• The Case for GUI Inconsistency

    December 17th, 2005

    Years ago, while at the office, I installed a copy of ClickChange, an early Mac OS interface changer. But it didn’t just fiddle with scroll bars and window designs. It would add sounds to specific functions. Of course, it wasn’t the most stable beast in the jungle, and I had more crashes that first day than in the previous month. The following morning, I got rid of it, but felt a slight regret over the fact that I couldn’t tailor my Mac’s look and feel to my oddball tastes.

    But the Mac OS itself was supposed to be consistent, enforced, at least by suggestion or admonition, by a document called the Human Interface Guidelines. However, Mac OS X has complicated matters considerably. Now you have three general look and feel motifs, from the standard platinum that most applications adopt, the brushed metal look of the Finder and Safari and now the strangely shaded toolbar icons in the Tiger version of Mail.

    All of these window variants function in a similar fashion, except that putting brushed metal at the bottom allows you to drag the object from that location too, in addition to the title bar. So, regardless of the look Apple’s designers have inflicted on you, there’s little you have to discover in the form of new skills.

    So why the apparent chaotic approach? Surely Apple knows better than to break its own rules and regulations, right? Well, one commentator, Tera Patricks, writing at mac360.com, suggests that it’s deliberate, that Steve Jobs is the “sly fox” who is waiting for Microsoft to crib some elements of the Mac user interface for Windows Vista. Then, with the release of Mac OS 10.5 Leopard, we’ll see a brand new, unified interface and Microsoft will simply fall on its face.

    I suppose as theories go, they’re a dime a dozen, but I don’t really think this one earns that much. The real answer, however, comes in a single sentence, where Ms. Patricks clearly got a handle on the problem, although she doesn’t realize it: “To be fair, the average Mac user probably doesn’t care.”

    Aha! Now you’re talking my language. Where is it written that every single component of a graphical user interface must meet a single design standard? Why can’t Apple give each application, or category of applications, its own unique color scheme, so long as it operates in essentially the same fashion as other applications? Of course, with that exception for the brushed metal bars at the bottom of a window. Tell me: Do all the rooms in your home have the same color furniture, walls, carpets, appliances? Are there no differences anywhere?

    Well, I’m not about to criticize anyone’s personal approach to interior decorating. The point is that if regular folks don’t complain because Apple has opted to deviate from its interface standards here and there, why should it matter? It’s not as if the operating system developers at Apple don’t know what they’re doing, or that Steve Jobs is somehow oblivious to the differences.

    You might wish that Apple will discover the “error” of its ways in time for Leopard. But I doubt that it’s going to suddenly reverse direction without any compelling reason to do so. Yes, there are things I’d like to see changed, and the ability to drag any window from all boundaries, regardless of the stylistic liberties, is way at the top of the list. A Finder window is the best example of an object that offers this sort of behavior.

    If anything, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Apple providing even additional interface designs to offer you a little variety. I realize some of you have longed for a built-in theme changer, in the fashion of some of those shareware utilities, such as ShapeShifter. The closest you get is a Graphite option in the Appearance preference panel, which tames some of Mac OS X’s excesses, but, in my view, goes a little too far.

    Of course, now that I’ve expressed my support for variety, I’m sure some of you will insist I haven’t a clue. All I can say is that you check the shareware offerings and you’ll find stuff that’ll revert the brushed metal look on some applications to platinum. But like any system add-on, approach such things with extreme caution, and don’t pile one atop another. You may get the look you prefer, at the expense of system stability. Or just sit back and stop worrying about it. It’s really not that important in the scheme of things.

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