There Is No Cat

A huge orangupoid, which no man can conquer

Friday, November 29, 2002

Death by a thousand paper cuts

Zeldman points out something I've been saying for a while: Apple would do well to revisit the human interface guidelines that make OS 9 a joy to use when implementing the interface of OS X, which feels like death by a thousand paper cuts. One thing that he points out that I usually forget to is that aside from convincing Windows users to switch to OS X, Apple also has to convince OS 9 users to switch, and they're apparently not having a whole lot of luck doing that. I know I still spend over 90% of my time on the computer in OS 9, switching to OS X only when I want to develop a new feature for this web site or otherwise play with PHP and other UNIX-ish things. Zeldman nails it when he says that Apple's biggest problem is Steve Jobs, because Jobs doesn't listen to anyone. Apple supposedly Steved their human factors group when Jobs came back, which is completely inexplicable. Apple's very survival over the years has been predicated on the idea that it's easier to use than Windows. It's the Mac's Unique Selling Proposition, to use the language of the marketers out there. But that sensibility has been replaced by one where lickability is considered more important than usability.

If you want to know why using Mac OS X is like death by a thousand paper cuts, there's a phenomenally good explanation of many of the issues by John Gruber, formerly of Bare Bones Software, the company that makes the exceptionally fine text editor BBEdit that I'm using to write this. Gruber focuses mainly on the OS X "Finder", but much of what he says would apply to the entire OS. Gruber claims, and I agree, that the so-called Finder is a failure from top to bottom, a complete misinterpretation of everything that made the Mac great, or rather, a reimplementation of everything that made NeXT a failure. The niggling inconsistencies in the interface are a nightmare. Gruber uses the different functions of icons in System Preferences as an object lesson, but could have just as easily talked about the Dock and its inconsistencies. Sadly, that probably would get him dismissed as a crank; in the Brave New World of Mac OS X, if you criticize the Dock, you're a throwback, a Luddite, and you might as well switch to Windows, you loser. Gruber's article is a great explanation of how the way OS X works is the problem, not the way it looks. The problems are fundamental, not superficial ones of appearance.

About the only thing that Gruber misses that I can think of is the maddening moving trash can, an artefact of that fershlugginer Dock. Fitts Law, one of the most basic precepts of user interface design, states that there are five places on the screen that are the easiest to reach with the cursor. The first is the current location of the cursor; there's no effort in getting there. The next four are the four corners. The targets are infinitely large, since you can't go beyond the bounds of the corners. So fine motor control is unnecessary to reach the corners. You can just throw the mouse up there and you'll be fine. In OS 9, the trash can was in one of the corners. It never moved unless you moved it. In OS X's so-called Finder, the trash can is in the Dock. The Dock's size changes depending on how many applications you have open and how many documents you have minimized. That means that the location of the trash can is different depending on a range of factors that have nothing to do with the trash can. The method of manipulating the Dock is drag-and-drop; you add items to it by dragging and dropping them on it, and delete them by dragging the item off and dropping anywhere but on the Dock. Drag-and-drop is also how you delete items; you drag the item to the trash can and drop it there. So how does the system know if you want to add an item to the Dock or delete it from your system? Good question. You have to use fine motor control to make sure you're exactly over the trash can, otherwise the Dock thinks you're adding the document. And as you move toward the trash can, the Dock opens up a spot for you to add the document, since it thinks that's what you want to do. The result is that the trash can changes position. It runs away from you! No, you don't want to throw that away! Go away! This is insane. The margin between highlighting a file as crucial and discarding it as irrelevant is a pixel. That's nuts.

Windows is fundamentally broken, and Mac OS X seems destined to join it in the usability wilderness. About the only operating system I have any hope for at this point is Palm OS, and who knows what will happen there with Palm OS 6, which is supposedly going to incorporate aspects of BeOS. The danger, of course, is that they'll break the simplicity that makes Palm OS such a joy to use. Computers are maddening.

Posted at 3:41 AM


Note: I’m tired of clearing the spam from my comments, so comments are no longer accepted.

I actually find Windows XP easier to use than OS X and not as broken as you might think. That's why I switched from OS 9 two years ago. There are many examples of poor UI design decisions in Windows but they are used consistently. Once you accept that the Win XP interface is actually easy to use, millions of dialog boxes and all. Elegance is another story, and OS 9 still wins hands down. Or possibly OS 8.

Posted by Mike at 9:58 PM, November 30, 2002 [Link]


This site is copyright © 2002-2024, Ralph Brandi.

What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio

There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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