Rearranging The Deckchairs

Frank O'Dwyer's blog

Usability vs Individuality in the Mac App Store

John Gruber over at Daring Fireball has posted an interesting article about Uniformity vs Individuality in Mac UI design, prompted by a critique of the custom UI of the new Twitter for Mac app.

Key quote:

it’s worth keeping in mind which of his criticisms fall under “this is non-standard” and which fall under “this isn’t good design”.

But this misses a crucial point which is that, almost always, “this is non-standard” implies “this isn’t good design”. Users have a huge amount of accumulated knowledge about standard UI elements which work with every app. So if you want them to learn your ‘custom’ way of doing something, especially something basic, you better have a damn good reason. And you probably don’t.

In the case of the new Twitter it has (as usual) lots of nice and innovative UI touches and is visually stunning. However it is hard to see its lack of a window title bar as anything other than an epic and unnecessary usability fail.

If you’re anything like me you probably went through something like the following thought process on encountering this:

  1. No title bar?
  2. So how the hell do I move the window then?
  3. The little thing with the traffic lights must be the title bar
  4. Jesus it’s tiny
  5. I’ll try to drag it without clicking the little buttons
  6. This can’t be right
  7. Maybe the sidebar then
  8. I’ll try to find somewhere in the sidebar where there is no control and drag that
  9. OK that worked!
  10. Jesus, why do it this way?

Later, I found out that you could in fact drag anywhere in the sidebar, even on a control, and it worked. (Of course, if users expect that to work in every other app, they’re in for some big surprises.)

But this still leaves the question of ‘why’ unanswered. Until the other day, how to drag a window is not something I have had to think about about for over 20 years. Whether you’re using Windows, Mac, Ubuntu, X11, though the look may be different it works pretty much the same way on all of them1^. And that’s true going back umpteen versions too. How to drag a window has to be one of the most portable UI skills there is.

So is there really a good reason to invent a new way to do it for one app, never mind every app?


Fundamentally I think seeing this as ‘individuality’, instead of just bad design, stems from mixing up design (as in ‘looks well’) with design (as in ‘works well’). One is a visual design problem and the other is an engineering problem.


“Difficulty?” exclaimed Ford. “Difficulty? What do you mean, difficulty? It’s the single simplest machine in the entire Universe!”. The marketing girl soured him with a look. “Alright, Mr. Wiseguy,” she said, “if you’re so clever, you tell us what colour it should be.”

The only exceptions to ‘drag the titlebar to move the window’ I can think of offhand are a handful of apps along the lines of Quicktime player, which have no window chrome at all. But with these it’s still reasonably intuitive that you can drag anywhere in the window to move it, because there is nothing else that you can drag. Also as there are no controls, it feels like you can experimentally drag anywhere without unintentionally making the app do something.