In “The Apple Goes Mushy, Chapter 1,” I enumerated six design traits that make computers marvelous to use. I claimed Apple had abandoned all six. Then I covered the first three in detail. Now, please join me as I chronicle the final three ways in which Apple has crippled the graphical user interface of OS X.
Let me reiterate the last three user interface design principles from my original list:
Sufficiently readable fonts and bold iconography, so that you can see what you are doing.
Feedback (for instance, the way an icon goes dark while being clicked). Providing feedback reassures you that you are accomplishing what you think you are, and it communicates the state of the computer.
You need only glance at the interface to know what you can do and how to do it. According to this principle, the design should not include “hidden” elements (buttons, menus, and other choices should always stay visible) and should clearly communicate, using visual clues, what will happen when you interact with an element of the interface.
Apple once resolutely believed in these ideas. The company has since deserted them, as they have demonstrated with a series of incompetent and incoherent redesigns. Explaining how Apple has violated each of these last three principles, I will establish why that fact should sadden anyone who believes, as Apple once did, that using a computer should be easy, fun, and even gleeful.
Poor eyes: across the system, OS X’s graphics and text have less contrast than ever before. Consult the image above for Exhibit A: the indeterminate progress bar formerly known by the nickname “the barber pole,” because its vibrant stripes coursed across their allotted space much in the same fashion as the stripes of a real barber pole.
Now turn your attention to the barber pole’s successor, on the right. This redesigned loading signal, introduced in OS X Yosemite, reduces visibility in several significant ways: it measures less than half the height of its predecessor, uses only blue rather than blue-and-white, and makes its animated element—a slight glowing patch that moves across it—so bafflingly faint that even someone with superb vision can barely see it. The animation is the part that conveys “loading”: if Apple fails to make the “loading” state obvious, how will anyone ever know the loading is happening at all?
For more examples of decreasing contrast, step right (or left) this way. Behold another system-wide control: the back and forward buttons.
Where thick, dark borders and arrow glyphs used to bulge the buttons toward one’s eye, the buttons now “weigh” so little that to distinguish them is a chore. The same goes for other buttons throughout OS X.
Drop shadows, too, have born the brunt of Apple’s increasingly reductive doctrine. These useful design elements once flourished. In this Mac OS X Leopard Guided Tour, from 2007, Apple proudly called attention to the fact that Mac users could now distinguish their system’s active window more effectively than ever before:
Also, check out how the drop shadow of the active window really makes it pop out of the screen, so at a glance you can instantly find the active window. [Video Timestamp: 3:39]
Nowadays, Apple does not prioritize (on the contrary, it de-prioritizes) the ease with which Mac users can distinguish different elements of OS X’s interface. After all, as contemporary designers say, “The interface should defer to the content.” Where in 2007, Apple happily intensified drop shadows, now it makes them fainter. Below, observe the Dock in OS X El Capitan.
I placed the old Pages icon in the Dock, to the right of the current Pages icon. Notice how the old icon has a more pronounced shadow compared to any of the new icons beside it. Lest my reader get the wrong impression, the old Pages icon is not the only old icon with a more prominent drop shadow:
Stickies, one of the only remaining OS X icons Apple has not (yet) redesigned, also stands out with the aid of a more contrasting drop shadow. Even the Notes icon, the only example in this image that appears similarly “shadow’d,” actually gives that impression because of a dark bottom border. The new icons recede from the eye. Examine any of OS X’s pre-Yosemite icons and, almost unfailingly, you will find that Apple endowed them with more striking shadows.
To my further bafflement, and perhaps to the bafflement of some hawk-eyed persons in the audience, Apple has even gone so far as to diminish and diffuse the drop shadow on Desktop text labels. The result is yet more visual feebleness. This decision, and others that decrease contrast and visibility—thinner text and glyphs, grey where black once dwelled, delicate borders, less shading—are the unpropitious child of an ideology that puts hunger for novelty, minimalism (of a cold kind), and simplicity (of a superficial kind) above calm rationality, common sense, and empathy for the average computer user.
Over OS X’s 15-year lifespan, it has presented users with many controls that visibly respond when hovered over or clicked on. The cursor changes; a button appears to depress; an icon goes grey. These signals assure you that the computer acknowledges what you do. Pick a control on your screen and click. Watch what happens. In all likelihood, your chosen control gave you a visual clue simply to tell you that your click worked.
Some of these graphical hints have vanished within the past two years. In the example above, from the El Capitan version of Notes, the “New Folder” button responds to your click merely by turning the plus symbol from medium grey to slightly darker grey. The text does not change. This signal is too subtle and, therefore, not reassuring.
A few elements that once imparted fine feedback now no longer give any at all. Tabbing away in the El Capitan Finder, one may notice that the button marked with a plus sign, which produces a new tab, looks the same no matter what one does. Although the button fulfills its tab-opening function, it does not acknowledge mouse hovering or pressing. (To my further puzzlement, the equivalent button in Safari’s tab system responds to both mouse hovering and pressing.)
Hovering over Safari’s address bar no longer turns the cursor from the regular pointer to the I-beam text cursor; of course, one can still click on the address bar and type, but the cursor swap that whispered, “This is a place for typing,” is gone. In my testing, various search fields throughout the system sometimes replicated this problem, and sometimes not. OS X once handled this behavior properly and consistently. It no longer does.
Icons in the Dock no longer fade while you drag them. The control that collapses Stacks, also in the Dock, no longer visually indicates that you are clicking it. Data cards in Maps do not denote their clicked state either, except in a small “i” (for “information”) button that darkens in a barely noticeable fashion. Reminders, like my earlier Notes example, has a feeble Add List button. iCloud has rarely, if ever, indicated when it syncs your data, and Apple has still not fixed that glaring problem.
One might scoff at the “minuscule-ness” of these design predicaments. But almost none of them arose until the Yosemite redesign, and since that day in 2014, the problems have pig-piled. While OS X will soon sport a voice, the graphical part of its interface speaks to you less than ever.
As OS X’s design has mushified, I have noticed a general proliferation of interface elements that remain invisible until the user consciously reveals them. Unless you fancy yourself a computer adventurer, you would never know the hidden functions existed.
Click into the Displays > Color pane in System Preferences and you will find one such example of unacceptable interface design. Would you like to use the Detect Displays button? I know the button used to exist; maybe Apple removed it, you think, scratching your head in a mousy way. Perhaps you surrender, frustrated, your problem unsolved, and you abandon your Mac for another task.
It is a pity you did not know the Detect Displays still exists. The button is invisible. You need only… hold down the Option key to summon it. Careful: if you let go of the Option key, the button will go invisible again. How would you ever guess to hunt across your keyboard, hoping one key would give you your magic rabbit? There is not a crumb of logic to this design decision. Most baffling of all, in versions of OS X prior to Yosemite, the Detect Displays button was visible, awaiting pressing, at all times. Apple deliberately hid the button.
Perhaps you never touch the System Preferences > Display pane. Perhaps you frequent the Photos application, successor to the long-reigning iPhoto. If so, Apple has the ideal invisible solution for you: an arrow for navigating to the next photo that only appears on mouse hover. Before the days of the new Photos app, iPhoto had dedicated back and forward arrows that remained available at all times.
For those habitually ferreting about in Notification Center, Apple offers yet another hidden treat: the ability to edit one’s Notification Center sections using the i button, available—you guessed it—only on mouse hover.
If I had room, I could compile a whole article’s worth of these hidden elements. Let me list a few application-specific examples below:
Color Calibrator: In order to access “Expert Mode,” one needs to hold the Option key while one clicks “Calibrate…” Not only is this feature not remotely easy to discover, it is baffling as to why Apple separated the Display Calibrator into default (non-expert) and “Expert” modes in the first place: the average user, who might benefit from simplified default settings, does not spend their time fiddling with their computer monitor’s color calibration.
Safari: The button to close a tab appears only on cursor hover.
QuickTime: The Screen Recording feature displays a set of written instructions, seemingly expecting the user to remember them (and providing no shortcut back to them), then begins recording the computer screen. Predictably, I forgot the instructions, and for about thirty seconds I fumbled for a control that would stop the recording before at last laying eyes on the tiny stop symbol in the Menu Bar.
Even OS X’s always-visible elements have notable and recently introduced design faults, which I document in the following pictures.
As of Yosemite, buttons and search fields look identical. In the golden days of Apple’s user interface design practice, Apple understood the value of drawing visual distinctions between elements that do disparate things. Buttons are raised; search fields are sunken. OS X once demonstrated the company’s uncompromising adherence to this idea: an interface element’s appearance suggests its function. Evidently, today’s incarnation of Apple will dispose of such wisdom for the sake of superficial consistency.
One can no longer see, feel, or infer one’s way around OS X as naturally as one once could. I point my finger firmly at Apple’s declining aptitude for the discipline of user interface design and its dogmatic rejection of the prudent principles for which it previously stood. With thorough thanks to all those who have joined me on this leg of the journey, thus concludes the OS X portion of The Apple Goes Mushy. In my next article, “The Apple Goes Mushy, Chapter 3,” I will analyze the interface design of OS X’s younger sibling: iOS.
As of the 2021 launch of Winzie Howard Dot Com, every article in The Apple Goes Mushy has new images, and a catchy new title. Enjoy.
Winzie Howard is a designer, critic, editor, filmmaker, and musician. His work has earned the applause of New York Times columnists, chamber music directors, fashionistas, Apple/NeXT employees, Norton Best American Short Stories authors, and regular people who felt they couldn’t quite phrase their opinions until they read what Winzie has written about the graphical computer interfaces that occupy so much of our lives.