Matt Gemmell

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Dock Survey Results

development & interface 9 min read

Last Sunday I set up an online survey to ask you a few questions about how you use your Mac OS X Dock, and what features you’d like to see in Next Dock, the new dock/launcher application I’m working on. More than 400 of you have replied (thank you!), and I thought this was a good time to post some results. Please note that the survey is still open, and if you’ve not responded already then I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I’ll run through the questions in order below, giving the results for each one along with some of my own thoughts on the outcome. Note that all percentages are of the total number of respondents (just over 400 at time of writing), even when I break a group down. So, for example, if I say that 90% liked biscuits and 70% liked chocolate biscuits, the 70% is also of the total sample - it’s not “70% of 90%” (which would be 63% of the total). This makes it easiest for everyone to understand the numbers.

How regularly do you use the Mac OS X Dock?

  • 79% use the Dock "very often"
  • 94% use it at least occasionally

Given the fundamental truth that most people will tweak or customize their system relatively little (pretty much going with the default settings for most things), and further given that the Dock does several different jobs which are all fairly fundamental to using your Mac, this result doesn’t surprise me in the least.

Is your Dock always visible?

  • 66% keep the Dock visible at all times

This one surprised me a little bit, because I strongly believe in keeping the Dock hidden until needed, but I’m not in the majority. Most of you have it visible at all times. This tells me that Next Dock should most certainly allow auto-hiding, but that the initial default setting should be to have the dock always visible.

Do you use the Magnification feature of the Dock?

  • 61% never use magnification at all.
  • 6% use it occasionally.
  • 33% keep it enabled at all times.

Magnification is a thorny issue; many of you really hate it. I personally have it switched off permanently, and more than 60% of you do too. Is this the sign of a failed feature, something which is good for marketing but not for actual use? Maybe.

For Next Dock, magnification (as the Dock does it) seems not to be a critical feature, but we do need at least something to help distinguish icons from each other at small tile-sizes.

Approximately how many items are usually in your Dock?

  • The most common number of apps in the Dock is somewhere between 15 and 20, but there are many of you with twice that number (or even more).
  • The vast majority of items in your Docks are apps, often with 1-3 Stacks or folders.
  • A significant minority of you count the Finder as entirely separate from your other apps. Many of you wish you could remove it (and the Trash) from the Dock, notwithstanding your views on running apps belonging in the Dock.

I don’t want to remove the Finder or Trash from my Dock, but generally these results reflect my own situation perfectly: I have 17 apps, my Downloads stack and the Trash in my dock.

Do you often minimize windows into the Dock?

  • 39% minimize windows at least occasionally, but only 11% do so often.
  • The vast majority avoid minimizing, instead managing their windows by hiding apps, using Spaces, or a combination of the two.

This one initially surprised me, until I thought about the fact that I never, ever minimize windows into the Dock - because it’s such a horrible experience. There’s no ready way to get them back without mousing around, you can’t minimize many without serious reducing the tile-size of the rest of the stuff in the Dock, and they’re too small to really distinguish from each other. Ugh. I use Spaces, and regularly hide apps I’m not using, to help manage my windows.

The numbers say that minimizing windows into your Dock is even less important to you than the under-used magnification feature. This de-prioritises mini-windows for me.

Do you often use the contextual/right-click menus on Dock items?

  • 77% use right-click menus at least occasionally; 25% do so often.

This stunned me. I avoid using the mouse whenever possible, so I almost never fiddle around with contextual menus on Dock items; the only command I use even semi-regularly is to force-quit an app I’ve launched by accident, or which has frozen up.

Nevertheless, 77% is a big number, so clearly contextual commands for dock items are pretty important to you.

Do you often use the Trash icon in the Dock?

  • 71% use the Trash icon at least occasionally; 42% do so often.

Another revelation for me. I occasionally glance at the Trash when my Dock is temporarily visible, but I never drag things into it - too imprecise, and too much chance of accidentally dropping things into the Dock beside the Trash, or elsewhere. I do my deletion via the keyboard.

More than 7 out of every 10 of you do use the Trash icon occasionally, and about 4 in 10 do so often. So, even if it’s optional and removable, Next Dock should have a Trash icon.

What resolution is your monitor?

  • Resolutions are large; at least 1440x900 (easily the most frequent resolution) in almost all cases, and commonly 1920x1200 and more.
  • Minimum was 1280x800.
  • About 20% are using multiple (almost always 2) monitors.

Plenty of room for docked items, then. I currently have a 1920x1200 and a 1440x900 side by side here.

Handling running apps which haven't been explicitly added to the Dock

  • 72% believe that non-docked running apps should be shown in the dock until they quit.
  • 19% believe these apps should be shown elsewhere on screen until they quit.
  • Only 2% believe non-docked running apps should not be shown.
  • The remaining 7% mostly agreed with the majority, but often requested that non-docked running apps be separated in some way from the actual docked apps; this was usually a strongly-held opinion.

The most common response to this consisted of saying that non-docked running apps should be in the dock, but then complaining about the effect this has on making the permanently-docked items not be in a stable position. I sympathise with that completely.

Clearly, Next Dock must show non-docked running apps by default, but I’d like to make this optional - and to allow separating them visually from the permanent items. This gives a halfway house between the OS X Dock we’re all used to, and the slightly eccentric behaviour of the NEXTSTEP dock in this regard.

Behaviour when adding items to a dock which is already full (i.e. the full width or height of the screen)

  • 80% believe that docks should make room for new items by reducing the size of existing items.
  • 9% believe that docks should add new rows/columns to make room for new items.
  • 1% believe that existing items should be replaced.
  • 2% believe that it should not be possible to add new items when the dock is full.
  • The remaining 8% was divided between expanding the Dock to another screen-edge, making it scroll, or allowing it to be categorized/subdivided in some way (paging like the Dashboard's widgets bar, for example, or growing tabs, or automatically grouping its items together).

This is another one that initially stunned me, but then I thought “what else can it reasonably do?”. The issue of fitting new items into a one-dimensional dock is really tricky. Furthermore, given that the tile-size must be user-configurable anyway, it seems sensible to take the scaling/resizing approach by default.

That said, I do want to offer other options for overflow. One respondent asked for Oscar the Grouch to appear and steal the new item, hiding it in the Trash, but I think I’ll reserve judgement on that one.

Would you desire the ability to create multiple docks?

  • 81% want only one dock visible at a time.
  • 39% want only one dock in total.
  • 30% want one dock per space.

This result fairly conclusively says that one dock is enough, which is a little surprising since in a survey about a new dock I would have thought that more people would request as much functionality as possible. We’ll see if we can support per-Space docks optionally. I’m undecided on multiple simultaneous docks (i.e. shown at different edges/areas of the screen).

Have you extensively (i.e. not just a brief try-out) used a third-party dock application before?

  • 52% have tried third-party Docks, but only 11% found a satisfactory one for extended use.
  • 40% are currently satisfied with the OS X Dock.
  • 5% do not believe in using third-party docks.

I expected the figure for those who had actively tried third-party docks to be much lower than this. It’s also sobering that only 40% of you would describe yourself as satisfied with the OS X Dock; i.e. more than 1 in 2 of you aren’t satisfied. That seems like a reasonable incentive to proceed with development.

How would you use a third-party dock?

  • 62% would use a third-party dock instead of the OS X Dock.
  • 22% would use a third-party dock alongside the OS X Dock.
  • 16% would not use a third-party dock at all.

This result speaks for itself. There will naturally be a skew for the respondents (most of whom read my blog and/or follow my Twitter feed), but even so - potentially 84% of you would conceivably use a third-party dock. This is a lot higher than I expected.

Would you desire Stacks-like functionality in your dock?

  • 86% want Stacks-like functionality, to give a two-dimensional dock.
  • About half of these want to expand and collapse arbitrary further docked items (sub-docks), and half just want to see the contents of docked folders.

I’ve heard almost nothing but negative feedback about Stacks, so this number came as a surprise. Though, to be fair we’re talking about actual sub-docks (i.e a 2-dimensional Dock which can have further sub-groups expanded from the main set of tiles as needed), so this desire goes beyond Stacks as we have them in Leopard. Clearly we need to have this ability in Next Dock.

How important is it that your dock has a customizable ("skinnable") appearance?

  • 31% say that a customizable appearance is at least reasonably important for a dock.

I expected about 90% of people to say that skinning (visual customization, themes, etc) was very important, but it’s actual most of you don’t care too much. I do want to have at least some customization ability, but presumably it doesn’t have to be too elaborate initially.

How important is it that your dock supports "dock applets", like clocks, CPU monitors, iTunes controllers, etc?

  • 46% say that supporting dock applets/monitors is at least reasonably important for a dock.

Conversely, I expected this to be lower, but then we all make use of badges and other such status indicators on app icons in the Dock right now. To be honest, this is a feature I’d implement even if no-one wanted it.

Comments about the Mac OS X Dock

Now, some general comments you made about the Mac OS X Dock.

  • The instability of icon-positions is a serious annoyance to many of you.
  • Should fill the entire width or height of its screen-edge, not leaving gaps at the sides.
  • Should support grouping/separators of some kind.
  • Trash should be removable.
  • The 3D default appearance of the Leopard Dock is not popular.
  • Stacks should allow drill-down.
  • The piled-icons appearance of Stacks is not popular.
  • Using docked app icons as drop-targets for dragged files is a common usage.
  • Many of you are annoyed at the Dock's perceived slowness when unhiding itself.
  • There's a pervasive sense of the Dock being reasonably good at several things, but for that same reason not being particularly good at any one thing.
  • There's quite widespread dissatisfaction about how "tied-in" the Dock is with other aspects of OS X, meaning that you can't use certain features if you're not also at least having to tolerate the Dock. Examples include window minimization, the App Switcher, an overview of running processes, dock icon badges and status displays, and so on.

I’d have to say that I agree with most of these. The “it does too much, but not enough really well” point is interesting.

Comments about the NEXTSTEP dock

  • Most people have never used NEXTSTEP.
  • Those who have used it tended to valu the freedom of placement of dock tiles (particularly the allowing of empty spaces in the dock), and the lack of visual distractions.
  • It was often conceded that its functionality was very limited, however, and did not scale well (without the addition of an enhancer like Fiend or such).

Again, this pretty much sums up my own view. The NEXTSTEP dock does have a certain elusive quality, though; it’s hard to describe. Something about its aesthetic simplicity, and its feeling of being made of modular blocks. Hopefully I can recapture some of that.

Comments about third-party docks, or docks on other platforms

  • The Windows 7 taskbar is popular, particularly with regard to showing applications' windows and assigning keyboard shortcuts to specific items.

There weren’t many comments in this section, but Windows 7 did come up quite often. I personally do like the display of app windows, and the ability to see them one-by-one, in place and at full size, with other windows becoming transparent outlines. That functionality goes a bit beyond the scope of Next Dock at the moment, but I think it’s a useful feature.


Generally, there does indeed seem to be a market for a new dock/launcher application, assuming it’s done well and is at least reasonably flexible (talk about stating the obvious). We all have our individual gripes with the OS X Dock, but it’s still a sound basis (in some areas of its functionality at least) on which to build.

I want to thank each of you for your responses and (often lengthy) comments and suggestions. Those of you who haven’t responded yet, please feel free to fill in the survey, and you can also of course leave a comment here.

I look forward to sharing more about my thoughts and design decisions on Next Dock as I move forward.