Apple, GUI design, Mac, Microsoft, SGI, Silicon Graphics, Windows
Photo courtesy of ZDNet
So let’s get the caveats out of the way right up front, shall we? First off, I am not a Mac acolyte (or MacAholic, or Mac Booster, or AppleHead, or whatever you call folks who think the sun rises and sets on Apple products). Yes, we have a bunch of Apple products at our house, but that’s primarily because once I got an iPhone and Sami got her work Macbook, it just made life simpler to have everyone on the same OS.
At heart, I’m a UNIX nerd, and have been since the Reagan administration. I’m perfectly comfortable with GUIs that run on top of UNIX (or UNIX-ish) systems, like the Linux GUI, or the Mac desktop, or (and especially) the late, lamented Silicon Graphics desktop. But at heart, I’m a UNIX nerd who has VI keyboard shortcuts coded into my lizard brain. It’s just how I am
But second, I don’t like Microsoft, the company. I don’t like how they used their OS market dominance to force products on people and kill (often technologically superior) competitors; I don’t like how they steal ideas from anyone and everyone, change them slightly, and try to pass them off as their own. And I most especially don’t like their huge, bloated desktop programs, which they seem to change every couple of years for no reason other than to update the color scheme or move menu items around. (Or to add my least favorite GUI innovation ever: “Ribbons“. An opinion in which I’m hardly alone.)
To get to the point here: For the last several years, I’ve been working on a Mac (for business reasons–I tend to work on what they give me, and haven’t owned my “own” system in a long time, unless you want to count my iPhone and iPad mini). There are any number of things about the Mac interface that annoy me–and seriously, don’t get me started on that horrific piece of design known as iTunes–but in general I find the Mac user experience pretty solid. In fact, it reminds me very much of my beloved SGI Indy box. But recently I changed jobs and am back on a PC, and my Windows hate has surged once again to the fore.
Rather than get into all the ways that Windows drives me nutty–how hard it is to take screen caps compared to on a Mac, or the difference in complexity in deleting a program (on a Mac, you just drag the thing to the durn trash can!)–I can sum it up pretty quickly: Defaults.
You know all those settings you can change in Windows? The default font size of your emails; whether calendar alarms chime and with what sound; whether the top and sides of the screens perform that new “docking” maneuver; etc. All those options have settings put in by Microsoft out of the box. Those are the defaults. And for me, the difference between the (SGI) Irix GUI and Mac desktop, and the Microsoft desktop, is that Microsoft sets all those defaults wrong.
No, I don’t want all those noises, chimes, and alarms to sound for all those applications. No, I don’t want click noises when I move Windows around. (I find Windows so noisy I keep the desktop muted all the time.) No, I don’t want Internet Explorer to be my default browser. No, I don’t want “ribbons” fully opened in all my apps by default. No, I don’t want all my past emails “grouped by date”, I just want a flat list. (And you can’t even set that to be the default; you have to change it for every single mailbox by hand!) No, I don’t want the email list to be a stack; I want it to be a stack, with the most recent item at the bottom of the list, not the top (and when I reset it, please open it that way the next time I fire up Outlook.) Etc.
And then there’s that little “Windows” button that everyone has on their keyboards. OK, fine, but it’s right near the shift and control keys, which means half the time I try to use keyboard shortcuts, I get the Start menu instead. It got so bad at a previous job, I actually pried the damn key off my keyboard.
Of course, there are other little annoyances as well that drive me nuts. That you have to click in a window before you can scroll in it; a Magic Mouse on a Mac will scroll any window, no matter where you clicked last. Or how hard it is to kill an application in Windows vs. Mac–in Windows, you have to open the task manager, where on a Mac you can just right-click that sucker. But in the main, it’s those damn defaults.
Yeah, sure; some of those settings are wrong on the Mac, too. But the majority of them, they’re fine. On Windows? I spend the first day or two resetting a whole bunch of defaults so that I don’t get annoyed every time I try to perform the simplest actions.
Some of you more savvy tech folks out there are saying, “What’s the big deal, Doug? So they set up the defaults in a way you hate; you can always change them!” Yup, that’s true. I could argue that the fact that I have to spend the first couple of days on a new system changing all the defaults strongly implies they’ve screwed up on their choices pretty badly, but I won’t. The real problem is: Figuring out how to change these defaults is practically impossible.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, there is a veritable ocean of default settings, and when you’re looking for one drop of water in an ocean–or even in a bathtub–it’s going to take you a long time to find it. And it turns out that Microsoft’s inability to correctly guess what their users are going to need on a default basis extends to where they put their various system settings. For example, you know that thing the desktop does when you drag a window to the top of the screen and it plunks it into full-screen mode? That’s a feature set by default, called a “hot spot”. It allows for auto-sizing and docking, and some people really like it.
Me, it drives crazy, so I wanted to turn it off. It’s similar to the fact that when you launch new programs they always pop up on top of whatever windows are on your desktop. Hey, if I launch a program that takes forever to come up, and then go into another window to do something else, I don’t want that damn program to grab control of my screen! I tiled a different window to the top on purpose! Similarly, if I want my window to go to full screen mode, I’ll do it myself, thanks. Most of the time, I just want it to go to the durn top of the screen!
So okay, I want to turn it off. Where is that? Why, in the most obvious place imaginable! You go to the Ease of Access Center from the Start menu (which is no longer labeled “Start”, I might add), select “Make the mouse easier to use”, and click a radio button labeled “Prevent windows from being automatically arranged when moved to the edge of the screen“. Yeah, that’s right; under a mouse settings location. Intuitive, no?
As a rule of thumb, let me just say this to you UI designers out there: If your users have to go to Google to find out how to modify settings in your app, a) your app design is a failure, and b) your online help system sucks. (And seriously: You don’t want me to start on the lameness that is the MS help system. When a user doesn’t know if she’s going to get pop-up windows, a separate help window, or get sent to the browser and the MS web site, you’ve got a screwed-up system.) Just sayin’.
And for me that pretty much extends to the entire OS; it is a rare day when something I’m looking for is where I first look. Or the second location. Or even the third. The vast majority of the time I have to pull up the help window. How is this intuitive interface design? Does Microsoft even have a user experience team?
Bet it saves them a ton of money, thought.
I’m not an engineer. I trained as one, sure, but I’m not one. But I’ve had a ton of experience in fiddling with new user interfaces, and on this, Windows really tanks. And I know I’m not alone in thinking this.
[puff puff] Okay; I’ve gotten that out of my system. For now, anyway.