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Welcome to the interview with John Gruber, author of Daring Fireball Link points to external site and long-time critic and observer of Mac OS X interface.

Do you still remember your reaction after Steve Jobs first demoed Aqua?

No, I don’t think so. Meaning I don’t remember seeing Jobs do the demo. But I do remember my initial impressions of Aqua.

I thought it looked childish, garish, and trendy. I thought the overall look – the bright green/yellow/red primary colors, the prominent horizontal striping, the gratuitous transparency – was all tied way too closely with the look of Apple’s then-current hardware. The UI looked like it was designed to match the look of the G3 iMacs, iBooks, and PowerMacs.

Steve Jobs presenting Aqua during his July 2000 keynote
This image can be zoomedSteve Jobs presenting Aqua during his July 2000 keynote
I think my impressions have been proved right, too – the use of bright, primary colors is still there, but the striping has gotten subtler with each major Mac OS X revision, and most pixel-pushers now consider the original Aqua UI to be out of fashion. I’m guessing brushed metal will fall out of fashion next. I think it’s ridiculous that the UI look-and-feel from just four years ago is now considered passé.

My complaints were not, however, based on the idea that Apple should have considered using the Platinum theme from Mac OS 9. I never really cared for that look, either, and the switch to Mac OS X was, obviously, a natural opportunity to update the entire look and feel of the Mac OS.

The other thing I remember from the initial Aqua demo was the crazy purple button in the top-right corner of each window. Clicking it would put you in a new “single-window mode,” where you could only see one window at a time. The fact that that feature never saw the light of day is proof that it’s possible to talk Steve Jobs out of a bad idea – that purple button had “Jobs” written all over it.

Single application mode in Mac OS X DP 4. You can also view the official video showing this in action
This image can be zoomedSingle application mode in Mac OS X DP 4. You can also view the official video showing this in action
Was single-window mode such a bad idea? Moved from the purple button to the confines of System Preferences, wouldn’t it be useful for beginners or refugees from the Windows world?

It might be a good idea for some entirely new system, but I think it was incompatible with the existing Mac UI paradigm. The Mac UI was, and is, meant to revolve around multiple windows. If you’re only going to show one window at a time, what’s the use of even calling it a “window”? Just take up the whole screen.

TiVo, for example, effectively is a computer with a single-window UI paradigm. But it’s screen-based, not window-based. In the same way that it didn’t make sense for Apple to add a single-window mode to Mac OS X, it wouldn’t make sense for TiVo to add a new multiple-windows mode.

As for beginners and Windows refugees, I don’t think they need protection or shielding from the true Mac UI. What would – and does – help them is when the regular UI is consistent, obvious, and intuitive.

What in your opinion are other (good or bad) examples of Jobsian UI elements? Do you think he supervises every single user interface decision?

Shots from welcome movies of Mac OS X Panther (left) and Tiger (right)
This image can be zoomedShots from welcome movies of Mac OS X Panther (left) and Tiger (right)
No, I certainly don’t think he supervises every decision. Even if he wanted to, there’s just too much software coming out of Apple for that to be possible. But I do think he takes an active role in the decisions affecting the software he deems most important.

I believe Jobs is mostly responsible for Apple’s almost-entirely-arbitrary use of brushed metal windows. E.g. the decision to use brushed metal in Safari. I could be wrong – I have no sources or evidence to back that up. But my thinking is that Jobs sees the “consistency,” so to say, as stemming from his own aesthetic judgement. That’s Jobs’s gift: his taste, and his ability to motivate teams to meet his standards. So if he feels in his gut that, for example, Safari looks better with brushed metal windows, then he knows he’s right, and that’s the end of the debate. It doesn’t matter if the answer contradicts the Mac OS X Human Interface Guidelines.

The problem with this is that it can’t be codified in the HIG – the HIG can’t tell you to ask Steve Jobs whether your app should use brushed metal.

Another aspect of the Mac OS X UI that I think has been tremendously influenced by Jobs is the setup and first-run experience. I think Jobs is keenly aware of the importance of first impressions. Let’s say you buy a new computer and use it for three years. That’s about 1,000 days. Your first-run experience – the experience you encounter the first time you boot the machine after taking it out of the box – therefore constitutes about one-thousandth of your entire experience with the machine. I think that’s the sort of logic that has driven most companies not to put that much effort into designing the first-run UI – it’s only going to happen once, and if it isn’t smooth, so what?

Whereas I think Jobs looks at the first-run experience and thinks, it may only be one-thousandth of a user’s overall experience with the machine, but it’s the most important one-thousandth, because it’s the first one-thousandth, and it sets their expectations and initial impression.

The first-run experience with a new Mac – or a new installation of Mac OS X – is much better now than it ever was before. The music is nice, the animation looks cool, and the new Migration Assistant makes it easy for anyone to move their important files from an old machine to a new one. I think this is the Jobs touch at its best. He didn’t write the music, he didn’t do the animation, he didn’t write the dialog boxes you go through to configure your system. But what he did is demand that all these things be great.

Default Dock applications in subsequent editions of Mac OS X
This image can be zoomedDefault Dock applications in subsequent editions of Mac OS X
Another example: I’ve heard from two difference sources at Apple that Jobs personally picks which apps appear by default in the Dock, and in which order. I don’t think this is micro-management – someone has to make this decision. What I think is interesting is that Jobs considers this a decision worth his attention. (And for what it’s worth, I think his choices are pretty good.)

Did Mac OS X UI get better since 2000?

Sure. It looks better, for one thing. The stripes are much more subdued, and the anti-aliasing is smoother. It also performs better – the UI has gotten more responsive in each subsequent major release, which is the opposite of how things were in the old Mac OS. My single biggest gripe about Mac OS X 10.0 and 10.1 is that it just felt so slow.

Still, that’s just part of the picture. Finder seems to be in just as sorry a state as it was in 10.0...

That’s not a question. (I’d type a smiley here, if I were the sort of person who likes using smileys.)

In terms of UI, I’d have to say the Finder is worse than in 10.0, not “just as bad.” (Although in terms of performance, it is better.) For one thing, the “click the Tic-Tac button to switch the window from metal to Aqua” behavior (introduced in Mac OS X 10.3) is just insane.

I don’t write about the Finder much anymore because I feel like I’m wasting my breath. Most of my complaints – and the complaints of other critics, such as John Siracusa – have never been addressed, and I don’t think it’s worthwhile or interesting to repeat them every few months.

To boil it down, the fundamental problem with the OS X Finder is that it’s trying to support two opposing paradigms at once – the browser metaphor (metal windows and column view) and the spatial metaphor from the original Mac Finder (Aqua windows in list and icon view), and it ends up doing neither one very well.

But the list is longer. Even a casual stroll through Mac OS X uncovers many interface quirks. You yourself mentioned click-through Link points to external site and poof inconsistencies Link points to external site, as well as many other usability “paper cuts.” Why do you think Apple doesn’t spend more time perfecting them?

On the one hand you could argue that in many other instances Apple has achieved consistency across the UI. It’s just that click-through and poofing are exceptions to the norm.

My guess is that poofing is inconsistent simply because no one bothered to really document it with a standard set of guidelines.

As for click-through, I think the problem is that people come down strongly on both sides of the issue, and developers end up implementing click-through the way they feel it ought to work.

On the old Mac OS, there was a very strong culture of only supporting click-through as an exception; on the old NeXT, there was a strong culture of supporting click-through by default, and only disabling it as an exception.

I don’t think either group of developers has changed their minds, even within Apple itself. The reason the use of click-through in Mac software is growing – even in software written by long-time Mac programmers – is that Cocoa does it the NeXT way, with click-through on by default for most UI elements and controls.

So what’s needed is for Apple to stand up and lay down the law, or, rather, lay down the guidelines. At this writing, the HIG states: Link points to external site

Carbon: Click-through is off by default. You must explicitly enable click-through for specific controls. Do not assume that the default behavior is the correct behavior. Make sure to apply the above guidelines.

Cocoa: Click-through is on by default. You must explicitly disable click-through for specific controls. Do not assume that the default behavior is the correct behavior. Make sure to apply the above guidelines.

And the only really firm guidelines they offer are that you shouldn’t use click-through for anything dangerous. That’s not guidance, that’s a cop-out.

I’m also curious of your opinion on Dashboard. Its level of gratuitous eye candy seems to surpass even that of original Aqua.

To me, the controversial aspects of Dashboard are:

  1. The fact that widgets are solely relegated to their own special Dashboard-layer in the UI. Konfabulator, on the other hand, allows you to do things with its widgets such as interperse them with other windows in the regular UI layer, or attached widgets to the desktop. I’m not so sure Apple has this wrong, however.
  2. The fact that widgets need to be created with the help of a graphic designer or Photoshop artist. An utterly unartistic programmer can design beautiful regular Mac software using the standard OS controls; a Dashboard widget that isn’t custom-designed by a good artist is going to stick out like a sore thumb.

What aspects do you think are gratuitous?

The ripple effect when launching a new widget, widgets being sucked into their × buttons when closed, the widget icons sliding from the left when the widget bar is activated... Contrary to animations in Exposé and Fast User Switching, for example, most of Dashboard effects seem to fall in the “because we can” category – and indeed, similar functionality in other parts of Mac OS X does well without them.

I suppose those effects are gratuitous, but I don’t mind them at all. They don’t come at the expense of performance. (On my iBook G3, for example, I don’t see the ripple effect, because the video card doesn’t support it.) My taste in UI design is decidedly practical, but I think these types of effects, when used with restraint, really do help make the Mac OS X experience more pleasant.

Talking about pleasant... Do you recall any delightful recent Mac OS X surprises?

What kind of surprises?

Open Recent menu in Text Edit in Mac OS X 10.4
This image can be zoomedOpen Recent menu in Text Edit in Mac OS X 10.4
For example, I recently discovered that if there are two or more files sharing the same name in the Open Recent menu, Mac OS X also shows where do they come from – a very nice touch.

It’s not recent, but the most delightful surprise I can remember from the last few years is when I discovered that you can use Command-Tab switching when you’re in the middle of a drag. So you can start dragging something in one app, then use Command-Tab to switch to another app, and then complete the drop in the new app. I don’t even know when this happened – it might have been like this on Mac OS X all along, but I don’t think I noticed until sometime during the 10.2 era. This also works with things like Exposé and Dashboard.

It sounds obvious, but doing something like that was completely unheard of on the old Mac OS.

A lot of the stuff I wrote about in my Tiger details report Link points to external site delighted me to some degree. For example, I love that you can now click in the very top-left pixel of the main display to trigger the Apple menu (and likewise for the top-right pixel for the Spotlight pseudo-menu thing). I think the Apple menu should have worked like this all along.

Let’s peek into the future now. Dare to predict the interface changes in Leopard, and how will it stack against Longhorn?

I wouldn’t be surprised if the horizontal stripes in Aqua are gone for good. (But that might just be wishful thinking on my part.) In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole translucent red/green/yellow thing goes away. As I stated earlier, that look to me seems tied to the old candy-colored iMac hardware. Apple has long since abandoned that gestalt with their hardware, and I think they’ll eventually do it with their software too.

Podcasting section in iTunes 4.9
This image can be zoomedPodcasting section in iTunes 4.9
You can see that the designers at Apple are getting tired of the candy-colored look and feel. A lot of their new stuff, the custom controls, doesn’t look like that at all. They’re using much flatter (in the 3D sense) controls, with gradients. E.g. the buttons at the bottom of the Podcasting section in iTunes 4.9.

I can’t say I’m following Longhorn (or “Vista” as its marketing name seems to be) all that closely. I look at screenshots when new betas are released or leaked.

The Windows user interface as a whole has always struck me as being not very Mac-like at all. I never bought into the theory that Windows was a Mac rip-off. The only way you could believe that would be to argue that the Mac should have been the one and only GUI – that because Apple popularized the GUI, everyone else should have stuck with text-based UIs. That’s just silly (although I do think that’s exactly what certain executives at Apple believed during the ill-fated look-and-feel lawsuit era in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s).

Even just the “themes” in Windows have never struck me as being very similar to the Mac. Window 3.x was just so damn ugly, for example. Windows 95 looked pretty good, and didn’t look like the Mac OS at all. In fact, I think one could argue that the “platinum” Mac OS theme introduced in Mac OS 8 was more influenced by Windows than any Windows theme ever was by the Mac. The gray window backgrounds, the 3D bezel effects on the buttons and text fields – it always struck me as sadly derivative of the Windows 95 theme.

But it does seem, however, like Microsoft is now aping quite a bit of the Aqua look-and-feel. Just in terms of what the windows and buttons look like.

So I think it’d be interesting to see Apple zig away from this look just when Microsoft starts to zag toward it. The idea being that Apple might introduce an updated look that makes Vista look dated by the time it ships.

But can Apple truly update the look? After a reckless pace of moving from “candy colors” through graphite to the current snow white/brushed metal duo, it seems that this theme is here to stay (cf. Mac OS X, all the hardware, and even the interiors of the retail stores).

I think the Aqua look in 10.4 is still decidedly candy-colored – the window title bar controls, the scroll bars, the capsule-shaped push buttons. And I think the brushed metal theme, or at least the brushed metal theme as we know it, is getting really old, really quick. Of course, I’m biased, because I never liked it in the first place.

I don’t think they’ll revamp the UI in the complete way that they did when going from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X 10.0, but I think 10.5 or 10.6 will bear very little resemblance in any of its details to what 10.0 looked like.

Let’s say you’re appointed as a Chief UI Designer at Apple. What would be your first five orders?

I’d rather be chief UI critic than chief UI designer, but, here goes. These are off the top of my head, because if I tried to answer this seriously, it’d take me a day and a couple of thousand words.

  1. I’d hire John Siracusa to work with me.
  2. I’d scrap the entire current Finder UI and start over. (See #1.)
  3. I’d compile a list of all the areas where default Cocoa behavior and appearance differs from the HIG, and in each case, change either the implementation in Cocoa or the guideline in the HIG. This includes things like click-through behavior and drag-and-drop behavior in text views.
  4. I’d encourage much more platform-wide consistency. When new behavior and controls are created, they should be codified in the HIG. We shouldn’t act like Apple’s own apps get to do things that third-party apps shouldn’t.
  5. I’d commission an italic version of Lucida Grande, and start using it in certain spots in the UI. For example, one good spot for this would be those text-field labels that go inside the text field itself, e.g. the “Google” search field in Safari. My gripe about these fields is that the labels aren’t easy enough to distinguish from actual text inside the field itself. Right now, Apple’s design is to use color, gray instead of black, to convey this. The problem with using color for this is that the only way to make it more distinguishable is to make it lighter, which in turn makes it harder to read. Whereas if they used italics, it’d be distinguishable instantly. I also still miss having alias names italicized.
    (A nice side-effect of this would be that all the web sites that use Lucida Grande could get real italics, instead of having Web Kit fake it by using Helvetica Italic in place of the non-existent Lucida Grande Italic. Every time I see italics on a web page set in Lucida Grande, it’s like sand in my eyes. Uh, no offense to GUIdebook.)

Mighty Mouse – hell freezing over for the third time in two years
This image can be zoomedMighty Mouse – hell freezing over for the third time in two years
And hot on the heels of the announcement of the Mighty Mouse, what’s your opinion about it – Apple catching up or leading the pack?

The scroll ball is terrific – better than any scroll wheel I’ve ever used. If you just think of it as a single-button mouse with a scroll ball, it’s a nice improvement over the Apple Pro Mouse. But the fact that you have to lift your fingers off the left side of the mouse to register a right-click (or vice-versa) is a serious design flaw, in my opinion.

I plan to write a full review of the Mighty Mouse in the next couple of days.

Looking forward to it. Thanks!

Marcin Wichary

The interview has been conducted over email in July and August 2005. John Gruber’s Daring Fireball blog is available at Link points to external site Be sure to check the archives Link points to external site for many Mac OS GUI-related posts (for example That Finder thing Link points to external site or Brushed metal and the HIG Link points to external site).

Page added on 16th August 2005.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.