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 use a PC at work and a mac at home. My experience is that I can acheive things faster on a mac. The operating system lets you blast through work rather than hinder you, the crashes are less frequent and even though my mac is 3 years older than my work PC (which is more powerful and has more memory) my iMac is considerably faster and more stable.

    Windows is poor at best and I cannot see why people insist on using it unless they, like me, are forced to.

  2. 202

    great post :)

  3. 403

    I’m sorry but this is just a horrible article. Not only is much of it misleading but much of it is also just plain wrong. The inanity of some of the complaints and comparisons made me laugh out loud several times.

    By the way, “Ok”, “Apply” and “Cancel” buttons are there for a very good reason. When you make changes in a configuration dialog in OS X, you have no way of going back to the previous settings. Like you say, they are automatically applied. In complicated configuration dialogs, you might find that you didn’t want to make a change after all. In Windows, you just hit Cancel and you’re back to the original settings. If you like what you’ve done but want to try some more options, you can hit Apply. Otherwise, just press Ok and you’re done. I’ve found the lack of this obvious behavior in OS X irritating to say the least.

    “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.”

    What?!?!?! Have you not even used Windows? Why do you think that this behavior is somehow just an OS X feature when every other windowed operating system out there behaves like this?

    The single menu bar at the top of the screen is one of the most idiotic features of the Mac. At the very least, it should be optional. I pity people who work on multiple monitors with OS X. I’ve heard their complaints about this misfeature.

    If I didn’t have better things to do, I could lay waste to the rest of this ridiculous list.

  4. 604

    Johan Krüger-Haglert

    September 1, 2008 6:05 am

    What a bunch of bullshit, especially point 2. The lack of an uninstaller is NOT a good thing, thankfully there is things like cleanapp but it would be nice if they was there from the begining.

    Also programs can either be installed by drag & drop or by an installer.

  5. 805

    I apologize for my previous post (205). I didn’t realize that this article was satire. I’m usually pretty good about picking out sarcasm and satire. Dammit! Poe’s Law strikes again!

  6. 1006

    Well I must say that this comments are funny to read. I am computer technician working with Mac OSX, Windows (all) and some Linux distros. I like things that just work for what they have been made and at first time please. So I must say that what is written here has a lot of mistakes. I have at home, Macs, Wins and Linuxs. I prefer Macs because it just works always, no problems at all. Also I have almost no calls from my clients with Macs, what is bad for business. But with Wins, oh yes, a lot of work. Do not misunderstand me, I like Windows, and I use it for some things, a beautiful system without internet. Security, the complexity of registry, dlls, virus, trojans….and some crashs. I like very much Linux, it is not yet perfect, a lot of terminal for putting some hardware to work, but I believe it will be the future OS for the PC market.

  7. 1207

    “Macs” are just gaudy overpriced PCs and Mac OS is for drooling retards that are confused by more than one button on a mouse.

    STFU Apple’s bitch!

  8. 1609

    Hmmm, after using Mac every day for 3 years for production (3D CG and film compositing) and Windows for as long as I can remember, I’d say this article is 50% crap, 50% kind of spot on and 100% pointless.

    Quite a few of the points made are personal preferences, hardly the definitive word in productivity.

    I love using my Mac, but it is not the be all and end all.

  9. 1810

    As others have said, number 6 is bogus and is in fact an argument FOR the way that Windows is designed with an independent menu bar for each window. The Mac method of displaying menu bars was probably implemented for these reasons:

    1. Consistency. No matter what application is at the front, the menu bar is ALWAYS in the same place. The user doesn’t have to search for a menu, they simply move the mouse to the top of the screen.

    2. Simplicity. Only one menu bar can be active at any one time, so why waste screen area displaying the inactive ones? Having inactive menu bars displayed on background windows also increases visual clutter when the user is being required to locate a particular menu bar for the current app.

    IMHO these are far more important than Fitts’ Law, which is probably why Mac designers disregarded it :-)

  10. 2011

    Just a note to those disputing the use of Fitt’s Law for the menu bar: the application of the law is still apt if not exactly for the reason stated. Fitt’s Law is also concerned with limits of movement such as the edge of the screen. Flicking the cursor up to the top of the screen where it stops is much quicker and easier than the more controlled movement required to hit a narrow band connected to a particular window. Putting the menu at the top of the screen effectively increases the size of the hit area (ten- or a hundred-fold), thus making it much faster to navigate to.

    This is why the Apple menu is in the top-right corners, Spotlight in the top left (and you can click in the very corner without being on the icon and still access them). Also why the Windows Start menu is in the bottom-left; though it doesn’t activated if you’re in the absolute corner (from memory).

  11. 2212

    There are two three issues I have with OSX usability.

    Firstly, where is that window? If there are several windows running off a single application, the largest window tends to hide the others. Sure, I can “command + ~” , but I think windows 7 handles this much cleaner by popping up a list of window thumbnails above the taskbar icon. I hate having to use expose, in typical apple fashion they hide the window titles (just like dock has no labels). Apparently apple users find it hard to read. Anyway, this is useless when I have several similar looking windows (eg 3 finder windows).

    Secondly, usability people always go on about fit’s law regarding the menu bar. Fair enough, after all it is faster most of the time since the button is virtually infinitely large on the y-axis of mouse movement.
    However this totally falls apart when using large screens or dual screens(see comment 160). I haven’t done any calculations or testing but I’ll bet it’s faster to have the menus on the windows.
    Since, for some stupid reason, apple only put the menu bar on one of my screens. I have to move my mouse from the right hand corner of one screen the left hand corner of the other screen just to click on the file menu. Don’t forget you cannot directly click a menu item for an inactive window, you must first select it.
    In terms of efficiency this is quite slow compared with other operating systems.
    Fit’s law is affected by distance and target size, on a larger screen you have a larger distance than compared to clicking a menu inside a window. One must also account for any mouse movement after the mouse click to return to the window they were working in.
    I could go on, but you get the point, as the distance gets larger it becomes harder to use a mac. This problem will only get worse as large screens become more common.

    On those two issues both windows 7 and linux are far superior.

    Thirdly, the dock is a giant piece of shit. I can’t be bothered explaining this one, jsut take a look at this article. 10 Reasons the apple dock sucks

    I’ll put in a forth one, why not? Why on earth can’t I cut files, I’ve been doing this in windows/linux for years, but osx treats me like an idiot. I must bring up another finder window and then drag it.

    So there goes four reasons to consider an alternative to osx.

    BTW, If anyone knows of a way to place a menubar on both of my screens please let me know.

  12. 2413
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    I have spent a week trying hard to switch to Mac from Windows/Ubuntu Linux.

    I give up for Mac OS is the most stubborn and unfriendly operating system in terms of available usability settings:

    1. System font size is not adjustable (I have tried Tinker Tool & MacPilot, but they can not make ALL the microscopic Apple fonts grow larger).
    I am not the only one: the complaints are being posted in thousands over the Internet since 2003. Apple just ignores them.

    2. External monitor is dreadfully blurred. My Samsung SyncMaster 971P gives a crystal crisp picture when used with Ubuntu Linux or Windows (on the same Mac Book Pro hardware), but everything is blurred under Mac OS. The font smoothing color sequence adjustment is not available in Mac OS (SyncMaster 971P requires BGR, Mac OS seems to use RGB).
    And again I am not alone. In furious attempt to find a solution I have come across a fair hundred of forum threads where other guys screamed for help since 2005. Apple ignores us again.

    3. If Apple wants people switching to Macs, why an exact windows keyboard layout is not among the standard options? It is no problem to include for it is present under all X11-based Linux distributions I have been working with (Ubuntu, CentOS, Mandriva, Suse etc.). Therefore, it is again a reluctant ignorance from Apple’s side.
    I have found third party partial solution, but why a layout file (~7Kb) is not present in the “most user-friendly OS” by default?

    These are only the major problems. The first two will make me sell away a brand new MB Pro 13″ and return back to Windows…

    P.S.: Every year I give advice on computer choice to hundreds of people, now I will refrain from even noticing that there is Mac present in this world…

  14. 2815

    Wow, talk about getting drunk on the koolaid.

    After using a Mac for almost a year now one of the things I dislike most about it is how *inconsistent* the Mac’s user interface can be (which goes against Juul’s first point.)

    Want to move a page up or a page down in an app that supports that behavior? No consistency to be found.

    Want to move to beginning or end of a file? No consistency there either, and in most cases it’s not even possible with one keystroke.

    Want to delete something in an app? I think I’ve come across at least 5 different keystrokes for that.

    Yes the Mac has some really nice aspects, many that I miss when I occasionally go back to Windows. But the Mac OS X designers made some REALLY BRAIN DEAD UI choices and all the rah-rah cultists who ignore those shortcomings merely give Apple a pass to continue to ignore them.

    And before any Apple apologists attack my comments here’s a case in point: In Finder to multi-select files with shift-up or shift-down arrow if you overshot the files highlighted and used the shift-{opposite direction} key to deselect 10.5 Leopard would not deselect but instead increase the selection on the other end. When I complained about the behavior many Macultists crucified me for it saying “That’s stupid”, “Nobody needs that”, “You’re using the Mac wrong” and more. However, Apple *did* see the stupidity in that approach and with 10.6 Snow Leopard they “fixed” it, i.e. they made it the way I suggested (and the way Windows Explorer has been doing for 10+ years.) Funny, I’ve not heard any outcry from the Mac faithful about how that change broke their beloved Macs with this change which is probably because few Mac lovers even noticed it (i.e. most of them don’t use their computers without a mouse, but most do defend and criticism prior to even considering if there is validity.)

    BTW, I’m a pragmatist and I happily criticize Mac and Windows equally for their respective shortcomings. My goal in criticizing is to see things improve, not to insult Mac users by invalidating their choice of computer. On the other hand, if someone is so insecure that they see any criticism of the Mac as a personal insult and thus mindlessly defend it against all criticism then all I have to say to them is “sucks to be you.”

  15. 3016

    What a fight going on here……
    Well its just an article to show good aspects of Mac and denying other OSes UI. well both OS are for computers Literates but how about computer illeterate?where he/she may go?????both have professional windows environment a beginner who is forced to study in school when he is a kid and then have to train him self on any Win or mac plattform,are both of them serve the right UI for all humans,,,no todays OSes are for computer literates only and not taking care of those who dont know how to deal with simple computers environment.We are offering computer professional environement to both, who is professional and to that who is not.We are discusssing who is best n which one is worst..hey wait ! wait !wait….what is our target? to make computer usable for those who know usability,and we are saying other then this category that dont use it plz because you dnt know WHAT IS IT….then silence comes in my mind.


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