posted by Thom Holwerda on Wed 13th Aug 2008 23:50 UTC
IconAn interesting article has been making its way around the internet the past few days, titled "Top 10 Usability Highs Of Mac OS". Mac OS X indeed does some things very, very right, just like many other operating systems and graphical environments do some things very, very right. The issue with the list of the article in question is that many of the items on the list are not exactly examples of "Usability Highs" at all.

Let's just follow the original list, shall we? I'm leaving out the ones in which the author is spot on.

1. Consistency

The author writes that "the whole OS and almost every application looks and feels the same, as if a single team developed the whole thing, thanks to Apple HI Guidelines." This sentence requires some clarification. You see, consistency can be achieved in two ways: through behaviour and through looks. When it comes to behaviour, Apple is pretty high up on the consistency ranking. Applications indeed behave quite similar to one another, and one shortcut key combination in application x will almost always produce the same output in application y.

There are still notable exceptions though, such as the infamous 'pill' button in the Finder, which behaves completely different in the Finder than it does in any other Macintosh application, severely breaking Apple's own HIG.

When we dive into the looks department, Leopard may have brought great strides forward in consolidating the 5359375 different themes Tiger used, but there are still way too many different looking widgets that do the exact same thing in different applications. These are issues that need to be addressed.

2. Intuitiveness

With intuitiveness, the author is referring to the act of uninstalling applications on the Mac OS. Supposedly, it's as easy as dragging and dropping the application bundle into the trash. Experienced Mac users will know - this is not the case. Many applications leave a trail of files in all sorts of directories that the drag/drop action won't delete for you. You need specialised 3rd party applications for that.

In addition, this so-called intuitiveness is not respected by every application. Way too many applications use an installer - even some Apple ones - or come in (m)pkg format. And this is where things start to go bad. Many of these do not come with an uninstall option, and worse yet the (m)pkg packages simply cannot be uninstalled at all! You will need to hunt down each file it installed manually, which I'd hardly call intuitive. Apple took a step into the right direction by going with bundles, but halfway during the baking of the cake they didn't feel like it any more, and now they are serving their users with cake dough stuck in a cake shape.

6. Fitts' Law

Stop right there. We have discussed this before. Fitts' Law is a horse, and it's been beaten to death so many times the poor creature has been turned into a pulp of horse meat. Saying something like "Mac OS' global menubar is better because of Fitts' Law" is extremely shortsighted, and shows that you really don't have a clue as to what Fitts' Law really entails. I dove into Fitss' Law before on OSNews, in our series on Common Usability Terms (I'll resurrect that series one of these days). In that article, I also touched on the gobal menubar, stating:

Despite its proven robustness, Fitts' law has a serious shortcoming: Fitts' law only takes into account untrained movements, which, in today's world of ubiquitous computing (at least here in the western world), is a bit of a stretch. Many people in our world have been using computes for a long time, and have trained themselves to hit targets with their mouse or touchpads, getting better at it with the hour. I distinctively recall my grandparents buying their first computer about 8 years ago, and the troubles they had with using the mouse to accurately hit icons. When we visited them again, a week later, their troubles with hitting targets had gotten a lot less apparent.

For users who have been using Windows, KDE, or GNOME for a while now, and who are accustomed to using a mouse, the gobal menubar provides no advantages based on Fitts' Law. It might still offer advantages on other grounds, but not on Fitts' Law. Users have become to trained in using a mouse, that Fitts' Law has become less and less relevant in many cases.

9. Workflow

The author argues that Mac OS X does not force you into focussing on one window only, but that it allows you to see other windows too. I'm not entirely sure what he means by this one, seeing as other operating systems obviously allow you to do the exact same thing.


Don't get me wrong, I love Mac OS X, and I enjoy using it every day. Still, it is important not to overdo things. I remember that I, too, was enchanted by Mac OS X when I first used it, and that I was beating my head against the wall aching my brain over why not everyone in the world was using it. The author of the article was new to Mac OS X, so I forgive his enthusiasm, but still felt the need to provide a little context.

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