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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. 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. Exposé1 does the right thing, Time Machine2 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 Flow3 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 baloons4 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.

Source5 (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 Clippy6? Mac has its own (OS wide) version as well, called Spotlight7. 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.

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 Link

This post is one of the finalists of our guest author contest8. 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.

Footnotes Link

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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

    Nice read. Mac’s have their backdrops too but definately a professional’s os it is.

  2. 2

    I have a Mac, and I’m very happy with it. Thanks for this great article, I love you guys.

  3. 3

    Hmm. First of all, I don’t find it fair, that there was no limit for top-ten articles, ’cause this one is a good example of using it the other way around. It’s actually a discussion article just using the top-10 list form. And I didn’t know we discuss operating systems here (and hardware in case of the HD). I guess SOMEHOW we might consider it as description (not a top-10) of a tool for designers.

    I don’t like Macs and their “cool and colorful” design, however that’s only my personal taste. E.g. I prefer HTC Touch Flo 3D design to iPhone’s interface. Apple just doesn’t look serious to me, it’s rather lil’ infantile. It’s nice, it’s fancy, it’s clear, but it lacks class (imho). I also think all the stuff from #1 to #10 simply doesn’t matter at work, otherwise I’d have a Mac, I guess. So I don’t get the point of the article, unless we treat it as mentioned in the previous paragraph.

  4. 4

    I actually have real issues with the fact that menus are always at the top of the screen. I don’t want to choose my windows and THEN go to the menu bar. I like the fact that I can click the Edit (or whichever) menu of the window next to mine without needing to change to that window first.

    And the Apple OS minimize/maximize/non-max size buttons? Drives me nuts. When I want a window maximized, it means I want it to take up my entire screen, not leave a smidge of pixels open here or there.

    I’ve used Windows and Macs for equal amount of time for school and work, and I can safely say that despite the many issues I also have with Windows, I will never buy a Mac. (Have you ever tried doing a serious hardware upgrade with a Mac machine? I’ve never experienced such a headache in my life.)

  5. 5

    “I don’t want to turn this article into some endless rambling about how great Mac is,”
    No, it feels like you turned into an article about how bad Windows is. I love the article, but it has an anti-windows vibe.

  6. 6

    Thanks for this article. It just convinces me one more time that Macs are way overrated. In the whole list I can’t see a single thing that would make me want to change to a Mac. Most of that stuff might be nice to have, but I can’t see anything that would essentially help me getting more work done. I had to work on a Mac in the past and I found it tedious and uncomfortable, so I guess I’ll stay with my Windows PC. It is not perfect either, but it works for me and I paid only a quarter of what I would have had to pay for a comparable Mac.

  7. 7

    i’lll have to disagree here. especially with the menu and workflow options. First, on another OS, if none of your windows are open at maximum size, you’d kinda still be able to see the other windows, maybe it’s me, maybe I didnt use a MAC long enough, I don’t know, but I don’t see the difference. And it drove me crazy with that menu up there. And the stress required to actually CLOSE an app is no fun either.I can’t count how many times I hit the ‘x’ button and remembered that I had to do something else to end it. Not a user high, thanx. It’s all aesthetics IMO. I’m yet to see that really spectacular thing about a mac.

  8. 8

    Sorry for posting again, but I studied Fitt’s Law at university in great deal. It also states that buttons should get exponentially larger as you move away from the starting point towards the target. Therefore i wouldn’t say that they are incorporating Fitt’s law. By forcing the buttons to the top they are increasing the distance a user has to travel to a target. Depending on where the window is they could be effectively nullifying any advantage they get from placing them at the top.


  9. 9

    I tend to agree the maximize/restore button are behaving weird sometimes… for example finder will only take full vertical space while itunes will switch compact form on/off and some other software will simply take the full screen…

    But the window mangement is good enough to forget that :P

  10. 10

    And then the low points in my experience. I use both Vista and OS X a lot, so comparisons are inevitable. OS X does a lot of things right but it has it’s own set of issues.

    – Finder’s file sorting is just plain unintuitive. Folders mixed with files is just confusing to pretty much anyone and sorting by file type doesn’t work that well either. I use Path Finder as an alternative file browser and it’s miles better. Still, it’s nowhere near as good as Directory Opus for Windows… but if we’re simply comparing default file browsers, IMO Vista does better than OS X in this area.

    – Mouse acceleration is terrible. Ironically I had to buy a Microsoft mouse to get proper mouse movement. See for details. My previous mouse was Logitech and even with alternative drivers it didn’t work that well and IMO the Microsoft mouse still doesn’t move the cursor as nicely as it does in Vista.

    – The lack of Apply/OK buttons can be confusing. For example when editing Mail accounts it often asks “don’t you want to save the changes” and of course I do, but there doesn’t seem to be a Save button to be found anywhere else! This also sometimes means I’m not quite sure if the selections I made actually did anything unless something changes on the screen. That’s why the Apply/OK button is IMO a good thing. However, I don’t think we really need Apply, OK and Cancel buttons for this. Just Apply would be enough.

    – Click to activate window. Especially annoying on multi-monitor setups. For example I’m working in another program on monitor one and notice a new article popped up on my RSS reader, to read it I have to first click once to select the RSS reader program window, then click again to select the article. On Windows I can do this with just one click. I wish Apple gave us the option to do this. The way OS X does it results in accidental doubleclicks quite often.

    – Static top toolbar. Again mostly a multi-monitor issue. Having a program on the second screen and accessing its menus on another screen isn’t what I’d call user friendly or intuitive. Personally I’d rather have the top bar on both monitors and depending on which programs are on which monitor the menus would be shown there.

    – Small version of the program toolbar (with the three balls for close, maximize, minimize). Some programs use this and on high resolution monitors it’s pretty tiny and hard to click. Why Apple included this in the first place I have no idea. It doesn’t serve a purpose IMO.

  11. 11

    one of the poorest written article in smashing in a while. promising itself to be objective in the intro, but then the 10 points are really random and personal. there are lots of other points if we wanted to promote the mac os while sounding more objective. i’m just relieved this is just a guest author contest.

    keep your excellent compilation articles, smashing. and leave the random personal tastes at each of our personal blogs.

  12. 12

    useless article.
    I’m an apple lover myself but this just looks like a very bad apple commercial.

    So please let try to keep it interesting!

  13. 13

    I won’t read this article because it will only make me feel bad… I already know Apple kicks ass, but I don’t have the money and indispensable need *yet* to change.

  14. 14

    This is a terrible article – I’m a bit shocked you’d post this, even in the context of a contest. It’s poorly written, highly biased and full of innacuracies and absurdities. It reads like the ramblings of a 16 year old kid who had to throw together an argumentative essay for English class and left it to the last minute. For shame!! Besides-which, Mac vs PC is just such a tired topic, and one professionals wouldn’t waste their time over. Everyone should know by now that platform is entirely a personal choice – especially since the actual software used (Adobe CS, etc) is almost identical between the two. We should worry more about the outcome of the work we do and less on which tools others are choosing to use.

    I love Smashing Magazine, but if you’re going to start culling poor quality content for free from your readers, I will have to remove you from my Reader. *sigh*

  15. 15

    I have too say that I agree with everything you have said. Thanks =]

  16. 16

    If someone can tell me how can I REALLY test the websites in all the browsers (FF2&3, Opera 9.2, 9.5, Safari2,3, IE6,7, FF under linux) under a Mac, I’m switching NOW! I love everything about Mac, but unfortunately life is not that good to me :)

    btw, great article

  17. 17

    Justus Blümer

    August 12, 2008 7:01 am

    Makes me want to buy one of Steve’s machines…

  18. 18

    Michael Thompson

    August 12, 2008 7:10 am

    As a Windows user since 3.1, a Mac user since 7 (I think it was 7), and a Linux user back when Red Hat was (remotely) cool I’d like to say that this post summarizes my reasons for feeling most comfortable on a Mac.

    Essentially, it’s the UI. Of course, access to a BSD underbelly via a proper terminal and the ability to run CS3 apps at the same time is another huge selling point for me.

  19. 19

    Sonali Agrawal

    August 12, 2008 7:14 am

    Cool Article. All rightly said. I am recent mac user too. And I am just loving it so much. It’s become a daily source of inspiration to me somehow!!

  20. 20

    How did you get a tabbed Finder? Do want!

  21. 21

    I so want to get a mac, but waiting till the new macbooks come out in september.


  22. 22

    true. they even “designed” the blue screen of death.

  23. 23

    Vitaly Friedman & Sven Lennartz

    August 12, 2008 7:23 am

    @h-a-r-v (#5): we understand your concerns, however, these were the rules. We understand that this article is somehow a combination of a top-10-article and a discussion article. But it is a top-10-list while usual discussion articles are not.

  24. 24

    No problem, just pointing the fact. I just thought for I could somehow make the one I sent you the same way and use as many chars I want to share every detail and idea just by the way, instead of decreasing my little thesis into some blog note. But dura lex, sed lex. :-)

  25. 25

    Anthony Bruno

    August 12, 2008 7:30 am

    Anyone want to tell me how to make my finder look like that with breadcrumbs and tabbed windows?

  26. 26

    Great article, its true that the Mac OS has some great usability. A few thoughts:

    “(none of that 3D-flip ‘just for the sake of it’-nonsense of Vista).”

    I don’t see how Vista’s Flip-3D is doing it just for the sake of it, I think it is a nice way to lay out all the windows and look through them. I like using it much better than Alt-Tab as I can find what I need much faster.

    “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.”

    I’ve been using a Mac (along with a PC) for about two years now and one of the things I hate most about it is window management. Sure, it may be good when you have two or three windows open. But I usually have at least 10 different programs open and running and they can all just get lost. There isn’t a way to quickly get to what you need as its difficult to immediately see what has been minimized and the Command-Tab will only bring up a certain program, not a certain window. I feel that the Windows task bar and Alt-Tab (or Window-Tab) does a much better job at keeping your windows organized. I’m so glad that Leopard has Spaces now though, it makes it a little easier to keep track of everything.

    But don’t get me wrong, I like both Mac’s and PC’s and use them both just about equally.

  27. 27

    Vitaly Friedman & Sven Lennartz

    August 12, 2008 7:33 am

    @h-a-r-v (#13): we can always offer you the opportunity to become a guest author in our magazine – we don’t have size limits there ;-)

    @sam (#14): probably it’s just a matter of taste. It’s not the tool you have but the way you use the tool to achieve best possible results. It doesn’t matter if you use Windows, Mac or Linux as long as you get things done (imho).

  28. 28

    Wow, I wonder how long until this becomes the usual Windows Vs. Mac comment flaming marathon.

    Regardless, I’m not taking much away from this article.

  29. 29

    Yeah, where did the screenshot of the finder with tabs come from? I’m guessing that must be a mistake and your showing a picture of someone’s concept interface for finder… if only it were real, that would by my #1 usability high of os x!

  30. 30

    Vitaly Friedman & Sven Lennartz

    August 12, 2008 7:43 am

    The image comes from here: the link was just added.

  31. 31

    ooh… really a tabbed finder including breadcrumbs…. not a mock .. or is it? and surprisingly no cover flow view icon…..
    anyone knows more?

  32. 32

    I think that screenshot from finder with tabbed states (and also the selected viewing state is different from the one in the current leopard release) is from Snow Leopard, which is the new and improved version of leopard .. you can prolly find stuff yourself about this..

    please confirm?

  33. 33

    Tobias Varland

    August 12, 2008 7:58 am

    I’m a Mac user, but some of the things on this list just aren’t correct. #1 for example… Go to Google and search “OS X user interface inconsistency”. I think you’ll find a few results. This is a primary complaint of many longtime Mac users. Apple is making strides toward consistency, but for years they’ve been ignoring their own HIG to make applications look the way they want.

    #2 is another interesting one. I agree that drag-and-drop installation is nice, but more and more things on the Mac are moving to installer packages. Even the drag-and-drop installations aren’t simple for new Mac users, because they don’t understand the idea of disk images. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen a user double-click a disk image to mount it, double click an application to run it from the disk image, and then restart their computer to find the disk image no longer mounted and the application no longer available.

    That said, there’s not a single task I do on a computer that I wouldn’t rather do on a Mac.

  34. 34

    the tabbed finder is not a real finder, is a mockup taked from here:

  35. 35

    I think one of the best features is Expose. I don’t think you can hype it enough. It allows for very high efficiency.

  36. 36

    I’ve used Windows all my life, then made the change to Mac when I started working at my current company. I’d never really used one before and was so blown away I wasted my first month’s wages on an 24″ iMac. One of the best rash decisions I’ve ever made.

    It makes my productivity far better, it’s much nicer to look at and just easier to use in every way. Plus I’m constantly finding neat little touches every day. I don’t have to install and run anti-virus software all the time, I don’t have to defrag my HDD every month, I most likely won’t have to reformat every year.

    Yes this article is nothing but a ramble about how great Macs are, and yes it does have an anti-Windows vibe. But hey ho – I agree with every point!

  37. 37

    #18: Vitaly Friedman & Sven Lennartz: Then do it :-) Otherwise, I’ll send my application later on. Just don’t make me write a motivation letter and include pictures, hehe. I have some ideas, including the extended version of my contest article showing lots more of my point (as a blog note it’s all more like “if you know what I mean” or “try guessing”). Also, I’ve just become an official IE8 beta tester, so maybe I’ll be able to share some constructive thoughts after a while with MS on my back.

  38. 38

    @Tobias : true on #2, the first I’ve seen these disk images, it was confusing. I’ve mostly used Windows, lightly used OS9 and my first time on OSX was disappointing, these images were totally new (I’m now using OSX and XP equally, depending on my working place).

    But, I’ve also seen windows users downloading programs and think it’s done and they can just launch the thing (they would be happy on a Mac, btw ;-)). Well, no, they have to install it, and guess what, after installing, figure out where it is (sometimes they try to launch the setup again, you’d better remove it from the desktop very soon if you were in charge of the setup ;-))

    I think there’s no perfect solution, a computer is a computer, if you’re not comfortable with it, well, take some courses or stick with pen and paper ;-)

  39. 39

    Jeroen Mulder

    August 12, 2008 8:15 am

    Very nice, but I’d like to share you my top annoyances with OSX. I’ll stick to things I think are just plain wrong.

    Disclaimer: I switched to an all Mac workflow a year ago.

    1. Lack of user feedback. Apple has a nice set of HI Guidelines, but fails to enforce proper user feedback in the simplest type of interactions in their applications. For example, many buttons in their applications do not change the cursor or are highlighted on hover (see iTunes). However, when they do provide feedback, the clickable area does not necessarily correspond to the area providing feedback (see the window controls in the top left corner).

    Aggreeing with kasakka that providing no feedback when changing application options is not always a good thing. A simple slide in confirmation similar to Firefox 3’s would work wonders.

    2. Identical results for wrong and right interactions. For me this mostly comes from the stupid fact that ‘miss-clicking’ between items in a menu results in the menu disappearing, which is identical to succesfully clicking a menu item. Compared with often the lack of feedback on whether the system is actually doing system, it can take a second to realize you ‘were doing it wrong’.

    3. Inconsistent application installation procedures. I’ll be honest here, Apple did an absolutely brilliant job on providing the foundation of an incredibly easy installation procedure. However, many software developers fail to actually provide a consistent experience.

    The drag and drop to Applications interaction is often explained in the Finder window showing both the application icon and the Applications folder. Some applications allow you to move it to exactly that folder you’re seeing, some of them force you to drag it to your dock or a new Finder window.

    I actually prefer the more wizard type as it doesn’t require me to think. Just hit Next till it’s done.

    4. Mystery Meat Navigation! Come on. The design of the window controls are just horrible. A user is not able to know what those balls will do, unless they actually move the mouse.

    5. Fitt’s law. The opposite can be said to say Window’s implementation is better, as it requires less mouse travel. Added to that is that the proximity of the bar and window contents enforces the connection between the two, something which OSX’s design does not. I don’t remember a convincing study proofing one is better than the other.

    I love OSX, but some basic things are so incredibly broken, it boggles my mind.

  40. 40

    The previous link is for the application “Path Finder”.


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