On the death of the HIG and the triumph of eye candy over usability

What for years has differentiated Macs, and Apple devices in general from their UNIX and Windows brethren? The user interface, both physical and virtual. In recent years many including myself have noted the ever degrading quality of Apple’s user interfaces, increasingly eye candy has been the sole motivation behind many user interface decisions and usability and consistency have taken a back seat. Look at how many variations there are of the dark unified look, no two the same in fact. Apple even mixes and matches widget styles in its own user interfaces with totally different styles for widgets in one window than in another (GarageBand is a prime offender here) where there is no functional benefit of doing so. If you want to go all unified then just do it, don’t give me a grey scale checkbox in one pane and an aqua one in the next because it looks shit. Yes a user knows they’re both checkboxes but it doesn’t mean it’s not butt ugly. You don’t put one random blue key in the middle of a keyboard do you, why on earth would you do it in your UI? It’s a level of inconsistency that even Linux isn’t guilty of, and as someone who used to use Linux before the rise of KDE and Gnome I can tell you what a horrifically inconsistent UI looks and feels like.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg, Apple produces a handful of applications, there are thousands of 3rd party developers out there, myself included, who look for UI design direction from Apple. We’ve reached the point now where most of us have twigged ‘the HIG is dead‘, in so far as UI consistency is over, it’s every app for itself now. A good example is the incredibly hyped popular Disco. It’s a fab application, I’ve already bought my copy and I’m impressed by its simplicity and functionality. But the user interface is awful…

What you cry, how can it be awful, it smokes and shines and shimmers?! Yet those things don’t excuse its most basic of usability failings – like an application from the 1980s designed for a Mac Plus it stubbornly won’t allow you to resize its application window, making browsing the list of files you’re trying to burn excruciating. You can’t even look inside a folder to check what files are present once you’ve dragged them into the application, you have to resort to going back to the Finder. You can’t give your disc a name longer than about 20 characters, not because of a limitation in the file system but because any bigger and the text wouldn’t fit in the fixed size window. It’s semi-transparent nature makes it look ugly as anything when it’s not sitting on a nice clean background (as you’ll find it in all the promotional screenshots). Its use of non-standard character spacing and inverted colour scheme makes it look alien on my Mac desktop. Is it trying to be a dashboard widget or a prototype for an Aero UI? It does away with the concept of selecting files with the mouse to perform an action on them, a concept as old as the Mac itself, its File menu contains one item ‘Close’. How is repeating a list of buttons over and over a more elegant solution? You could miss the scrollbar by about two pixels and accidentally remove a file from the list, something you could easily not notice you’ve done which could lead you to accidentally not backing up a critical file – an egregious sin for an application whose primary purpose is for backing up data.

Disco - poster child for eye candy over usability.

It’s only a beta and I’m sure many of these issues will be fixed and I really don’t want to heap on these guys too much because it looks like a really promising app. But it’s inadvertently become the poster child for what happens when you abandon the HIG and go for the purely eye candy UI. If this is to be the future of application design on the Mac then we’ve truly lost the most precious thing about our platform, the quality of the user interface.

Update

The Unofficial Apple Weblog has given me a mention and done their own analysis. They get a bit hung up on the look of the UI rather than addressing the usability points I’ve raised, but it’s nice to give this issue some exposure lest other developers think that Mac users will accept such a functionally crippled GUI.

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