Aesthetics vs Usability

September 9th, 2014

It’s really hard to write about a program’s features without falling into the “this doesn’t work for me, so it shouldn’t work for anyone” trap. Yet the feature set of a program used by millions of people is often determined by a small number of developers. Users are often at their mercy.

Ultimately, if a program or an app doesn’t do what you need it to do or doesn’t have a feature you desire, the solution is to find a different app or program that fits your needs.

I will always advocate that people find the tools that work best to do the things they need to do. This process is not without headache and friction. It takes time to find and test new programs, it takes money to purchase the apps, and there’s always a risk that the app or feature will go away. (RIP CSSEdit.)

While many developers work like gardeners, carefully tending their app, watering it regularly and planting new features, carefully tending them as they mature, Apple approaches their codebase with chainsaw in hand and whiskey on their breath.

I live in the nice little niche of the Apple ecosystem where I use certain features just enough that I notice when they go missing. Most of the technical world is unheedful of these changes and the kindred spirits I find complaining on the Apple Forums are met with the rolling of eyes and unhelpful remarks by people who can’t imagine anyone would find that feature useful.

For what it’s worth, Apple takes great pride in their aesthetics and I adore them for it. Their hardware is impeccably designed. It’s sleek, it’s clean, it’s minimalist. It’s just the type of thing I’m looking for when I have an empty spot on my desk that I need to spend two grand to fill.

Apple tries very hard to pass off their aesthetics as interface design. They want their sterile interfaces to be seen as the most user friendly design ever created. They even have a set of Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) but Apple will never put usability before design.

This attitude creates two different problems. The first is that a lot of cool and useful features are hidden and not initially intuitive. Take the iPhone keyboard for example. There are a number of hidden characters, including vowels with accents and umlauts, which can be accessed by tapping and holding on certain keys. It makes sense when it’s explained, but it’s not intuitive because that’s not typically how buttons work.

The second problem is that a lot of cool and useful features tend to disappear over time. The transition fro Quicktime 7 to Quicktime X lost a number of helpful options.1 The update of Pages from version 4 to version 5 felt more like reverting to version 1.0 than a step forward for a good word processor.2 And let’s not forget the “update” to labels in OSX 10.9.

On one hand I would like to think that perhaps there is a good (or technical) why certain features don’t exist. Maybe something with the code doesn’t allow for certain things to happen. But it’s hard to believe that when the feature existed before.

My personal pet peeve is Preview. There’s no change log (that I know of) for Preview, so it’s hard to tell when some of these things disappeared, let alone why, but at the current rate of change in a few more years the program probably won’t even be able to view jpegs.3 In Preview’s original incarnation there was a little “play” button so you could watch gif images animate. That one went away pretty quickly and was replaced by the ability to see every frame individually. For a while you could also open multiple images with Preview and loop them as a full screen slideshow. Oddly enough, the loop feature is now gone, though the slideshow feature is still there. It just plays through all your images until it gets to the last one and then stops.

The omission that grinds my gears the most is that of the hand tool. About the same time Apple released their Trackpad, they took the hand tool out of Preview. The hand tool is practically universal when it comes to image apps and invaluable when working with images that are larger than your screen. Presumably if you have a trackpad you don’t need the hand tool because you can use the two finger swipe to scroll in any direction.

Though, let’s be honest, when hasn’t Apple been screwing over people who like to use mice?

Pick your poison. You want a one button mouse or a five button mouse that looks like a one button mouse?

Unfortunately, there’s no real solution for these issues. A company with $150 billion in cash reserves is not terribly concerned about one individual user who writes like a bitter and paranoid old man.

The ultimate effect is that users like me are forced to rely on more and more third party apps that do the little things we rely on. (Which is doubly weird because Apple keeps purchasing small single objective companies and incorporating features into the OS.) A secondary effect is that users become wary of updating and the appeal of new features is outweighed by the worry that old ones might go away.

In no way do I try to single out Apple here. Google too has been taking massive steps backwards in the name of progress. Extremely useful features are missing from the new maps app and the ability to do practical things smoothly is continually replaced by shiny trinkets which don’t add anything besides eye candy.

Solution? I don’t have one. The people in charge of making decisions aren’t asking me and “new shiny useless” is the selling point these days. So I’m just going to keep trudging along hoping beyond hope that the things I use will continue to exist.

1. Open as image sequence, anyone? 
2. If you’re looking for a list of complaints: 
3. Not that anyone in the future will want to look at jpegs.