Whatever Happened to Discoverability?

December 19th, 2014

One thing was part and parcel of the original Mac OS, and that was the promise of being able to discover many of the most important features by pointing and clicking. Features were mostly consistent among applications, so if you learned one, you knew most of the others. But of course things are never so simple in the real world, as I learned during my first extended encounters with Macs back in the 1980s.

I knew how to type pretty well, but mastering the mouse took a little while. I wouldn’t say how long, but one day I realized it had become second nature.

Still, over the years, there were exceptions, applications that had features deeply embedded in menus and submenus. I actually had to read some manuals from cover to cover, although that’s not something most of you do these days. Indeed, most of today’s manuals consist of some brief online instructions. For the rest, well, figure it out.

The arrival of the iPhone had an OS that made discovery of the new gadget’s features almost natural. You tapped, you swiped, you pinched, and after a while you had most of it figured out. Yes, different apps had different ways of doing things, but the basic skills enabled you to figure it all out in a short while. The Mac may have been advertised as “the Computer for the rest of us,” but the “rest of us” still didn’t mean everybody.

With the iPad, there was hope that it might become the personal computer of the future. Maybe it will some day, but right now it lies in the ephemeral universe between a smartphone and a Mac. It lacks the telephone features, except as a side effect of Apple’s Continuity, but otherwise it sports an interface scaled up and expanded from the iPhone. So it’s easy to switch back and forth without much difficulty. The Mac still lives in its own universe, but by giving OS X and iOS apps similar names and somewhat similar features, there’s less to adapt to.

Unfortunately, as OS and app features are piled on, something has to give. Interface designers need to work harder to make sure that the boatload of the new features doesn’t make things complicated. Google’s Android sometimes seems to do too many things in too many different ways, clear evidence that not a lot of thought goes into how they should be implemented. With Windows, it’s well known that a feature that requires half a dozen steps on a Mac may require far more when implemented under Microsoft’s OS.

This didn’t stop Microsoft from using the “discoverability” word in product updates. I saw it referenced on different versions of Office for Mac. In Office 2011, Microsoft expanded use of the ribbon toolbar with the goal of placing key features front and center with buttons rather than obscure menus. But toolbars are nothing new, and calling them ribbons doesn’t change the fact that Microsoft can overwhelm you with just too many awkwardly implemented.

Now you’d think Apple had interfaces all figured out, with few stumbles, and then came iTunes 12. Now iTunes is one of the most important Apple apps, and it resides on both Macs and Windows PCs. With the very newest version of iTunes, optimized for OS X Yosemite, the complaints have been fierce. While change is sometimes good, the changes in iTunes 12 can be mighty frustrating.

So the other day, one of our readers wondered why Apple killed the sidebar, a popular feature that helped you organize your playlists. Well, the sidebar is still there, but Apple, in its infinite wisdom, decided that it must be called a Playlist. Well, that’s the function, but still. Also, the commands in the center of the screen are context sensitive, depending on whether you’re viewing music, podcasts, movies, TV shows and apps. This may make sense from a logical point of view, but you still have to stop and read the changing labels to see what function you want, which can make it feel a little less smooth.

I suppose Apple is to be commended for wanting to try something new with an aging app whose feature set may just have become too large for convenience. It looks nice and all, but just trying to do things the same way as before doesn’t always succeed. I just wonder about the level of support calls Apple has fielded since iTunes 12 arrived. It definitely keeps Kirk McElhearn, Macworld’s “iTunes Guy,” very busy.;

At the same time, OS X Yosemite may sport loads of new features, and a new face, but most everything you do is accomplished in the same fashion as before. There’s not a lot of new stuff to learn, although you might have to spend a little time getting accustomed to Continuity and Handoff. Once set up, however, it’s really interesting to hear my iPhone ring, have it mirrored on an iPad, and presented with a different tone on an iMac. Or maybe just confusing you with the multiple warnings of an incoming call..

Now that Apple has made the major interface changes in the mobile and desktop operating systems, one hopes future versions with hone in on making them easier to use. If you will, discoverability.

| Print This Article Print This Article

4 Responses to “Whatever Happened to Discoverability?”

  1. Walker says:

    iTunes needs to be blown up and remade. Of the changes in the past five years or so, few, if any, have been for the better. It has made it harder to play your own music, much less find it; it has made podcasts a hash to handle; controlling apps on iOS devices is as primitive as it was 5-6 years ago; it has (and this isn’t so much iTunes as it is the iTunes store) has ruined iTunesU by making it far harder to find material. The iTunes store, as well as the Mac App store, are just as bad as iTunes.

    I can usually find reasons for some of Apple’s stranger or poorer choices (they want you to buy stuff rather than play what you already have, for instance, and so it will take you to the Store more often than not), but I cannot come up with one for the awful stores they have in place. Finding apps is nearly impossible: searching brings back terrible results, and everything is modal (for instance, when starting from the podcast section of the store, a search returns results for EVERY part of the store instead of just from podcasts, with perhaps an option to see other results). One would think that Apple would *want* people to buy more apps, more music, more video — but the means they offer to do that with say otherwise.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    iTunes has been a real hash for a while. Just try following a season of a television show. You have to search the store for the season as each episode is released, work through three or four store screens, and only then can you play the latest episode. Surely they could do better.

  3. dfs says:

    I have a lot of beefs about iTune as currently implemented. But by far the worst offender is iTunes for iOS. A lot of the former “discoverability” of OSX has been taken away, but we always have that search box in the upper right hand corner to get us where we want. iTunes for iOS makes it equally difficult to get around, but some genius at Cupertino decided we didn’t need that search feature on our mobiles. Oh boy, did he get that wrong!

  4. hswylie says:

    ITune 12 totally messed up the sound on my 2009 MacBook Pro. I no longer have any volume control and my sound is little more than a whisper. I installed “Boom” and it returned volume to my iTune music. However, nothing else on the computer that makes use of sound was fixed by Boom. I wonder of others have had this problem. I have never seen any comments anywhere about sound volume loss after installing iTunes 12.

Leave Your Comment