Categories: ChangesHabits

Habits, UI changes, and OS stagnation

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a short thread on Twitter about the undying argument Is this really bad UI, or is it just you who are averse to change? — I’m publishing these observations here simply because it will be easier to find them and reference them in the future.

What inspired that thread was a post by M.G. Siegler, In Defense of the New Safari. To be perfectly fair, in that post Siegler just says that he, perhaps going against the prevailing trend, actually loves the changes in Safari, both on iOS and Mac OS. He simply says that, while being taken aback by the changes, after a few weeks he got used to them and likes them. 

It was other people who pointed me to his post, using it as a way to make their point. Their point being (you guessed it right) Is this really bad UI, or is it just you who are averse to change?

And my response on Twitter was this:

The argument “Is this really bad UI, or is it just you who are averse to change?” will never go away, huh? A change in a user interface can be disruptive, but it’s usually easy to see if it’s disruptive-beneficial or disruptive-confusing or ‑frustrating after a while.

You can see when change brings more thoughtfully-designed UI details. Saying that “You just need some time to get used to it” is in itself indicative that the new UI is problematic. You can completely redesign an app, but if the new UI is well-designed, people will figure it out.

When change ultimately brings UI rearrangement for UI rearrangement’s sake, then you just offer something that is user-hostile. Changing habits can be healthy if it brings improvement.

If users have a poor reaction to having to relearn your non-intuitive changes just because you felt the need to ‘refresh’ your app, doesn’t mean people are lazy or change-averse. It means they’re annoyed at your lack of respect for their productivity and their time. 

The bigger picture — the operating system

The above is bad enough when it happens with applications. The thing is, it’s something that affects operating systems as well. And yes, I’m once again looking at you, Apple. And at Mac OS in particular. 

The two major things I find especially misguided about Mac OS are:

  1. The fact that Apple considers it a product that needs to look cool and be shown off, instead of a utility that runs computers.
  2. The fact that Apple feels the need to release a new version of it every year.

Let me explain.

Apple has always been praised for their hardware design and for their thoughtful (and for a time, rigorous) approach to user interface design. At Apple they were well aware of that, of course, especially when Steve Jobs was at the helm (from Apple’s foundation up to 1985, but in particular from 1997 to 2011), and possibly even more since Tim Cook became CEO.

Let’s put hardware design aside now and focus on software design. When Mac OS X was first introduced, its most striking aspect was its look, an intriguing combination of the classic Mac OS and NeXTSTEP/OPENSTEP. Steve Jobs was very proud of it, as you surely remember. 

What everyone seem to remember about Mac OS X’s introduction in 2000 at Macworld San Francisco is this part when Jobs says:

We have been secretly, for the last 18 months, been designing a completely new user interface. And that user interface builds on Apple’s legacy and carries it into the next century. And we call that new user interface Aqua, because it’s liquid. One of the design goals was that when you saw it you wanted to lick it. 

But it’s important to remember that this part came several minutes after outlining Mac OS X’s underlying architecture. Jobs began talking about Mac OS X by stating its goals, then the architecture used to attain those goals, and then there was a mention of how the new OS looked. And I find this passage rather striking especially when compared with today’s Apple:

I’d like to go over the goals for Mac OS X.

First, we’re going to have a single OS strategy at Apple. We’re not going to have a dual or a triple or a quadruple OS strategy like some others. We’re going to have one OS, and that’s very important to us. 

The second is, Mac OS needs state-of-the-art plumbing. We need the best operating system kernel technology, the best Internet networking in the world. 

Third, we need killer graphics. Almost every app depends on graphics, whether it’s design and publishing apps for our pro customers, down to things that we use every day.

And we need to design it for the Internet from the start. We need to design it in a way that most users who are always plugged into the Internet get full benefits. We need to design in such a way that we use Internet standards throughout. And we’ve done that.

And we need a gentle migration, because we have 25 million users using our current-generation operating system.

So, these were the goals for Mac OS X; but to sum it up, it was: Make the next great personal computer operating system.

Sure, a lot has changed in the technology landscape over the past twenty years, but the Mac OS X introduction in 2000 is almost disarming in how clearly and precisely focused it is. It is framed in such a way that you understand Jobs is talking about a new powerful tool. Sure, it also looks cool, but it feels as if it’s simply a consequence of a grander scheme. A tool can be powerful in itself, but making it attractive and user-friendly is a crucial extension of its power. Think about physical tools: you work better when you can handle them better.

But over the years (and to be fair, this started to happen when Jobs was still CEO), I’ve noticed that, iteration after iteration, the focus of each introduction of a new version of Mac OS X shifted towards more superficial features and the general look of the system. As if users were more interested in stopping and admiring just how gorgeous Mac OS looks, rather than having a versatile, robust and reliable foundation with which to operate their computers and be productive.

Under Cook and the new executive branch, Apple has app-ified Mac OS. Forgive the atrocious expression, but that’s how it feels to me. While I don’t deny that there have been significant innovations under the bonnet (everything security-related, and the creation of a new filesystem among them), Apple’s approach when presenting the last few major Mac OS releases has always felt as if the most important thing to work on an operating system were its look & feel, rather than how this foundational tool can actually improve people’s work or tasks. 

This insistence around the most superficial aspects of a graphical user interface — the look — often reminds me of the constant redesign iterations of some third-party apps in an attempt to make them more alluring to customers and to increase sales. The hyperfocus on always lo

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