— 27 April 2005 —

With the User Experience, Small Things Add Up

I’ve been an Apple geek for all of my life, since I first wrote:

10 home
20 Matthew is so cool!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
30 goto 10

on an Apple II, thus amazing my friends with how cool!!!!!! I was.

When I made the switch to OSX a few years ago, I definitely needed to remap some of my mental model of how everything was put together. Not a lot, but it was different. Along the way, there have been many small things that annoyed me. With Tiger coming out in a few days, I am hoping that some of these things have been fixed, but tonight I ran into two oddities that reminded me how small, irksome user interface design decisions can build up, making me think less of the whole.

No Sound

One thing I noticed about Apple’s Mail program is that with an aural notification of new mail, it takes longer to finish the download process than it does without sound. It was really bothering me on the laptop, because with only 128mb of RAM, all things were incredibly slow. I have since added an extra 256mb of RAM, but that little bit of slowness bothers me.

So I decided to turn off the sound on the desktop too.

apple mail oddity

I had the sound set to “Submarine” and when I selected the drop-down, I scrolled up and selected “No Mail Sound.” Groovy. As a few days went by, I kept noticing this odd noise. I just switched to iChat from Adium (because Adium sucks at group chats right now) so I assumed it was some iChat sound I was hearing.

Nope. Apparently there is a sound for “no mail” which is what you hear when you select “No Mail Sound.” In scrolling up the list, I hadn’t noticed “None” at the top. This in itself is not a big deal, just representative of the small things that bug me about OSX.

Consistency is Sometimes a Good Thing

Next oddity in Apple’s Mail program is the ordering of items in a list. This isn’t about alpha ordering or ordering for frequency (well, it could be ordering for frequency), but about showing a list of items in the same order all the time.

apple mail oddity

The above image displays when you select from the application’s menu bar.

apple mail oddity

The above image displays when you select an object and bring up a contextual menu.

Both sub-menus offer the same choices, but in a different order. Since people often learn the order of items in a list over time (especially in software they use with high frequency), it helps if things are in the same order. You tend have your attention elsewhere and let muscle memory take over to do the clicking for you because “Mark as Unread” is the last item in the list (unless it is the first item :).

Again, not a big deal. There’s more that bothers me of course, but it’s always so small that I tend to forget about it and move on because I want to complete my task. We can design things so people can complete their tasks, and we can do it well. But I think what often is missing from our (we software designers in general) design work is a real attention to UX detail. Building the system gets plenty attention to detail (and also gets plenty of the budget). Perhaps it’s because if we get to good enough, it’s good enough. But as you build through multiple versions, letting small things like this exist is not a good thing.

I am sure there are plenty of reasons why this remains an issue; and they are probably all good reasons. None of this is bad enough to make me switch from Apple to a pc. But it makes me think less of Apple’s designers.

And worse, it makes me worry what users are saying about the applications I have designed. See? Now I am depressed!

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