The Death of UI Consistency

Yesterday, John Gruber posted a gripe about the new CS3 panels and palettes and how horrible it is that Adobe put the close box on the right side. To John, this seemed horribly un-Mac-like, and in trademark style he concludes his gripe with an elitist and unsubstantiated slap at Windows users (but hey, at least it was funny):

Ends up the title bar controls for palette windows in CS3 are on the right side, Windows-style. “X” for close, “_” for collapse. God, that just looks so wrong – how did this ever get approved? If Adobe really wanted to put these controls in the same location on both platforms, why not do it the Mac way? If Windows users cared about consistency, they wouldn’t be using Windows.

I wrote him an email where I explained what I thought the actual motivation for the close box on the right decision was: the desire to save vertical space by putting the close box to the right of the palette tab panel interface.

But thinking about it some more, I realized that this answer didn’t really satisfy me. First of all, even though putting the close box on the right does make sense from an overall design point of view, the fact remains that the close box doesn’t look like a Mac-style close box when you run CS3 on a Mac. It doesn’t really look like a Windows close box, either. Instead, it looks like an “Adobe close box”, just as the palettes themselves don’t really look like those of other, non-Adobe applications. But then I had to think about it some more, because despite this realization I still am not bothered by the problem whatsoever when I actually use CS3, and I like to think I have a pretty well tuned design aesthetic (for an engineer).

The reason, I think, is that the goal of a single, consistent platform look and feel, as espoused by John in the quote above, is dead. Long gone. Apple never really achieved this even in the good old days (remember HyperCard? FileMaker?). And looking at Apple’s own applications that ship with a new Mac shows that things have only gotten worse. Its always been a case of “do as I say, not as I do”, and never more so than today.

But I don’t blame Apple or Adobe for the death of the goal. What really killed that goal once and for all was the web. Where once there were only a few popular Mac applications that broke with convention, on the web look and feel consistency isn’t even on the list of things to worry about. YouTube and flickr look and work completely differently. Users today have been trained to expect a different set of UI conventions from every web application they use, and they aren’t complaining about it.

The trend towards Rich Internet Applications using Apollo and its ilk will further cement this trend, as web applications come down to the desktop with their web UI conventions intact. To me, this is a good thing.

[Update 10:36AM] Wow, this is getting a lot of traffic and a lot of comments, especially for something I wrote at 4am when I couldn’t sleep. I want to make a few things clear to people about my intent.

The real thrust of my article isn’t as a defense of putting the close box on the right vs. the left, or about what the ‘x’ looks like. I personally don’t think that discussion is all that important, although there are clearly a number of commenters who disagree.

What I’m really talking about here is how the goal of complete UI consistency is a quest for the grail, a quest for a goal that can never be reached. The fact that you call it a holy grail may make the quest seem more noble, but it doesn’t make the grail any more achievable.

At the end of the article, I talked about how RIAs bringing web conventions to the desktop was a good thing, but I didn’t explain why (I blame lack of sleep). The reason I think this is that it lets us move the conversation away from the discussion of conformance with a mythical ideal and towards a discussion of what a usable UI should be. I really appreciate the comments from folks pointing out places where Adobe’s UI isn’t as usable as it could and should be – they’re the folks who really understand what I’m trying to talk about here.

Finally, I want to point out for those who may have missed it that this is my personal blog and that these are my personal opinions. I am an engineer, not a PR mouthpiece or an evangelist (at least not professionally). Furthermore, I don’t work on CS3, so my opinion shouldn’t be taken as that of the CS3 team or of Adobe as a whole. I never cease to be amazed at how many people seem to confuse this issue.

~ by Andrew Shebanow on 12Apr07.

18 Responses to “The Death of UI Consistency”

  1. Um.

    Please stop trying to dress it up. You’ve got palette controls that aren’t totally Windoid but are more than halfway there, and you’ve installed them on a platform that is zero percent Windows, one whose users resent anything that resembles Windows.

    Your use of the word “inconsistency” would best be replaced by the phrase “intentional violation of conventions.”

    [Andrew says] Please cite the pages from the Mac UI guidelines that covered tabbed palette panels. Oh wait. There aren’t any.

    More seriously, I think I was pretty honest about admitting that CS3 isn’t following the UI conventions even to the degree it could do so. But that wasn’t the point of my article. For me, the real point is that this idea of UI consistency was always a myth, and the myth is now dead, and we can instead talk about whether or not applications are actually usable instead of measuring their conformance to the myth.

  2. To me, this is a good thing.

    Possibly, but not everyone will agree. Personally, I prefer apps to have a degree of consistency, both with other apps on my computer, but also with their heritage. The point is, there’s no good reason for Adobe to not comply with the Apple UI guidelines (even though Apple infuriatingly has difficulty practising what it preaches.) Two ‘wrongs’ don’t make a right.

    As to what YouTube and Flickr do, that’s not really that relevant, is it? I don’t use those services, but they’re free and can therefore do what they like, I guess. Adobe, on the other hand, is charging money for the applications it provides, so I think has more of a duty to think of its users and be less experimental with UI.

    [Andrew says] Thanks for the feedback. I think your point of view is reasonable but must disagree. As for Apple’s UI guidelines, there isn’t anything in there that really covers this situation. Perhaps there should be. I do believe that the web stuff is relevant – it has conditioned user expectations of how software should work, and the price is irrelevant.

  3. I’ll probably attract the ire of Mac users around the world, but I’ve always found Windows placement of the close/minimize a better placement than a Mac.

    The fact that the scroll bar is on the right, keeps operations affecting windows to the right edges of the window.

    Since 98% of the time I’m on a PC, I’m dealing w/windows that scroll, having the minimize/close buttons near the scrollbars allows me to plant my mouse to the right edge of my monitor and I can get to window operation with little mouse movement.

  4. Your “blame the web” answer just won’t wash. Users visit a website quickly and move on, glad to be rid of many of them. We spend hours a day in applications such as InDesign and Photoshop. Inconsistencies there really matter. And most oft-visited web pages are models of simplicity: Google and Wikipedia search being two classic examples.

    Users also complain (quite rightly) about web page options and links being hard to find, since they’re buried in a lot of text and general clutter. Amazon is particularly bad in that respect. The only thing they make easy is One-Click purchasing. If Abode’s UI model is the web, they’re in big trouble.

    Neither “everybody’s doing it” nor “no one is perfect” is a legitimate excuse. Adobe should be working to not only make their UI consistent across their products, but consistent in general with other products on that platform.

    From what I’ve seen, panels in CS3 are better than palettes in CS2, and I like the ability to modify and colorize the main menu. I’m not one of those who whine, confusing different or new with worse. But that doesn’t mean that both aren’t clumsy and inelegant.

    Pop-out panels with pull-down menus that open up center-of-screen windows with various input options from check boxes to data fill-in force users to navigate through four or more different kinds of interfaces to accomplish one task. Not good.

    Imagine a car where to brake we had to:

    1. Enter slow-down mode by flipping a switch on the dash to the far right.

    2. Choose “Rate of Deacceleration” from a mouse-driven pull-down menu next to the speedometer: 1. Urgent, 2. Rapid, 3. Moderate and 4. Gradual.

    3. Make sure the Brake Light option is turned on, so we don’t get rear-ended. This time on a different sort of panel on the left.

    4. Activate breaking by pressing a petal on the floor that can be in any position from the far right to the far left and that interchanges its position with the gas petal and the clutch almost at random.

    That, in comparison with the typical automobile breaking “interface,” is what’s wrong with many computer user interfaces. They’re too complex, too modal, and too variable. In a word, they’re not intutive. We have to think about each and every step. And that sort of thinking pulls us away from the task at hand. It’s why we can brake a car while holding a conversation but can’t while activating most software features.

    Adobe actually did good work with the new UI. Please don’t ruin it by making excuses. Listen and consider all the complaints. And yes, we do realize that a complex product can’t have an extremely simple interface. But it can be improved.

    I can give you examples in CS2 that may or may not be fixed in CS3. (I did point them out to someone at Adobe.) Look at the View menu. It’s awful for absolutely no reason.

    1. Fit Page and Fit Spread each flip the other off and display status using a check box. I like check boxes, but this particular interaction can confuse. The interface suggests both can be on at once, when logic says they can’t.

    2. Look further down and there’s a series of Show/Hide options where the menu itself changes. Why are checks used to indicate status higher up in the menu and on the adjacent Window menu, but menu text changes used here? Personally, I prefer check boxes but having both, tossed in almost a random or the whim of a programmer, is worse than either.

    3. In the Window Menu, why does Object Styles get its own slot in the main menu while the more often used Character and Paragraph Styles are buried under a cryptic Type and Tables? And why mix Type and Tables?

    Personally, I think one reason for Apple’s success with the iPod and perhaps the iPhone is that Steve Jobs keeps pushing a potential product back saying, “Not good enough.” And when he doesn’t do that (i.e. Spotlight) the result is as bad as that from any other company. That’s why, as different as the iPhone interface is, there’s virtually no complaining. It’s also why users complain constantly about Spotlight.

    Adobe can’t make everyone happy, but they can listen to what everyone is saying.

    –Mike Perry, Inkling Books, Seattle

    [Andrew says] Thanks for the great feedback. Believe me when I say that I’m not trying to say that everything about the CS2 or CS3 user interfaces is perfect. The fact that DreamWeaver and Fireworks still have the old UI irks me no end, and as you point out there are still a number of places where the various CS3 applications go dialog crazy. Again, for me the key point here is to focus on the actual usability of the UI, not on our conformance to some mythical goal.

    On the web being something people visit quickly and then move on from, I strongly disagree. I was careful to talk about web applications as opposed to simple web sites. I know tons of people who spend hours each day in gmail,, etc. I know plenty of people who spend more time than they should on myspace, flickr, youtube, and the like. These are not web apps people use for two minutes a day.

    As for us needing to “listen to what everyone is saying” – I couldn’t agree more. The new UIs in CS3 were tested and refined in collaboration with our customers, and they tested very well. The vast majority of the reviews of Photoshop CS3 I’ve seen to date are extremely positive about the improvements in the UI. I use Photoshop quite a bit myself and wouldn’t ever want to go back. Still, that doesn’t mean we’re done, and it doesn’t mean that everyone will like it. I reacted to the critique from DF because it was the first such critique I’ve seen. If there is some huge chorus of criticism I’m sure the people who actually do the design work for CS4 will take that into account.

  5. This is pretty weak sauce. On Windows, the controls should be on the right side. On the Mac, the left side.

    Every Mac app does it this way. Why do you insist on doing this the Windows way? Do you realize that Mac users want Mac-like things?

    Or do you really think you know better?

    [Andrew says] Personal attacks are unwarranted, mr anonymous coward. I’m entitled to my opinion, just as you are to yours. Besides, I am a Mac user – a Macbook Pro is my main machine at work, and all together my wife and I have four Macs.

  6. Personally, UI consistency is a very good thing. The more experienced (older) you get, the more you desire standards and consistency. Not because you cannot teach an old dog new tricks, but because it makes our lives simpler. I am all for a new paradigm, but change for the sake of change is a waste of everybody’s time.

    Using the Web as a model doesn’t apply to OS design. Nobody is in control of the web; thus anything goes. The majority of it is absolutely devoid of any design, much less good design. Only by striving for perfection in how humans best interface with an object do we achieve excellence. Good enough, well, is never good enough. That is the secret of Steve Job and Apple. It’s amazing how many don’t get it, even today.

    [Andrew says] We aren’t talking about OS design here, we’re talking about application design. I personally think web applications and desktop applications share a lot of the same design issues. As for Apple, I and many others have pointed out in the article that Apple’s own internal consistency leaves a great deal to be desired in practice.

  7. Actually, I wish Apple would put these widgets back where they were in Mac OS 9. UI-wise, OS X’ windows widgets’ positions are a really bad idea.

  8. So maybe someday I can drag that entire monstro palette thingammybob to my secondary display in one little motion, or am I doomed to bust out pieces of it and drag the parts over for eternity (or CS4, whichever comes first 🙂

    I’m kind of over the Gruberian pissiness over some of the UI liberties Adobe has taken, mostly because 1) I’m used to them and 2) once used to them you stop caring about UI purity and get to work. This impacts usability like… well, it doesn’t, for prior users, and for new users they’ll get it in a few seconds.

    However the poor support of secondary displays is infuriating. I can’t even move the toolbox at all much less to another monitor, unless I’ve been doing it wrong and if that’s the case then it shouldn’t be that opaque.

    [Andrew says] Thanks for the constructive feedback. I can’t answer your question definitively since I don’t work on CS3, but the build I have still won’t let you drag the whole panel dock. You can drag panel groups, though. Sorry, I agree its annoying.

  9. Please cite the pages from the Mac UI guidelines that covered tabbed palette panels. Oh wait. There aren’t any.

    How about “Extending the Interface”?

    “People rely on the standard Mac OS X user interface for a consistent, predictable user experience. Don’t copy other platforms’ user interface elements or behaviors in Mac OS X, because they may confuse users who aren’t familiar with them.”

    “If you need to extend the interface of Mac OS X, the best place to begin is with the already defined visual and behavioral language. Think about what the appearance communicates to people (the look) and how they expect the element to behave (the feel).”

    I hope you’re not trying to argue that close buttons are not already defined within OS X’s “visual and behavioral language”.

    For me, the real point is that this idea of UI consistency was always a myth, and the myth is now dead, and we can instead talk about whether or not applications are actually usable instead of measuring their conformance to the myth.

    I’m reading this as “We’re not adhering to this document that is generally treated as a consistent standard. We are not the first person to do this, so we shall call the whole point of the document ‘a myth’, rather than actually trying to conform to the document.”

    I could design an application with the scroll bar on the left, the close button on the right, and purple text on a green background. Then, can I go and shout down the HIG because it’s just a myth?

    It wasn’t the web that led to HIG violations; it’s developers who think it’s okay to violate it because someone else did it first.

  10. Funny that Maczealots whine about UI inconsistency. Meanwhile they are happy with the mess in OS X (metal window, unified window, pinstripe window whatever). It’s okay because it’s blessed by Holy Steve…

  11. Funny that Maczealots whine about UI inconsistency. Meanwhile they are happy with the mess in OS X (metal window, unified window, pinstripe window whatever). It’s okay because it’s blessed by Holy Steve…

    Yes, because no “Maczealot” has ever complained about UI problems in Apple applications before. Ever.

    Whoa, how did those three links to DF get in my post? I wonder if they’re relevant!

    Actually, the first link has a great paragraph that ties this whole thing together:

    It’s not pedantry that inspires Mac afficionados to gripe about Apple’s violations of the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines. It’s not that the HIG is simply a list of rules to which a bunch of us nerdy Mac experts demand blind adherence only for the sake of following rules. It’s that the guidelines outlined in the HIG form a cohesive whole describing a philosophy of design.

    [Andrew says] I appreciate the intelligence and passion with which you argue the case. I agree that many Mac aficianados have called Apple on their UI inconsistencies in the past, Gruber and John Siracusa being two of the more notable ones. That said, your quote really captures the whole issue for me: the consistency argument is about a philosophy of how things “should be”, and not about how things actually work in the real world. Can you show me any studies which show an actual end user benefit to this level of consistency or is the belief purely religious? Remember that it is never a good idea to discuss theory without also considering practice – if we lived in a world guided solely on philosophy then we’d all be living in a purely socialist state, right? (Does this count as an invocation of Godwin’s Law? If so I apologize in advance.)

  12. From my own lessons learned some people stick so much to the old ways they feel blink when someone moves something.. Be honest if this “holy grail” of ui standardization ever occurred we would live in a very boring world.

    We seem to live in a world of rapid change, and the stay in front is to do something different with the user interface.

    Ill use one of those examples, imagine video games as today you see so many different UI’s. Regardless of the genera you will see differences within the series as each new installation usually offers something new.

    At this point of my life I realize that someone told the compaines to keep the UI’s Fresh, but stay within a certain moral code if you will.

    An example of this moral code, have you every pulled up a OS and saw all text and menus were upside down by forced default? Have you ever seen perhaps a adobe app with the file menu at the bottom that opens up going up in a reverse order?

    Or maybe some text going 90* arcs?

    Probably not cause somewhere theres a moral code of do not’s its written in stone somewhere and it only appears when someone thinks to do the opposite.

    With that said seems sometimes in the middle of the night someone comes down and etches out one of those codes in its secure location.

    Who is doing this you might ask?

    I think its society as a whole changing what is considered acceptable and what is not. Perhaps I am wrong but I hope not, a inflexible society only heads to the ages of darkness.

    [Andrew says] Nicely put.

  13. Adobe has had it in for Apple ever since iPhoto came out and this insult is a ittle in your face payback.

    [Andrew says] Apparently a chiropractic degree also comes with a psychic ability to read my innermost thoughts and motivations. Who knew?

  14. The point of any semblance of UI consistency is form. Consider a guitar (or a chair). Guitars come in tens of thousands of shapes, sizes, colors, and types, but they all do the same basic thing — produce sound. We instantly recognize a guitar of any shape because it shares some similarity with the basic form of what we know as “guitar.”

    Andrew’s right that UI consistency has long been dead. Microsoft never followed even within their own Office products, and they still don’t within Office 2007. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try. Perhaps the complaint of users is mnenomic; that is, how many different ways do I need to remember to do similar tasks inside of Adobe (or whomever’s) products, while understanding that Microsoft will do it one way, Apple another within their OS, and Adobe their way.

    What you don’t want is to see a variety of UI elements within the same company’s products.

    [Andrew says] I completely agree, very well put.

  15. A huge chunk of Adobe’s corporate future is tied into the success of Flash/Flex/Apollo, which abstracts application UI from the underlying OS’s native UI conventions. (Mind you, I am not saying this is good or bad, just that a third platform standard beyond Win & Mac is the Adobe goal. In fact, I think Flex/Apollo component UI is a pretty decent middle ground between Win/Mac.) This is nothing new at Adobe. It has been trying to create its own little universe on top of Win/Mac for over a decade. For the longest time, for example, Adobe refused to embrace OS-native technologies like AppleScript for the same reason.

    The crucial point here is that *even if Win or Mac OS UIs were perfectly consistent and/or superior* I think Adobe would still create and promote its own separate UI conventions in order to abstract the underlying OS: after all, this is the principal value proposition.

    Although you may not represent the CS3 team, I therefore find your argument either historically misinformed or disingenuous.

    [Andrew says] I agree that Adobe has a long history of not being completely consistent with the Apple guidelines, though I’m arguing here is that such a thing is impossible for any real application. I wasn’t working at Adobe when the decisions were made on earlier products so I can’t say what the actual motivations were. You apparently have no such compunction, and then go on to accuse me of being disingenuous because I don’t agree *in advance* with your intepretation of the motivations behind those facts? Sorry, don’t buy it.

    I do agree, of course, that Adobe wants Apollo to be successful, though I wouldn’t agree it is trying to be “the third platform”. We’re really trying to extend the existing third platform, the web browser, onto the desktop. As evidence, I’ll point out that all of the Flash/AJAX/Flex UIs you point to exist today on the web without Apollo – no new UI conventions required.

  16. > one whose users resent anything that resembles Windows.

    Then I guess they must hate Apple for doing Boot Camp, not to mention Parallels….

    Still, while the planet melts down, it’s very gratifying to hear that Mac users can at least find something to do to fill their lives 😉

  17. I’m a Mac user and lover, with Apple stickers on the back window of every car, and after using CS3 for month, the position of the close pane button has only slightly distracted me from the new power I’m enjoying.
    What I find more disturbing is the lack of really good sound effects as you work. I think there should be more whooshes, and beeps and bongs. A honk, perhaps, when you choose Old English all caps or put a starburst on a page. An Apple chime when you finish a job.
    Perhaps that is what is bothering everyone more than the position of the close button, is the fact that there isn’t the sound of a door slamming when you click it.
    Perhaps in CS4.

    [Andrew says] Now that’s what I call innovation. Consider it done.

  18. I’ll give you a real reason why the palette close button should be on the left: it avoids accidental clicks intended for the palette options button.

    Same thing goes for the “collapsable palette” mode. The close should be on the left (on the outside). Think about drawers on your real-life desk; where’s the drawer knob, on the inside or the outside of the drawer?

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