Windows and Mac UI Design is a Step Backward


Windows, Mac and Linux (Ubuntu specifically) have broken the desktop interface for power users. They have each substantially increased the time it takes to navigate from program to program, and in doing so they have encouraged desktop clutter which in turn saps user brain cycles. In short, recent upgrades have made the desktop OS worse.

I expect this will get a rise out of my colleagues, especially the Mac users (just wait, it gets worse for you), and I intend this to start a debate. I believe I have objective observations that show every major OS is going in the wrong direction.

The theory: an operating system's primary function is to enable users to interact with programs as quickly and easily as possible. This happens in two major ways.

1) Behind the scenes, an OS provides an environment for its programs and allows them to interact with the computer's hardware. This was the original function of an OS back in the day. Without an OS to perform these basic tasks, every single program would have to do them individually -- a word processing program would need special code to detect what kind of monitor you have, what kind of printer, etc, and figure out how to send data to them in a way they will understand. It would make programs unimaginably more complex, and every program would perform common tasks differently. While highly important, this function of the OS is mostly unnoticed by users (as long as it's working).

2) OSes provide a digital world where users can move back and forth between programs. Users have constant exposure to this OS feature, and after reliability, I would argue this is primarily what determines whether a user likes or dislikes an OS.

The complaint: Somebody somewhere decided that your OS should group all instances of a running application into a single icon. In other words, if you have Outlook and five emails open, all six distinct icons should be grouped into a single Outlook icon on the taskbar. This is a terrible feature for power users. Why? Because it takes you two actions to get somewhere that should take one.

The proof: The proof is almost too simple -- you cannot make two motions as fast as you can make one. For example, I have three emails open that relate to my task at hand. I want to refer to the third one briefly as I write the new one. With Windows 7 in its default state, I have to click the Outlook icon (or hover and wait), scan the list for the email I'm looking for and click on it.

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With the way I run Windows 7 (which is similar to the way Windows has run since Windows 95), I see the email I want in the taskbar, and I click on it.

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The first example wastes brain cycles as well. As a user working on a new email, I know I need to switch to a different email about the rough estimate. My brain has to think: Ok, it's an email, so it'll be grouped with Outlook. Outlook is the yellowy-orange icon with an O on it... hover over that -- new list... ok, scan the list for "rough estimate"... there it is... click.

With the "old" taskbar, I click on the thing that says "rough estimate". Who decided the first method is better?

Unfortunately, all of the major OSes have fallen prey to this type of thinking.

To its credit, Windows held out for a long time. They introduced taskbar grouping in Windows XP, but at least the items on the taskbar still said what they were, and you could turn it off very easily. Windows 7 finally gave into the pressure to be more like Mac OSX and hid the labels by default, too.

Mac OS is the original sinner. The Dock is really a terrible, terrible idea. I could go into detail on all the problems, but it's already been done... by Apple's own interface designer. To be brief, not only is everything grouped into a single icon, this icon is hidden among tons of other icons for programs that may or may not be running... and quite often the icons are so small that people use the magnifying feature to make part of the Dock bigger so they can more easily scroll through the madness and find what they're seeking. All that to SWITCH PROGRAMS.


(image source: Apple.com)

I was answering some questions for a designer (redundant to say a Mac user) the other day, and I noticed something interesting watching her switch between Photoshop, a Word document and an email as we talked. She instinctively dragged each program to different parts of the screen so a little bit of each was still showing when she was viewing the others. I realized that this is how she works with everything -- if you don't leave a little piece of the program sticking out behind the others (and therefore can just click on that bit of it to get back to it), then you have to go back to the Dock to get it again, and that takes forever. I hold this up because this designer loves Macs and has no axe to grind -- and even she has to come up with crazy ways of working to get around in the inadequacies of Mac OS X.

Ubuntu Linux
Poor Ubuntu. They had a beautiful interface for the longest time (and a widening lead as the most popular consumer Linux distribution). They even had multiple desktops -- one of the most innovative ideas that's never been picked up by other OSes -- more on that in a future post. But in the latest release, Ubuntu switched gears and went to a more Mac/Windows-like taskbar. You can only tell what's running because it has a dot next to it. And apparently people are running from Ubuntu in droves.


(image source: Ubuntu.com)

Another View: Now to be fair, there is a flip side to this coin. Remember back when Internet Explorer didn't have tabs? And when you wanted to have 15 websites open, you had 15 items on your taskbar? And they were all so small you couldn't tell what any of them were without clicking each? That was a mess. And Firefox (sorry Opera) stepped in and saved us with tabs. (Shockingly, those tabs listed the title of the website so we could click the one we wanted.)

Why is grouping tabs in the browser different from grouping in the taskbar? It's not, really, and it has the exact same problems. However, in cases where you are likely to have a whole lot of one thing open, and you are likely to do a lot of navigating within that group, it makes sense to group these items into their own separate taskbar. That's really what tab navigation in all the major browsers is -- another taskbar. This is true for browsers, coding programs like Visual Studio, text editors like Notepad++, etc. Think about the way you browse online. At least for me, I typically open lots of sites at once seeking information. I click back and forth between all these tabs, and I pare down the information to what I need. Once I have what I want, I go back to other programs to use the information. That's not true 100% of the time (sometimes I'll refer to three different websites while using other programs), but more often than not, my browsing from tab to tab takes place at one time, and then I go back to navigating from program to program.

In Conclusion: I'm hopeful that Windows 8 doesn't take away my ability to fix their interface flaws, which they are no doubt making worse by assuming I'm going to physically touch everything when I want to use it. I will continue to use my Mac for what it's good for -- casual use from my couch. And I'll probably try out a new Linux distribution even though I love(d) Ubuntu. And perhaps all these companies will realize that big, pretty taskbar buttons are fine for people who just check their email and browse the web; those who want absolute simplicity and don't care about wasting a second or two each time they switch programs. I care. That second or two multiplied by a few hundred clicks a day adds up for me. You OS makers can even enable the casual user interface by default... just give me a way to turn it off.

* PS - I haven't addressed keyboard shortcuts here. Alt+Tab is exceptional for switching between 2-3 items. Much more than that (where you can't immediately know how many times to hit Tab) and it has the same problem I'm describing in the rest of the article.

Jeff Robertson

Jeff Robertson is a digital marketer and an online development expert with experience stretching back to dial-up. He is partner and Chief Technology Officer at Carbon8, where he helps bridge the gap between the technical and marketing worlds, as well as oversees technical infrastructure.

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