Top 10 Usability Highs Of Mac OS


Although I’ve been a Windows power user for years, the transition to Mac couldn’t have been easier and more pleasant. I don’t want to turn this article into some endless rambling about how great Mac is, but as the user of both systems I can speak from my own experience quite objectively. Let’s take a look at some of the spots where Apple really has done it better in terms of user interface and usability.

1. Consistency
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 Guidelines1. Official guidelines for user interface design made it possible for users to actually use most Mac-applications in a very same way, creating a seamless and comfortable experience in the end. Users are able to anticipate how system behaves and what to expect from its applications. In fact, consistency dramatically improves learnability and usability of interacting with the system.

2. Intuitiveness
Installing and uninstalling applications is simply drag-and-drop. It can’t get much simpler and more intuitive than that. In fact, it’s hard to make any errors here, e.g. selecting some wrong option in a drop-down menu or clicking occasionally on the cancel-button. Quick and simple.

3. Effective and appropriate metaphors
Mac effectively uses the power of unambiguous metaphors. The different overviews in the OS just work. Exposé2 does the right thing, Time Machine3 uses a 3D view where appropriate (none of that 3D-flip ‘just for the sake of it’-nonsense of Vista). Depth in Time Machine represents the location in time and therefore uses a neat metaphor helping the user, and browsing your albums with Cover Flow4 in iTunes (and Finder) feels almost like the real thing.

4. Informative error reporting on-demand
Contrary to other user interfaces, Mac-applicatinos display user notifications only when something goes wrong, not permanent baloons5 when some process is being started or finished. Think of it, do we really need someone to tell us when something goes the way it should?

5. Hiding the technical details
Manually having to defragment a hard drive? Hmm, not here. On Mac users use technical tools by communicating with simple and memorable metaphors. Most users are not savvy and they have no clue how to take care of technical details so why should a user interface prompt them to do this?

6. Fitts’ Law
Essentially, the famous Fitts’ Law says that users are more productive with the mouse when they have less distance to travel and a larger target to click on to do their tasks. Mac’s design engineers have incorporated this rule in their design: almost all application menus are attached to the top of the screen, rather than to the applications’ windows. It improves the usability and reduces screen clutter. Compared to other user interfaces, regarding Fitts’ Law Mac performs better.

Source6 (mock up)

7. User input feedback
Mac applications have no useless “OK” and “Apply”-buttons and changes are applied immediately and on the fly. Thus the system seems to be more responsive and requires less input from the users, making user feedback as effective as possible.

Clicking the checkbox here makes the tab bar show up in the browser window instantly. (Firefox)

8. User support and navigation
Remember Clippy7? Mac has its own (OS wide) version as well, called Spotlight8. The only difference is that it’s actually a lot more helpful and versatile. And damn speedy too! Really, navigating an OS hasn’t ever been that straightforward. It does calculations as well and launching applications is as easy as typing in its name and hitting Enter (see screenshot below).

9. Workflow
Mac doesn’t force you to focus on a single window, but keeps them all visible in the background ensuring a more efficient workflow. However this might be a thing of taste and getting used to.

10. Even kernel panic looks nice!
A funny but still nice example of Apple’s attention to detail. On the rare occasions when Mac crashes, it still does so in a respectable manner. Usability-wise it’s not perfect, since it doesn’t let the user know what went wrong and only asks the user to reboot the system. Still, beautiful and elegant.

Image source9

I’m not saying Mac’s user interface is perfect. There is probably no perfect solution which would satisfy everyone. Yet Mac has done it right a lot of times, at least from the usability perspective. What do you think? Do you have examples when Mac fails from the usability point of view? And how exactly is Mac’s user interface better than other interfaces?

Editor’s note

This post is one of the finalists of our guest author contest10. Over three weeks selected top-10-lists and discussion articles will be published. To rate the articles we’ll analyze their popularity, users activity, quality of backlinks, traffic and further data.


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Juul Coolen is a web-designer living in The Netherlands. Apart from some freelance work he is still studying computer science at the university. His dream is one day to have a first-class design and development agency called Imaginized.

  1. 1

    i agree with 25. and 34.

  2. 52

    Everyone do me a favor and set your middle mouse button to activate exposé “all windows”– this single feature alone will never let me switch back to windows, I couldn’t live without it…

  3. 103

    Has anyone mentioned that Mac OSX search function really really sucks??? (at least it does in Leopard. To be fair, I have to give Apple some credits for search function in the previous OS version. It used to be OK)

  4. 154

    Nice article. As a fellow windows to mac convert, I agree with all of the topics you touched upon. I’m still using a PC for some items, but grow frequently more frustrated with windows each time I use it.

  5. 205

    A ‘lil bit more depth in each of the items wouldn’t have gone amiss, but I’ve got to be honest I am a Windows software developer and I use a MacBook Pro and wouldn’t change it for the world. Thanks to the Intel cores, work = windows; play = leopard

    Oh and incidentally, I’ve had mine over 2.5 years and I’ve never seen the Kernel warning (no crashes in all that time….)

    Nice tempo to your article – but you are bias ;)

  6. 256

    Gosh, if I could just switch to Mac OS *drools*. It’s really user-friendly OS.

  7. 307

    @lee I do understand that placing the links at the top are making them infinitely high, but that only works if the mouse travels in a direct horizontal/vertical line, from the source to the target. However this is not often the case, the window is often minimized into the centre of the screen. That combined with the behaviour of the mouse, if the angle is over a certain point the mouse pointer will start moving sidewards at the extremities of the screen, which causes the nullifying effect.

    Compare this with the big button in Microsofts Office 2007, that button is both infinitely high and infinitely wide. Plus there menus are designed so that the more important actions have bigger buttons. Something which is also lacking in Mac OS.

    Ideally buttons should be placed at the edges of the screen and as they get further away from the source (i.e. a dropdown) they should get logarithmically larger in the direction of the mouse movement.

    It’s been a long time since i’ve done Fitt’s law in that much detail, but i think i am right.


  8. 358

    Finally. I have been waiting for a Smashing Magazine to piss me off. Essentially I just read, in a nutshell, that OS X was designed for people who aren’t smart enough to use more powerful OSs (ya know, such as *nix or Windows (and dont point out that OSX is a *nix variant please))

    I have a 17″ MacBook Pro with 4gb and I run Vista on it. Sure, I left a little room on there for those times when I need to boot Leopard to test in Safari, but Vista all the way. By the way, my Vista PC has never had a single crash or anything. In my book, Vista

  9. 409

    Aww, come on, this is just propaganda!

  10. 460

    michel basilieres

    August 12, 2008 2:17 pm

    Try dragging a folder from the Finder to the desktop. Poof, it dissapears, and you’ve lost your files. There’s even an animated icon to go with this bug. Slickly designed, stupidly engineered. And the way the finder slides out to the right, hiding the folder of origin, makes it impossible to keep track of where you are. Couple this with high cost, incredibly slow performance and regular crashes on networked macs, and I gotta say, wake up, folks.

    by the way, “I can speak from my own experience quite objectively” marks this as the ramblings of an uneducated internet troll.

  11. 511

    What I like about MAC is no lock ups, no rebooting every other day, I can go on and on.

    Ultimate Anonymity

  12. 562

    Mac is pretty intuitive for newbies. But if you have to do stuff with mac, it’s a pain in the arse. What’s with this less crash BS? When programs on mac crashes, it just disappears not telling you what’s going on. I use a mac only because I have to at work. Windows XP is definitely the way to go.

  13. 613

    Ah, what a gushing and useless blog entry.

    Ya know, if you ignore the problems with something, they’ll never be fixed.

    Please see:

  14. 664

    rather than #8 being spotlight, i’d highly recommend you look into quicksilver. once you start using it, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it!
    (and if anybody can suggest a good gtk clone of quicksilver for *nix/bsd/opensolaris systems i’d really appreciate it!)

  15. 715

    the only thing that really bugs me about the mac os is that you can’t fully maximize and lock the screen you are currently working on. minor I know, but it bugs me.

  16. 766

    Bullshit on #6. With a large, high-resolution screen, it’s a pain in the ass to have to go to the top of the screen every time you want to access the menu bar.

  17. 817

    I’ve used PC’s since Dos 3.0 was new, and Mac’s since OS 9 first came out. At first I didn’t like Mac’s simply because I couldn’t find what I wanted… e.g. Wallpaper is Desktop picture on a Mac. But within a few weeks of actually USING a Mac I ended up really liking them more than anything else. I now use Mac for everything, both at home and at work. My only complaint with a Mac that I think Apple should fix is that closing a window doesn’t always close the program. This is an inconsistency even within Apples applications e.g. open a window in preview, and close it and the program is still running – open system preferences and close the window – and the program closes (I know some would argue that’s not a true program) but it is the best example I could think of off the top of my head.

    I would also agree that clicking the ‘+’ or maximize button should maximize the window to fill the entire screen (except perhaps the area where the dock is showing, it it’s showing). Otherwise though, all of the other little features in a Mac that you illustrate here, really do save time. I get extremely frustrated now a days when I set down to XP or Vista and everything doesn’t ‘just work’ immediately.

    Also, to Y.Li – I have to say that if you were upgrading a ‘PowerMac’ or ‘Mac Pro’ you shouldn’t have had much trouble. The first new Mac I purchased was a Quicksilver 867Mhz in 2001. It now has a 256Meg Video card, 1.5Gigs Ram, a SATA card with 2 500Gig HDD’s, and a 1.8Ghz CPU. None of these upgrades were any harder than they would have been with a PC – and many upgrades are easier than with a PC. If you were trying to upgrade an iMac or Mac Mini – well they weren’t really ‘designed’ to be upgraded in any respect other than maybe a RAM upgrade and connecting add on’s to USB or Firewire.

  18. 868

    Umm, I’ve just tried that, and no you haven’t lost your files. My guess is that you just dragged a folder from the sidebars – those are simply aliases, that you can put there for quick access. The original folder is wherever the original folder was.

    If you don’t like the column-mode in finder (I’m not a great fan) you can always use list view. But command-click on the icon at the top of the Finder window will reveal the whole path to where you are now.

    Hope that helps.

  19. 919

    @matt: You can use expose to find your window, its alot better then alt tab on both windows and os x.

  20. 970

    Wow. Only an Apple customer could take a glaring failure of the operating system (kernel panic, a system wide crash) and somehow claim that it’s a great feature.

    Suck Jobs’ dick some more.

  21. 1021

    You contradict yourself in #6. If “Fitts’ Law says that users are more productive with the mouse when they have less distance to travel and a larger target to click on to do their tasks.”, how then could having almost all application menus attached to the top of the screen, rather than to the applications’ windows improve the usability? You have to move right past the top of the application you are working in to get to the menu. This goes directly against Fitts’ Law. I hate apple fanboys.

  22. 1072

    I’ve tried many times to explain to my Windows using friends the advantages and joys of using OSX and it’s often hard to put it into words, but this article sums it up nicely. Well done!

  23. 1123


  24. 1174

    The best thing about Apple products is that they help me get chicks. Nothing says “this guy has a lot of money and is easily parted from it” like a iPhone, Macbook and a schweet set of white earbuds. Q

  25. 1225

    great, article except that when my mac crashes i get funny colours on my screen and it happens slowly, giving me at least some time to make sure everything is saved :P
    i have a 15″ macbook pro intel model :D

  26. 1276

    for me half of these are the things that piss me off most about OSX and only 1 or 2 are features that would matter the slightest bit to me.
    i definatly agree with the windows=work, apple=play (except most games are out on pc months/years before mac if at all haha! :) )

  27. 1327

    I’ve been using macs since 84 but primarily use PCs because I deliver content for the web.

    For something that should read like a sales promo for Mac it falls very short.

    Perhaps the writer was angling to win that mac book air by bobbing for apples?

  28. 1378


    Its actually sad that people, like the author of this article for example, are only JUST NOW noticing just how SIMPLE the Mac is to use.

    ALMOST ALL of the 10 reasons listed above are features that existed all the way back to some of Apples EARLIEST versions of their operating system WELL OVER 10 years ago….

    #9 and #6 are features that existed all the way back even earlier to 1990.


  29. 1429


    Not a word.


  30. 1480

    I agree with #71 — the part about Fitts’ law is an obvious and boneheaded contradiction. Didn’t anyone at Smashing edit this piece? Didn’t anyone stop to think about what item 6 says and means?

    Also, I’ve always found Cover Flow to be pointless except for fun factor. I mean, who would actually look for an album by its cover design these days? Most people don’t even know what the covers to their albums look like.

  31. 1531

    The position of the min max close are a major violation of Fitts’ law.

    The finder is ridiculous.

  32. 1582

    Agree with #79 INTUITIVITY???? Intuitiveness.

    Crap article. Smashing is better than this. 9 is just idiotic.

    Mac Fanboy Plant.

  33. 1633

    I would have to agree with Sonali.

    Macs are simply great…thanks to the wonderful OS and Steve’s marketing policy

  34. 1684

    lnguyen asked: “Has anyone mentioned that Mac OSX search function really really sucks???”

    Yes, Spotlight was actually #8 in the article. Except the author used the words “helpful”, “versatile”, and “damn speedy”. Frankly, I agree with the author.

  35. 1735

    I just got a (ridiculously overpriced) Mac Mini for iPhone development. I am a Linux developer but usually work under Windows (via ssh), I also used to have an Intel Macbook but didnt like it, but in general I feel the differences between Windows, Mac (sometimes even Linux), are all terribly exaggerated – they all do things in very much the same way.

    There are, however, several small things I don’t like about MacOS, but they are mostly minor and some I have been able to work around.

    1. Lack of support for back and forward mice buttons. I have always used them constantly. I had to install 3rd-party software to enable, this should not be necessary.

    2. Default implementation of Home and End keys. There is no way people would want to move to the top and bottom of a document more often then the front or end of a line – that doesn’t even make sense. Again, I had to install third-party software to enable.

    3. The inability to full screen apps, especially Firefox.

    4. The universal menu bar. The main issue I have with this is that it makes identifying what application a window belongs to by being able to see their menu bars – the windows all look alike, making switching between apps harder.

    5. The dock, which combines a program launcher and indicates which are running with a tiny blue dot, is just confusing. Also, the icons are large and are not able to show status information about the running program like Windows status bars (e.g. % complete) – all they can do is bounce up and down when they have a new dialog.

    6. There is no built-in support for Mac’s favorite compression, StuffIt, whereas Windows and Linux has built-in support for zip (and in Linux’s case gzip).

    7. Darwin disposes of enough conventions of Linux and FreeBSD that developing Linux or FreeBSD apps under MacOS is more trouble than its worth.

    8. Actually, the first time I was confronted with an icon to move a new application into the application folder, I had no idea what to do – it was not intuitive for me, since I could not imagine an installer needing the user to move one icon over another (I now understand this, but it wasn’t intuitive)

    9. Many Mac programs have a bad habit of not implementing the busy icon when they are busy (something any Windows user can experience on iTunes). I think this gives some users the illusion that things are faster, whether they are are not, but also frequently results in a lot of confusion as to what state your application is in.

    10. In general I find Mac gives the user a lot fewer options on customization than Windows and certainly KDE. For example, Apple allows you to change your desktop background to one of only 6 (?) colors. In some apps I look for preferences I would find on Windows but not Mac. I get the feeling that MacOS development is more difficult than Windows, which is why some apps dont go deep on features.

    As an aside, MacOS program installs are NOT drag and drop – most you download as an unintuitive dmg file, and after expanding them they become a mounted disk image – after that, you may drag and drop, but some have more traditional installer routines – also some come originally zipped, or stx’d, and as I mention need to have StuffIt installed beforehand – with Windows, in general, you double click the installer and go.

  36. 1786

    Mac OS X is pretty darn good but it also has it’s cons.

    First of all, fanboys. Nobody cares how cool or shiny your OS looks, 120 fanboys already told us in the last hour.

    Second: people are actually paying for operating system updates.. they call them panther, tiger leopard.. but it’s the same damn operating system with some new stuff.

    Third: most people who are buying a mac are transitioning from a pc world where people use a right-click instead of a keystroke (right-click more usable and ergonomic?) and they have the application’s menu bar IN the actual application among other things, so intuitiveness? certainly not, at least not for me.

    Fourth: Lack of tech support from the almighty apple. People end up searching in forums where the thing they find the most is other people saying how apple tech support won’t answer.

    Fifth: “10. Even kernel panic looks nice!” Seriously? This is one of the things fanboys show off about their macs, it never crashes! (among other claims like “no virus!! yay”). Fail.

    “Think of it, do we really need someone to tell us when something goes the way it should?” It’s called feedback, like when you hover your mouse over a button and it lights up.

  37. 1837

    Ever try Expose?

  38. 1888

    I have to agree with Seth. As a long time Windows user, the Mac experience is very alienating to me. There’s a definite case of “information underload” going on, as I frequently get irritated at the Mac when things get sluggish and I have no way of knowing what’s going on… Or when I click on a button and there’s no immediate feedback, forcing me to wait like an idiot, hoping the program has indeed started working on something. This wouldn’t be half as bad if not for the fact that programs seem to go braindead on a regular basis; the interface “works”, in the sense that I can jump to different tabs and pull down the menus, but nothing happens when I click any action items. If there were some sort of feedback to let me know when the CPU is pegged or the disks are thrashing, I think that would go a long way toward earning my respect for the platform.

    Perhaps Apple could design a “power user” mode in future versions of its OS. Keep the default nice and simple for the common folk, but give me the hacker insights I need to keep my totalitarian mind at ease! Linux is king in this regard, and Windows medium-mediocre. It’s nice that they want to hide the computer wizardry from normal users, but it should still be accessible for those who want/need that info.

  39. 1939

    Number 6: Yeah, going to the TOP of the screen sure is less distance than the menubar in Windows apps… please.

    Number 10: Rare event that the Mac crashes… lol. Funny thing is, I’ve never owned a Windows machine that was subject to all these CRASHES everyone talks about. Let me give you some advice – Cheap hardware/Failing hardware/Crappy drivers are responsible for MOST Windows crashes, not the OS itself. In other words – STOP BUYING CHEAP HARDWARE!

    In other news, every Mac I’ve ever had the misfortune of using has crashed. BAD.

    Macs are computers for stupid peop…. errr… I mean Mommies and Daddies.

  40. 1990

    I got my first Mac just under 2 years ago and have to say I’m largely satisfied. I love the readability of the text. I like little things, like how most keyboard shortcuts use the ‘cloverleaf’ key vs. Windows where it’s a crazy mix of CTRL and ALT. I love how it is truly a *nix machine.

    But I have to say that one of the most important things about an OS – the file browser – is in many ways inferior on Mac vs. Windows. On a Windows machine, every file open/save dialog is a fully functional Explorer instance – I can quickly move, rename or delete files without having to back out and go to Explorer. On Mac, all I can do is create a new folder. There also is less support for the concept of picking files, then doing a cut or copy/paste with the keyboard. This can really be handy. Mac has ‘Copy’, but not ‘Cut’ (move) and it seems to lose your ‘clipboard’ selection.

    It may be cleaner and more pure, certainly, but not more productive. I get by, and believe me I hate all the Windows explorer cruft you get unless you revert it to ‘Windows classic’, but there’s a lesson in here.

  41. 2041

    I use to be a windoze user. Had it with windoze, had it with windoze users, had it with spam, had it with viruses, had it with helping windoze users recover their system, had it with forever upgrading just to run windoze, Now, I don’t have it and couldn’t be happier.

  42. 2092

    Good article. For once a Mac user has some positive things to say about Macs instead of bashing Windows with FUD.

    That said, I won’t ever move away from Windows Vista because I prefer it to any alternative.

    @Dave (above)
    Spam is bnot Windows specific.
    Viruses are pretty hard to catch these days on Windows unless you do something stupid
    System recovery on Windows is mostly a thing of the past. Vista is incredibly stable.
    Why would you ever upgrade to run Windows? Wouldn’t it be easier to keep the version that works best on your hardware? You shouldn’t upgrade your OS unless you have a good reason, such as new hardware or software.

    Writing ‘Windoze’ is very immature.

  43. 2143

    The fact that this was the winner of the guest author competition speaks eloquently of the paucity of quality entries.

  44. 2194

    I think the article title is misleading. The author only compare it to Windows interface. There many other operating system out there. If we’re talking about Gnome & KDE, many points of the article has already built in.

    I hope the author realize his mistake. Don’t say high usability OS if you only use 2 OS.

  45. 2245

    Assuming this article was authored on a Mac, it seems spell-check should be instituted on the OS level. =)

  46. 2296

    @ Crud O Matic

    I have to agree with you on the cheap hardware often used in Windows systems. My media center PC was crashing every couple of weeks randomly, and then eventually started crashing every time I used it (i.e. every day). In the end it turned out to be the cheap motherboard (faulty PCIe slot causing the video card to crash). I replaced it with a (slightly) more expensive, better brand motherboard and since then it has been 100% stable for a couple of months, and I actually get a little more performance out of the whole system.

    It’s funny how people will buy software and spend hours tweaking settings to get the same effect as simply buying better hardware in the first place.

    Mac has the advantage of strictly controlled hardware. Windows users have the freedom of choosing whatever hardware they want, but many people will choose the cheapest option and then blame any problems on their operating system.

  47. 2347

    blue screen of death in mac rocks

  48. 2398

    Really a great article.

    i never miss to read smashing magazine..

    thanks for posting the articles.

  49. 2449

    Re point 5 “Hiding the technical details” I would agree that “Most users are not savvy and they have no clue how to take care of technical details”.

    So how can the UI icon be intuitive to most users when it shows a physical hard disk drive (which non-tech people are unlikely to recognise) labelled “Macintosh HD” (similarly, many non-tech people could interpret this as meaning “Macintosh High Definition”)

  50. 2500

    Thanks for all the nice and constructive replies.

    First of all I’m sorry for any spelling or grammatical mistakes. English isn’t my first language, but I try my best to act like it is :)

    I’m sure some of you people might be ‘offended’ by how Apple and Mac-focused this article is. Really my intention wasn’t to be biased, to bring other OS’s down (I’ve used Windows myself since my childhood). But I tried to write it in a somewhat informal and loose manner and just pointing on the usability highs of the particular operating system. Number 10 is basically a joke.

    Someone mentioned this hasn’t anything to do with design? Well it does, usability design is also design.


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