I really appreciate this piece by Riccardo Mori entitled, "Habits, UI changes, and OS stagnation". He works through the arguments around how to tell whether something feels bad just because it's new, or because it's truly worse in some way. It can be a hard thing to put your finger on, especially quickly! But in light of the ongoing cascade of bad design decisions coming out of Apple right now, I really like his rubric for changes to macOS specifically.
The argument “Is this really bad UI, or is it just you who are averse to change?” will never go away, huh? A change in a user interface can be disruptive, but it’s usually easy to see if it’s disruptive-beneficial or disruptive-confusing or ‑frustrating after a while.
You can see when change brings more thoughtfully-designed UI details. Saying that “You just need some time to get used to it” is in itself indicative that the new UI is problematic. You can completely redesign an app, but if the new UI is well-designed, people will figure it out.
When change ultimately brings UI rearrangement for UI rearrangement’s sake, then you just offer something that is user-hostile. Changing habits can be healthy if it brings improvement.
If users have a poor reaction to having to relearn your non-intuitive changes just because you felt the need to ‘refresh’ your app, doesn’t mean people are lazy or change-averse. It means they’re annoyed at your lack of respect for their productivity and their time.
"Lack of respect" is precisely what I feel when looking at Apple's software over the last 5+ years!!! I also fully agree with these points:
The two major things I find especially misguided about Mac OS are:
- The fact that Apple considers it a product that needs to look cool and be shown off, instead of a utility that runs computers.
- The fact that Apple feels the need to release a new version of it every year.
Followed by a nice summary of the goals of OS X at its release, emphasizing its usefulness, not its marketability. Then he describes nicely the feeling of being subjected to useless or impeding changes in tools you use every day, with my emphases in bold:
This insistence around the most superficial aspects of a graphical user interface — the look — often reminds me of the constant redesign iterations of some third-party apps in an attempt to make them more alluring to customers and to increase sales. The hyperfocus on always looking new and fresh can sometimes lead to harsh breaks in an app’s ‘usability continuum’ (as I like to call it). I’m sure you’ve experienced it more than once if you have been using Mac and iOS apps for the past several years. The developer triumphantly announces the ‘significant visual overhaul’ in the app’s changelog, and after the (often inescapable) app update you are presented with something that has changed so much, its controls completely rearranged, that it becomes unrecognisable and essentially forces you to relearn how to use the app as proficiently as before.
Both for work reasons and for personal research, I’ve had a lot of experience dealing with regular, non-tech-savvy users over the years. What some geeks may be shocked to know is that most regular people don’t really care about these changes in the way an application or operating system looks. What matters to them is continuity and reliability. Again, this isn’t being change-averse. Regular users typically welcome change if it brings something interesting to the table and, most of all, if it improves functionality in meaningful ways. Like saving mouse clicks or making a multi-step workflow more intuitive and streamlined.
But making previous features or UI elements less discoverable because you want them to appear only when needed (and who decides when I need something out of the way? Maybe I like to see it all the time) — that’s not progress. It’s change for change’s sake. It’s rearranging the shelves in your supermarket in a way that seems cool and marketable to you but leaves your customers baffled and bewildered.
I love that a little further on, he refers to Windows as "mastodontic." What a great word!
Microsoft may leave entire layers of legacy code in Windows, turning Windows into a mastodontic operating system with a clean surface and decades of baggage underneath. Apple has been cleaning and rearranging the surface for a while now, and has been getting rid of so much baggage that they went to the other extreme. They’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater, and Mac OS’s user interface has become more brittle after all the changes and inconsistent applications of those Human Interface Guidelines that have informed good UI design in Apple software for so long.
This act of ‘reinventing the wheel over and over’ has been incredibly stifling and has, in my opinion, largely lead to operating system stagnation. Roughly since Mac OS X 10.7 Lion onward, Mac OS has gained a few cool features, but it has been losing entire apps, services, and certain facilities — like Disk Utility — have been dumbed down. Meanwhile the system hasn’t really gone anywhere.
An operating system is something that shouldn’t be treated as an ‘app’, or as something people should stop and admire for its æsthetic elegance, or a product whose updates should be marketed as if it’s the next iPhone iteration. An operating system is something that needs a separate, tailored development cycle. Something that needs time so that you can devise an evolution plan about it; so that you can keep working on its robustness by correcting bugs that have been unaddressed for years, and present features that really improve workflows and productivity while building organically on what came before. This way, user-facing UI changes will look reasonable, predictable, intuitive, easily assimilable, and not just arbitrary, cosmetic, and of questionable usefulness.