ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms
Musings and Software22 Nov 2009

At work, I use a Mac and a Windows Vista machine every day. I also poke around on XP and Windows 7 from time to time. When I have to switch from using the Mac to using some flavor of Windows, I always wince a little bit. I’ve been trying to work out exactly why.

I’ve always thought that the Mac’s user interface, especially since Leopard, looks much cleaner and grown-up (I have a special hatred for XP’s Fisher Price blue-and-green default colour scheme; thankfully Vista and Win 7 have moved away from that), but my discomfort with Windows can’t just be because the Mac is more pleasant to look at. People often say that Macs are “easier to use”, but how does one measure that? There aren’t wild differences between their user interfaces: both are point-and-click and built on the metaphor of a “desktop” with several “windows” floating above it, and each window contains a “document”. We tend to take that basic arrangement for granted, but it is useful to remember that it really is only a metaphor: one could conceive of other modes for performing the same underlying interactions. For example, a command line interface is built on the metaphor of a conversation: I tell the computer to do something by typing a command, it does it, and then tells me about the result with a line of text.

Of course, most of the time we don’t interact with computers via the command line: we use the desktop metaphor instead, because it is an easier metaphor to work with. It’s easier for us to conceptualize a pile of documents that can be shuffled and sorted and laid out than it is for us to carry on multiple simultaneous conversations with the machine. We can accept this metaphor at face-value and then get on with working on our “documents” without bothering to remember that they are really representations of the underlying computer data. And I think this might be one way in which the Mac user experience is an “easier” one: the Mac does a better job of maintaining the metaphor.

Here’s an example that I hope will illustrate what I mean. On a Mac, there’s a little “grip” area in the bottom-right corner of a window that you can use to resize the window by clicking and dragging. On Windows, you can resize a window with a similar grip, and also by dragging the edges of the window’s frame. While these interactions are superficially the same, there is a key difference. On my Mac, the window always resizes smoothly. On my Windows machines (Vista and 7 especially), the window’s content tends to lag behind the frame. For a split second there will be an empty black gap between the outside edge of the “document” and the inside edge of the frame, and then the document “jumps” over to fill the gap. Well, so what? Does this really matter? After all, on both platforms, I accomplished the same thing, didn’t I? I resized the window, giving me a larger area in which to work on my document. So what if it looks a bit less clean on Windows?

That wily window frame has some other quirks too. Sometimes, when application is starting up on Windows, the window frame will appear before the content, giving you a split-second view “through” the window at the desktop behind it (imagine holding up an empty picture frame and looking through it at the room behind). Then, the window content appears and the whole thing is properly opaque. This never happens on the Mac.

These may be small things that you barely notice consciously, but I think the small details are really important. On the Mac, the window content (the “document”) and the window frame are a cohesive unit. A window is a solid thing, it contains a document, and it behaves in a reliable way. On Windows, you get these constant reminders that all is really an illusion. Every time the window shears apart, the metaphor is broken, and your brain has to work a little harder to paper over the little gap between the metaphor and the reality. The Mac’s interface doesn’t tax you in this way. I think that’s why I breath a little sigh of relief when I switch back to working on the Mac: I know I can just relax and get on with what I’m doing.

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