Monday, September 15, 2014

Apple, Windows, and UI design

No, this isn't going to be a rant about Apple. At least, it won't be after I explain why I'm not a big Apple fan to start with; then I'll complain about both Apple and Windows. This is a rant about UI design and how I'm incredibly sick of  function following form rather than vice versa.

 OK, so I'll start this off with a caveat: I am not a fan of Apple products. That isn't what this is all about, but I know that everyone (including me) gets their panties in a bunch when it comes to their favorite OS's. The reasons I don't like Apple specifically are:

  • Price point; these are luxury items. The OS is a locked-down linux distro. You're paying for a name.
  • Press to click. I hate pressing to click more than almost anything, because nothing aggravates my carpal tunnel more than pressing and dragging with the same finger - and when I want to reset my finger location on the trackpad I have to let go. With my Thinkpad I can move the cursor with one finger and click with a completely different finger, saving my wrist years of pain. (Yes, wireless mouses are nice, but less wrist movement is better.)
  • The fact that you have to use their hardware and software. If I could use their software on a machine that I customized for myself (see trackpad above) I wouldn't have nearly the level of loathing that I do.
That being said: I'm not a Windows apologist. Windows 8 is one of the worst operating systems I've ever seen. I do like that I can put Windows on basically any computer that I've built for myself, but I can do the same with Linux -- if only Linux would run Adobe products. And yes, Windows isn't the most secure environment ever (but in large part that's because it's so widely used and therefore widely targeted). Windows isn't getting a free pass. I do like PC hardware much more than Apple hardware, because I can make my own and it doesn't cause me physical, literal pain. Windows I currently just like better because I can turn certain things off. Which leads me to the bulk of my rant:

When it comes down to it, I'm not happy with either Windows or Apple, because designers need to STOP making things animated and flashy and "pretty" just because they can. In my mind, the ideal UI is one that is nearly invisible - you don't notice it, you just notice that you can get things done with it. I'm currently on Windows 7 (well, the whole house is either Win 7 or Linux; Linux where we don't need to connect with school systems that only work with Windows or Mac and also don't need Adobe), but I still turn off all the animations, fancy see-through color schemes, etc. I basically make my Windows 7 look like it's 1996, because I don't want all those fancy shiny animations and see through rendering load bogging down my system. Of course, I don't really have the option to do this on a Mac, but my complaint is the same: all the major OS's... ok, both of them... are suffering from function following form. Especially Windows 8, ick.

OK, I get it. Oooo, a shiny now toy!  Look, it can do all these really pretty things! That's pretty much how the kids look at their new toys, but the toys that end up sticking around are the ones that are well built underneath, are custom made (or customizable), don't have unnecessary bits that can break easily, and wherever possible can be used in different or more complex ways as the child also grows. The same should go for UI design.

Steve Jobs always said he wanted Apple's UI to get out of the way, but I've found that Apple products love to get in my way: for instance, iTunes takes my carefully curated file folders of songs and mashes them into some order that it wants. This is getting in my way. Windows has tried to do the same thing with its documents system: oh, you downloaded something? Then it's in your Downloads folder. Even if it has absolutely nothing to do with anything else in that folder. Fortunately this is currently turn-offable, but I fear that soon we will be held under the tyranny of having our files stored the way someone else wants.

And yes, I do love Linux, but Adobe stubbornly refuses to support it. Also, the command line is not great UI (sorry, command line friends, but I can double click into a folder faster than you can type into it). 

So, in the end, this is my plea to my fellow designers: stop making things shiny (animated, marquee, blink, parallax scrolling, using the latest and greatest visual tricks) just because you can. Let the UI get out of the user's way and let them do what they want to do, make it easy for them to do so, and try not to dictate what it is that they are allowed to do.

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