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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!


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