When Helping Doesn’t Help

Finally, someone calls out the supposed design mavens at Apple for the intrusive, cartoony showboating of the Mac UI. Now I’m not saying the iPod is anything but slick, intuitive, and fun to use — it’s all those things. But even that achievement flops for me, because it’s unbreakably linked to the Fail sandwich that is iTunes. Even when users submit to that program’s domineering ways, it still loses track of their songs in its endless project to sell them one more file while preventing them from buying anywhere else.

But Paul Miller writing for The Verge pins down exactly why the bubbly shapes cavorting across the Mac screen irritate so much: Those antics “somehow become overbearing to my senses. ‘Did you know you can click this? Don’t forget there’s a save button over here! Let me walk you to your control panel.’ ” It’s just another example of that deadly scourge, helpful software — Mister Clippit in hipster drag. I don’t dispute that the article could have been improved by omission of Miller’s trials in grade school, nor do I share his more-retro-than-thou fascination with 8-bit graphics. But his critique hits dead-center on the excessive solicitousness of all that animation helping us all to compensate for our presumably deficient brain power.

I suspect Apple’s designers did that stuff because they could — the platform provided the technology to help, and people like being helped, right? And I’m quite sure the prototypes tested out brilliantly with subjects seeing them for the first time, perfectly validating all the assumptions built into the design. Miller’s point is well taken that the initially useful guidance becomes unctuous pandering after the first few circuits around the block. Lesson for us all: Just because you can, that doesn’t mean you should. It feels like a return to the early days of laser printers, when everyone instantly became a typesetter and graphic designer. Oh, the aesthetic horror!

I’ll disagree with Miller also on his dislike of “the ubiquitous drop shadow. ‘Did you know that this window is on top of this window?’ it whispers to me, endlessly. Apple’s love of reflections and faux 3D subtly imply to me that I might be lost, needing landmarks and a sense of place to find my way.” Subtle cues let my eye tell me where I am without requiring much from my attention span, and that’s always appreciated. If he’s just saying that OSX is too unsubtle in its use of that sort of gesture, then I can stick with him. But I want my design to leave signposts, the smaller and more configurable the better, to let me do my own wayfinding. What I don’t want is to be clubbed over the head with those signposts, then dragged unconscious to the destination that Apple’s designers just knew I would prefer. That’s especially true when the chosen destination so frequently turns out to be the cash register at my local iTunes outlet.

I’ll be watching The Verge, though — thanks to Jen Dougherty for linking it. It seems to want to be an update of CNet for the cooler and maybe more thoughtful, less gadget-obsessed part of the nerd continuum.