Missing a strong human interface guideline

A friend asked my thoughts on this article discussing the not uncommon impression that the interface design of OS X, sorry: Macos, is slowly but surely changing for the worse. The question was simply whether I agree or not, but in trying to find my answer I found myself rapidly toggling yes-no-yes-no-yes-no depending on what I put into the question, and a lot more than 140 characters worth of response.


No is the answer I eventually settled on, and it is sort of a "No, I do not think about this this way". While I think about the same things, wonder about the same problems and trends, the case is much more one of my thoughts and the author's intersecting at certain points rather than being in general agreement. My agreement is in specific details, such as the icon for Photos having gone needlessly generic and unexpressive. But on the whole, I find it much more interesting to try and think about why things may be going the way they are. This is not trying to call the article or its thoughts wrong, this is about taking my own thoughts in a different direction and seeing where that leads.

(In fact, it is a pretty good article that can spawn this amount of thinking in a reader! Well done!)

Sorry, the Steve thing, too

The author trots out the old "This would never have happened if Steve was still alive", feeling it is justified and true in this case. I disagree. All of this change and process was well underway all through Steve's years. The Human interface guidelines for OS X was strongest, clearest and most closely adhered to when I first got on the Mac, and it has been slowly and surely diluted since then. Apple itself is a reliable breaker of the guidelines, introducing new ideas, looks and then possibly adjusting the guidelines afterward, if at all. This is stuff I was already reading about when brushed metal was spreading, for whoever's sake. This did go on all through Steve's time, and if anything it is a legacy current Apple has carfeully nurtured.

Thoughts, then?

Right, the interesting part: why are the things being done, and where might they lead? For example, this dropping of real-world analogies (which many seem to agree went completely out of hand before it was stopped). This is an area where I find myself agreeing in details, in that many app icons, for example, have lost something in becoming more abstract and - importantly - more uniform in appearance.

To start off, I think fashion plays a big part. Regardless of your opinion, looks come and go and their cycling keeps things interesting. The pendulum has been swinging further toward the flat, abstract and monochrome for a while now. I would not be surprised to see it swing back one day. When it does, it will probably feel like a breath of fresh air, but I rarely look back at old versions of an OS and think the looked outright better than what we currently have. Fashion is working, at least on me, and I suspect I am not unique.

Another larger area of thought is this: perhaps the real-world stuff was only needed for a while? What if our computer environments grow up by finding their own representations of things, unburdened by trying to connect with real objects? Perhaps then we could finally find a good and universal icon for saving? I agree the icon for Photos is too abstract. But then, what should it be? A photo as an icon does not say all that much, and the camera which used to be there almost says even less. Who takes pictures with a camera like that anymore? Plus, the app is not about taking pictures, it is about managing them. A photo album (or some kind of filing cabinet) would have been an appropriate real-world object. I do not recall anyone demanding that over the old icon, why not?

Where I land

This is just as much speculation as everyone else. I just want to point out that we should not assume our own opinion and idea is the only possible one. If anything, I think Apple itself should be talking much more about this, being very clear about how it thinks apps should look and perhaps even engage in some dialogue about it. Having strong human interface guidelines which are living, breathing and widely adhered to (and of course masterfully broken every now and then), that is something I would like to see. But I do not assume sheer incompetence is the reason we currently do not have that.