Thoughtful, detailed coverage of the Mac, iPhone, and iPad, plus the TidBITS Content Network for Apple consultants.

User Interface Conservatism versus Liberalism

John Gruber, who puts a lot of thought into small things, has posted on Daring Fireball an excellent discussion of user interface conservatism versus liberalism. He writes:

There’s a conservative/liberal sort of fork in UI design, in the sense of traditional/non-traditional. The conservatives see non-standard custom UI elements as wrong. Liberals see an app built using nothing other than standard system UI elements as boring, old-fashioned, stodgy.

This has been on my mind of late as well, and the highly liberal interfaces of the App Store application and the new Twitter application bring them to the forefront (Tim Morgan pores over the details in his blog). What has happened to the Apple Computer of the past, with its vaunted Human Interface Guidelines?

Well, things have changed, as Gruber points out, and Apple itself has become a UI liberal over the history of Mac OS X. The Finder, iTunes, iPhoto, Safari—they’ve all served as UI experiments for Apple, although it’s hard to see the experiments being coordinated, given how different those applications are. The screenshot above is a joke, by the way. Apple does still publish Human Interface Guidelines for Mac OS X and for iOS. The question is, are they being followed?

The problem with UI liberalism is not that it necessarily makes for bad interfaces. On the contrary, there are some very good interfaces that provide new and innovative ways of interacting with virtual tools. And the problem with UI liberalism is not even that it’s easier to create a bad interface, though that is certainly true, since a UI conservative can create a decent interface merely by slavishly following the rules and relying on standard controls.

No, the real problem with UI liberalism is that it reduces the usability of the platform as a whole. That’s of little concern to the individual developer, who just wants her app to stand out, but it is—or at least it should be—of concern to Apple, whose platform becomes harder to use with every app that reinvents the steering wheel.

To be fair, platform usability is less of a problem in iOS than it is in Mac OS X. Users interact with only a single app at a time, enabling mental models to swap with app switches. And the dictates of the small screens often override what would be ideal in a larger space—let’s hope that explains the hidden Search field in Apple’s iBooks app, which can be found only by being told about it or exploring the app like a video game. Plus, as I’ve said before, the magic of iOS devices is that they become the app that’s running, so it’s less disconcerting when each app’s interface looks radically different. And finally, because most iOS apps are quite simple and used for short durations, unusual interfaces don’t radically increase the learning curve or reduce productivity.

But on the Mac, platform usability is a big deal. To start, many of us use multiple applications simultaneously, viewing both on the same screen and switching back and forth with merely a click. Even more important is the fact that Mac applications work together—you expect to move data from one application to another seamlessly, whether by copy-and-paste or built-in mechanisms like Apple’s Data Detectors. The more you use applications in concert—and many of us spend our entire days at our Macs—the more you benefit from the consistent user interfaces designed by UI conservatives. And when applications rely on consistent user interfaces, they become easier to learn as well, which translates directly to the bottom line when we’re talking about productivity applications.

For better or worse, though, UI liberalism would seem to have the upper hand within Apple, with iOS developers, and, increasingly, with Mac developers. Apple’s full-screen interface for iPhoto ’11, for instance, may or may not be a good interface on its own, but it makes iPhoto ’11 harder to use for anyone who has experience with previous versions of the program, not the least because now there are two largely distinct interfaces for the program, each with its own pros and cons. And until Mac OS X Lion ships with Mission Control, switching from iPhoto ’11 in full-screen mode to another app causes iPhoto to drop out of full-screen mode, making it even more frustrating to move back and forth.

Who knew that Kai Krause, with his alien-inspired interfaces for Kai’s Power Tools, was merely a few decades ahead of his time?


READERS LIKE YOU! Support TidBITS by becoming a member today!
Check out the perks at <>
Special thanks to Doug Holmes, Barbara Passman, Robert McClure, and
Lawrence G Sobczak for their generous support!

Comments about User Interface Conservatism versus Liberalism
(Comments are closed.)

Nick Pappas  2011-01-08 12:08
I think it's already a problem that is making the Mac an annoyance to use. If I want to edit and event in iCal, I type CMND-E. in Address Book, it's CMND-L.

This is anarchy, not creativity. There is no ground broken here.

Nick Pappas
Michael Cohen  2011-01-09 13:07
Address Book has one of its Find Commands (Use Selection for Find) assigned to ⌘-E, which is why it can't be used for the Edit Card command. However, you can use the Keyboard Shortcuts pane in the Keyboard System Preference to change iCal's Edit Event… command to be triggered by ⌘-L if you want the two programs to use the same keyboard shortcut for similar but not identical commands.
Lynn Fredricks  2011-01-10 08:36
I think it matters to a varying degree to the industry you work in. In the 3D market, its hard to find any application that doesn't stray far and wide from the UI conventions of the platform.
Dennis B. Swaney  2011-01-10 19:02
iTunes 10 doesn't follow Apple's guidelines either.
I think there is a problem with the terms used in this article. "Conservatism" seeks to maintain the status quo, while "progressivism" as its opposite. "Liberalism" is merely the stance that other view points have merit as well. "Totalitarianism" is liberalism's true opposite.
You have posted the only intelligent observation and correction to this article. Without some consistent protocols, anarchy rules and nothing gets accomplished. Without some flexibility to implement improvements (not change for change sake), decay rules and productivity suffers. Apple has demonstrated a degree of flexibility, but does anyone dare argue that Jobs is not the most autocratic and totalitarian in his demands to get things done his way or its the highway for you? The benefits and results speak for themselves.
Rob Lewis  2011-01-11 11:36
I certainly don't consider myself a conservative about most things. But here's my problem with "liberal" UIs on the Mac: they make it look like a Windows system, where it seems a "Wild West" ethic prevails in UI design.
Currently my biggest beef: "paste and match style" is Cmd-Opt-Shift-V in most Mac apps. But alas, not in all (yes, I'm looking at you, Evernote!)
For a most egregious example of non-functional interfaces, see the Bluetooth Setup Assistant pane after it finds a device and you click Continue. The instructions are so vague I could not understand them for two days and my quandary was solved only by a search through many back years of Apple Forum discussions. If you know what the non-standard instructions mean, they are clear; if not, you have no clue as to finding out what is wanted.
This is, of course, the same complaint raised by those of us who bemoan the decline of the English language, and the rule should be the same: it's fine to come up with new ways of saying or doing things, but it should be done by those who have already proven that they know what they're doing within the existing framework.

Want to turn a noun into a verb? Go read some books and write a few real things first. Want to come up with your own UI elements? Go write a real app first. Until then, don't play with sharp objects.
Jim Jaeger  2011-01-11 14:09
There was a time when I could advise folks that switching to a Mac was not a problem because once they learned one program, they would know 80% of what they needed for all others. This is no longer true. We have interface anarchy. I prefer to have guidelines that mean something.
William Lisowski  2011-01-11 16:46
Anarchy is exactly right, even insofar as Apple itself is concerned. I'm convinced there's no oversight of the application software development process there.

Example: Remote on the iPhone lets you choose genre, then an artist, or from the top of the list, "all artists", then an album. On the iPad, "all artists" is missing, making browsing by album within genre impossible.

Example: The initial implementation of scatter charts in Numbers required both axes to have the same scale. Hello? Try plotting weight by height? Did anyone who ever actually used Excel's features have any input along the way?

Example: Applications with features impossible to discover. Interface design seems to follow the video game style -- mess around to get to the next level; mess around to get the feature you need. Appropriate for games, unproductive for other applications.

It's been a long time since Alan Kay was an Apple Fellow, and the lack of that level of guidance at Apple shows.
baltwo  2011-01-11 23:02
Yeah! Dark gray icons and text on black backgrounds, totally useless and unreadable, in keeping with all the toys eye-candy. So what else is new?
Naomi Pearce  2011-01-12 12:14
The more anarchistic Mac/iOS apps become, the more Apple products will become undifferentiated commodity computing devices. Lickable doesn't trump usable. And bummer for the stock price.
Xavier Comhaire (French-speaking belgian)  2011-01-13 10:46
Since more than 20 years, I use multiple applications simultaneously. That is the reason I prefer Mac OS to Windows (XP and 7) that I sometimes use. I do prefer (and bough) Apple products because : 1° there are Human Interface Guidelines; 2° Apple controls hardware AND software.
EatingPie  2011-01-13 18:51
A long-overdue article!

I really blame NeXT. There was a lot of discussion about UI guideline changes when OSX came about, particularly to make room for the NeXT interface. It didn't fit with the very unified System 9 guidelines, so guess which one went. (Not Invented Here became Not Invented at NeXT.)

Remember brushed metal? A completely deviant look/feel for the iApps. I actually hacked my Mac with ThemePark to make *everything* brushed, so I had some semblance of consistency. It wasn't until the "unified" look that this went away... but Apple still ignores its guideliens.

And I agree with almost every comment, particularly the "Windows-like" behavior. Sure variety is fun, and I love a flashy app. But I remember Kai's Power Tools looking amazing, but being insanely difficult to use.