis to take care of the problem of forenames and surnames being imported into contact programs in the wrong order. I vividly remember using all kinds of FileMaker trickery years ago to take care of either this problem, or the related one where both forename and surname are in a single field. Apple foresaw the need for this function, and included it natively in Address Book.

iCal: Delete all occurrences

If you try to delete an event which is actually just one instance of a repeating event, it’s ambiguous whether or not to want to delete just that instance, or all instances. iCal handles the situation with a well-worded alert, and even better-worded buttons. No ambiguity there.

iChat: Speech Balloons

(Thankfully, Mike didn't go on a killing spree after all)

One of the thing I didn’t like much about IRC was that there was an initial learning curve regarding how to follow a conversation. IRC clients typically show all messages in a terminal-like way, which for me corresponds to being in a room with several people, and all of you standing against the back wall, talking to each other but all facing the opposite wall. It’s bizarre.

We’ve had a great solution to the visual presentation of conversations since long before Apple was around: the cartoon speech-balloon. iChat uses them to great effect, not only making conversations easier to follow, but injecting a bit of that “we do it better” Mac spirit into the previously tired Instant Messaging concept.

iChat: Privacy preferences icon

Normally, preferences for “privacy” would be represented by the same icon now used as standard for “security”: the padlock. iChat instead taps into the common impression of Instant Messaging being largely the domain of teenagers in their bedrooms, by using an icon showing one of those “do not disturb” door-hangers. A beautiful touch!

iChat: Speech volume

iChat can perform several types of action when certain events occur (such as when you log in, or when a buddy comes online), and one of the possible actions is speaking some specified text using Mac OS X’s “Text to Speech” capabilities. iChat has its own volume slider for such speech. When you adjust it, instead of just beeping, the computer says “volume adjusted”, to demonstrate the new volume.

iPhoto: iTunes integration for slideshows

The previous version of iPhoto came with two MIDIs as possible background music tracks for your image slideshows. The new version lets you choose from any of your songs in iTunes - without needing to have iTunes running at all. Notice how it also lists your specific playlists, including smart playlists. This is part of the fanfare about the “iLife” bundle. It may be over-hyped, but it’s great functionality.

iSync: synchronization configuration UI

iSync may use a hideous custom toolbar, but it also proves that Apple certainly still knows how to create a configuration UI. The layout of the various controls used to set synchronisation options for my iPod is a work of art. Despite how it might seem, this is a very difficult thing to do well. Apple succeeds on a regular basis.

iTunes: My Rating

Give all your songs a star-rating, and construct playlists according to those ratings. Beautifully simple and intuitive UI (the five stars act like a slider set to only stop at the tick-marks, so you can just drag over the rating area to set the appropriate number of stars), and a function that people really use. Classic.

Safari: Disk Copy integration

Safari continues working where other browsers pass the buck. When you download a disk image (.dmg) file with Safari, Safari actually keeps you appraised of Disk Copy’s progress in decompressing the image, displaying any license agreements, and mounting it on your desktop. That’s a very nice touch, which prevents what I call “StuffIt Syndrome”, where you suddenly get an Aladdin progress-window in your face every few moments whilst you download several files.

Safari: dragged links

As Erik pointed out, when you drag a text link in Safari, you see a (rounded, of course) transparent rectangle with both the URL and the linked text. Looks nice, provides more information, and is great for those of us who sometimes forget what link we just dragged.

Safari: Security preferences

If you’ve ever tweaked the security preferences in other browsers, particularly a certain gigantic, creaking open-source one, you’ll know just how much of a thing of beauty Safari’s Security pane is. Neat, clean, readable, and easy to use. Leave it to Mozilla, and there would be fifty checkboxes in there (and another one to disable the rest).

Safari: status bar

We all know that command-clicking a link opens it in a new window, don’t we? Similarly, command-shift-clicking opens the link in a new window behind the current one, and option-clicking downloads the link’s destination. With Safari, you don’t need to remember: the status bar’s text changes to tell you exactly what’s going to happen when you click.


Yes, these are all very small things. But it’s the small things that count; they keep me using, and loving, Mac OS X. Small things like those above make sure that, for the foreseeable future and for the past umpteen years, each new computer I buy is always a Mac - even if I do then complain about some of the UI.