15 July 2006

The General Purpose Thing

Recently John Gruber wrote about the The Mac OS X Tipping Point and finished with this sumation:

You can’t appeal to all people all the time, but Mac OS X comes remarkably close. The old Mac OS, as insanely great as it was, did not.

I think what is so quickly forgotten about the transition to Mac OS X was Apple's against-the-grain assertion that they could build an OS the did appeal to beginner users and power users alike! This was NOT the prevailing wisdom of the day. I even remember seeing previews of the OS in which there were "modes" like standard user and advanced user. Simple Finder in Mac OS 9, ultimately was an outgrowth of this kind of thinking. Additionally, Microsoft was pursuing a dual code base strategy for desktop vs. server. Apple's insistence that you could actually build an OS that did scale from the grandma turning on a computer for the first time to a seasoned UNIX developer was courageous and spunky at the very least.

Recently, I have noticed a resurgence of the idea that the general purpose tool is by definition a less effective solution as compared to something more task specific. This hits home to me personally since I work on software that is used by a very broad spectrum of Mac users. There will always be tension when trying to design software to appeal to such a large and diverse audience, but simply factoring the problem into a "pro" and "beginner" products is the easy way out. You can make software that has general appeal and scales gracefully to a user's needs as they grow, it's just very hard to do! Difficulty aside, it is this kind of "scaling up" that defines what I love about great Mac software. All the core features are apparent and easily discoverable, but as you need more functionality, you effortlessly find them, almost as if the designers read your mind. Tools like these become transparent to your workflow and are a joy to use.


Anonymous said...

Yup. I think that Win Office is heading in this direction, I tried out the beta and I love it. There's a nice logical path to finding a feature you need. No need to try out a maze of menus, dialog boxes, popup menus and toolbars.
I guess what i'm trying to ask here is, not being too specific, is MacBU trying out something similarly bold in terms of Mac Office:12 UI wise? or is the Xcode/Intel transition giving you enough trouble as it is :D

David Weiss said...

The Intel/Xcode transition is a big chunk of work, and I can't comment about the UI for Office 12, but consider this: The new Windows Office UI includes the idea that there is no need for a menu bar. Would that kind of a UI work for a good Mac app? Just food for thought. :-)

Anonymous said...

So the innovations in Office 12 are workarounds for things on Windows that the Mac bypasses from the get-go?

Aaronius said...

I think it's a very good question with regards to the menu bar. I haven't used/seen very much of the new Office (actually, I really, really dont like Office, but that's a side issue), but if you take a look at software such as Lightwave or Blender, they have very limited native Mac menu bars, instead they use menu systems integral to the software itself. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn't. I think Lightwave's system pretty much works, but blender doesn't, but that's only my opinion...

I guess like all things, if it's done properly, then it will work, and perhaps there's a good chance of that... Especially that MS made the Mac version of Office better than the Windows version last time round...

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly about your comments on good software being able to "scale up." For example, I was happy to use Entourage as a mere e-mail client at work. I had read about the Project Center in Office 2004 but hadn't really thought to try it out Then a few months ago, I was given a big project to manage and decided to give Project Center a shot. I loved it! It was so effortless to set up and so effective -- it really helped me keep track of everything. Now, I can't imagine trying to stay on top of a project without it.

Anonymous said...

Application without a menu bar?

How about Quicksilver?

Quicksilver is also one of those apps that scales well from basic use to deep use.

Beginning users can use it to open applications without going to the Applications folder, power users can use it to control iTunes, send emails, even append to text files.

It works like a command line, but it offers a GUI that identifiies options. This helps the new user.

The only thing I wish Quicksilver has is a good compendium of "Quicksilver Tips/Tricks/Cookbook". I have the feeling the program is very deep, but there's no definitive manual.

Drew Thaler said...

The idea of scaling from beginners all the way up to expert users is known as scaffolding in education, and it applies directly to software. (Props to my old prof Elliot Soloway for introducing me to the term, which seems to be sadly under-used.)

There are different methods of scaffolding:
1. One way is to use a beginner / expert mode switch.
2. Another way to scaffold is to gracefully have the scaffolding fall away as the user gets more experienced. For example, games often do this with a "tutorial" level.
3. A third way is to simply make the scaffolding so intuitive and un-annoying that it doesn't even need to fall away and can simply be ignored.

Apple's solution is a little bit of all three. There is still a beginner/expert mode, the Simple Finder, although it's now used primarily for kids. (This is emphasized in 10.4, where it's kept under "Parental Controls".)

As for gracefully falling away, Apple's approach is that every advanced feature is present in an advanced interface -- but explicitly not required. There's a simple interface which works for 90% of the things most people want to do, and is usable by both novices (at default settings) and advanced users (who may tweak the settings). If the simple interface doesn't cut it, you can usually seamlessly transition to a more powerful command-line interface if you want.

Since the simple interface is pretty intuitive, that fits part three ... even advanced users who spend a lot of time using the command line will still use things like the Finder and the Dock simply because they're convenient and not annoying.

It really is a nice achievement. There have been a lot of missteps along the way but in general Apple's overall direction has been the right one. It's a great case study in how to create a world-class general-purpose interface.

Anonymous said...

Not to burst your bubble, but there still is a simple-finder in Mac OS X. I guess the biggest difference is that Apple doesn't seem to be pushing it, because I guess they don't think anybody will use it (and I don't know anybody who ever has: most people don't even know it exists).

David Weiss said...

No bubble burst here. :-) I'm guessing you are referring to the sentence where I said, "Simple Finder in Mac OS 9, ultimately was an outgrowth of this kind of thinking." I remember screen shots of Copland and Mac OS 8 even, that were going to have the Simple Finder for most people and Advanced Finder for the power users. Ultimately I think Simple Finder made it to Mac OS X more because of a parental control or kiosk need rather than a response from users that they were overloaded with functionality.

The suggestion that Apple isn't pushing "Simple Finder" is an interesting one. There are a lot of reasons not to "push" a feature, but if Apple really thought no one would use it, they would not include the feature.

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