Habits, UI changes, and OS stagnation

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a short thread on Twitter about the undying argument Is this really bad UI, or is it just you who are averse to change? — I’m publishing these observations here simply because it will be easier to find them and reference them in the future.

What inspired that thread was a post by M.G. Siegler, In Defense of the New Safari. To be perfectly fair, in that post Siegler just says that he, perhaps going against the prevailing trend, actually loves the changes in Safari, both on iOS and Mac OS. He simply says that, while being taken aback by the changes, after a few weeks he got used to them and likes them. 

It was other people who pointed me to his post, using it as a way to make their point. Their point being (you guessed it right) Is this really bad UI, or is it just you who are averse to change?

And my response on Twitter was this:

The argument “Is this really bad UI, or is it just you who are averse to change?” will never go away, huh? A change in a user interface can be disruptive, but it’s usually easy to see if it’s disruptive-beneficial or disruptive-confusing or ‑frustrating after a while.

You can see when change brings more thoughtfully-designed UI details. Saying that “You just need some time to get used to it” is in itself indicative that the new UI is problematic. You can completely redesign an app, but if the new UI is well-designed, people will figure it out.

When change ultimately brings UI rearrangement for UI rearrangement’s sake, then you just offer something that is user-hostile. Changing habits can be healthy if it brings improvement.

If users have a poor reaction to having to relearn your non-intuitive changes just because you felt the need to ‘refresh’ your app, doesn’t mean people are lazy or change-averse. It means they’re annoyed at your lack of respect for their productivity and their time. 

The bigger picture — the operating system

The above is bad enough when it happens with applications. The thing is, it’s something that affects operating systems as well. And yes, I’m once again looking at you, Apple. And at Mac OS in particular. 

The two major things I find especially misguided about Mac OS are:

  1. The fact that Apple considers it a product that needs to look cool and be shown off, instead of a utility that runs computers.
  2. The fact that Apple feels the need to release a new version of it every year.

Let me explain.

Apple has always been praised for their hardware design and for their thoughtful (and for a time, rigorous) approach to user interface design. At Apple they were well aware of that, of course, especially when Steve Jobs was at the helm (from Apple’s foundation up to 1985, but in particular from 1997 to 2011), and possibly even more since Tim Cook became CEO.

Let’s put hardware design aside now and focus on software design. When Mac OS X was first introduced, its most striking aspect was its look, an intriguing combination of the classic Mac OS and NeXTSTEP/OPENSTEP. Steve Jobs was very proud of it, as you surely remember. 

What everyone seem to remember about Mac OS X’s introduction in 2000 at Macworld San Francisco is this part when Jobs says:

We have been secretly, for the last 18 months, been designing a completely new user interface. And that user interface builds on Apple’s legacy and carries it into the next century. And we call that new user interface Aqua, because it’s liquid. One of the design goals was that when you saw it you wanted to lick it. 

But it’s important to remember that this part came several minutes after outlining Mac OS X’s underlying architecture. Jobs began talking about Mac OS X by stating its goals, then the architecture used to attain those goals, and then there was a mention of how the new OS looked. And I find this passage rather striking especially when compared with today’s Apple:

I’d like to go over the goals for Mac OS X.

First, we’re going to have a single OS strategy at Apple. We’re not going to have a dual or a triple or a quadruple OS strategy like some others. We’re going to have one OS, and that’s very important to us. 

The second is, Mac OS needs state-of-the-art plumbing. We need the best operating system kernel technology, the best Internet networking in the world. 

Third, we need killer graphics. Almost every app depends on graphics, whether it’s design and publishing apps for our pro customers, down to things that we use every day.

And we need to design it for the Internet from the start. We need to design it in a way that most users who are always plugged into the Internet get full benefits. We need to design in such a way that we use Internet standards throughout. And we’ve done that.

And we need a gentle migration, because we have 25 million users using our current-generation operating system.

So, these were the goals for Mac OS X; but to sum it up, it was: Make the next great personal computer operating system.

Sure, a lot has changed in the technology landscape over the past twenty years, but the Mac OS X introduction in 2000 is almost disarming in how clearly and precisely focused it is. It is framed in such a way that you understand Jobs is talking about a new powerful tool. Sure, it also looks cool, but it feels as if it’s simply a consequence of a grander scheme. A tool can be powerful in itself, but making it attractive and user-friendly is a crucial extension of its power. Think about physical tools: you work better when you can handle them better.

But over the years (and to be fair, this started to happen when Jobs was still CEO), I’ve noticed that, iteration after iteration, the focus of each introduction of a new version of Mac OS X shifted towards more superficial features and the general look of the system. As if users were more interested in stopping and admiring just how gorgeous Mac OS looks, rather than having a versatile, robust and reliable foundation with which to operate their computers and be productive.

Under Cook and the new executive branch, Apple has app-ified Mac OS. Forgive the atrocious expression, but that’s how it feels to me. While I don’t deny that there have been significant innovations under the bonnet (everything security-related, and the creation of a new filesystem among them), Apple’s approach when presenting the last few major Mac OS releases has always felt as if the most important thing to work on an operating system were its look & feel, rather than how this foundational tool can actually improve people’s work or tasks. 

This insistence around the most superficial aspects of a graphical user interface — the look — often reminds me of the constant redesign iterations of some third-party apps in an attempt to make them more alluring to customers and to increase sales. The hyperfocus on always looking new and fresh can sometimes lead to harsh breaks in an app’s ‘usability continuum’ (as I like to call it). I’m sure you’ve experienced it more than once if you have been using Mac and iOS apps for the past several years. The developer triumphantly announces the ‘significant visual overhaul’ in the app’s changelog, and after the (often inescapable) app update you are presented with something that has changed so much, its controls completely rearranged, that it becomes unrecognisable and essentially forces you to relearn how to use the app as proficiently as before.

Both for work reasons and for personal research, I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with regular, non-tech-savvy users over the years. What some geeks may be shocked to know is that most regular people don’t really care about these changes in the way an application or operating system looks. What matters to them is continuity and reliability. Again, this isn’t being change-averse. Regular users typically welcome change if it brings something interesting to the table and, most of all, if it improves functionality in meaningful ways. Like saving mouse clicks or making a multi-step workflow more intuitive and streamlined.

But making previous features or UI elements less discoverable because you want them to appear only when needed (and who decides when I need something out of the way? Maybe I like to see it all the time) — that’s not progress. It’s change for change’s sake. It’s rearranging the shelves in your supermarket in a way that seems cool and marketable to you but leaves your customers baffled and bewildered.

The self-imposed yearly OS update cycle doesn’t help, either. Apple feels compelled to present something ‘new’ every year, but you can’t treat Mac OS development as iPhone hardware development. I understand (though I don’t necessarily like it) the push to stay ahead of the competition with a fresh iPhone lineup every year, but such pace is largely unnecessary with an operating system, especially a desktop operating system. This yearly cycle forces Apple engineers — and worse, Apple designers — to come up with ‘new stuff’, and this diverts focus from fixing underlying bugs and UI friction that inevitably accumulate over time. 

Microsoft may leave entire layers of legacy code in Windows, turning Windows into a mastodontic operating system with a clean surface and decades of baggage underneath. Apple has been cleaning and rearranging the surface for a while now, and has been getting rid of so much baggage that they went to the other extreme. They’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and Mac OS’s user interface has become more brittle after all the changes and inconsistent applications of those Human Interface Guidelines that have informed good UI design in Apple software for so long.

I’ve also been thinking that this self-imposed yearly update cycle is ultimately an obstacle to a deeper kind of development — the kind that makes an operating system evolve as a tool. In a recent discussion on Twitter, note Leo Natan’s response, the reason he gives as to why older operating systems were essentially less user-hostile than what we have today:

That’s because they were trying to make a difficult concept, computing, easier for the mass public. That has, to a large extent, been achieved. Now you have overpaid “““designers””” that need to show “““impact””” every year, so they have to reinvent the wheel over and over. 

This act of ‘reinventing the wheel over and over’ has been incredibly stifling and has, in my opinion, largely lead to operating system stagnation. Roughly since Mac OS X 10.7 Lion onward, Mac OS has gained a few cool features, but it has been losing entire apps, services, and certain facilities — like Disk Utility — have been dumbed down. Meanwhile the system hasn’t really gone anywhere. On mobile, iOS started out excitingly, and admittedly still seems to be moving in an evolving trajectory, but on the iPad’s front there has been a lot of wheel reinventing to make the device behave more like a traditional computer, instead of embarking both the device and its operating system in a journey of revolution and redefinition of the tablet experience in order to truly start a ‘Post-PC era’. 

And with Mac OS it feels like its journey is over, the operating system has found a place to settle and has remained there for years. Building new stuff, renovating, rearranging, etc., but always on site, so to speak.

Every now and then I still take out some of my vintage PowerPC machines, and I realise that most of what hampers their usage today is due to CPU and GPU power, CPU architecture (no longer developed), and upgraded Web security protocols. But when it comes to their operating system — Mac OS X Panther, Tiger, Leopard, for the most part — I don’t feel I’m using an obsolete tool. I can do pretty much the same things I’m doing on more recent Macs running Mac OS 10.13 High Sierra, 10.14 Mojave, or Big Sur. Some workflows even feel more efficient. 

An operating system is something that shouldn’t be treated as an ‘app’, or as something people should stop and admire for its æsthetic elegance, or a product whose updates should be marketed as if it’s the next iPhone iteration. An operating system is something that needs a separate, tailored development cycle. Something that needs time so that you can devise an evolution plan about it; so that you can keep working on its robustness by correcting bugs that have been unaddressed for years, and present features that really improve workflows and productivity while building organically on what came before. This way, user-facing UI changes will look reasonable, predictable, intuitive, easily assimilable, and not just arbitrary, cosmetic, and of questionable usefulness.

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