The Graphical User Interface.
Time for a Paradigm Shift?

The Mac OSX "Aqua" interface

Aqua Navigation Button
The new "look-again-look".

The "Aqua" interface will look perfect on Imacs and Ibooks, as the navigation elements seem to be modelled directly on that hardware. The appearence of menus and dialog boxes remind of transparent plastic tools in candy colors.

Appleīs introduction of the Imac in 1998 had been a huge success and is said to have saved the company from disappearing from the PC-market. By introducing an affordable, fast machine, targeting to a new generation of computer-users, Apple also introduced a whole new approach to product design. The use of colorful transparent plastic, allowing users to look right inside the "brain" of their machines, set a trend in all sectors of home-appliances. Peripherial computer hardware like Zip-drives, scanners, etc. but also electronic home-appliances like game-consoles and even flat-irons soon imitated the transparency-trend. Immediately fake Imac-PCs were available, and Apple replied with a lawsuit against these PC-firms. Once again Apple set a standard in design: this time it was the outer look of their computers that was visionary and influential.

So it must have seemed logical to Appleīs marketing experts to apply the futuristic design to the relaunch of their Graphical User Interface. "Aqua" translates the look that proved to be successful in hardware design to software. But software design for overall applications like GUIs has to meet completely different requirements than hardware product design.
Together with the overall changes in functionality of Appleīs OSX, this could as well turn out as a big marketing disaster, as prognosticated by a former interface developer at Apple, Bruce Tognazzini, on his website. 10
He compares Appleīs step to a mistake the Coca-Cola corporation once made, when they tried to introduce New Coke, a sweeter, more Pepsi-like Coca-Cola, and lost a lot of their loyal Coca-Cola cutomers.

The Apple User-Interface Guidelines.

Apple released a guide-book called "Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines" together with their first Operating System in order to accompany users and guide software developers. Appleīs design principles and philosophy of their once so simplistic interface are described and illustrated by "how to do"- and "how not to do"- examples. Together with new Operating Systems up to OS9 Apple always updated their User Interface Guidelines. There is no such guidelines for the new OSX yet. With its overall new design-approach, the OSX interface might now force Apple to completely overthink their User Interface Guidelines, as many statements from their original book donīt seem to match anymore.

Consistency is seen as one of the most essential principles in interface design. Once a user has learned how to use an interface, e.g. where to click for a special action, the learned interface should stay consistent. This should not only apply to interactions within one application, but also to different versions of one application.

Effective applications are consistent in an number of different ways. Consistency in the visual interface helps people learn and then easily recognize the graphic language of the interface. (...) Consistency in the behavior of the interface means that people have to learn how to do things such as clicking and pointing only once; then they can explore new applications or new types of features using skills that they already have. 11

In the OSX interface consistency rules are broken. Menus are not where they used to be anymore, the Finder and its functionality is not the same, to resize a window users now click a button on the left instead the right upper corner, etc.
Apple users are forced to learn new features and re-learn old actions, which can be problematic and confusing for them. However, novice users who have not used Apple interfaces before wonīt have these problems.

When consistency is common, it is taken forgranted and the user comes to rely upon it. But when things we have learned to rely on suddenly become unavailable, it can be worse than if they never existed at all. 12

Another principle enjoyed by Apple users was simplicity. A simple interface, not overloaded with too many features or images, has always been preferred in the Apple-world. This seems to have changed in OSX. Apple now feature the use of giant 128x128 pixels-sized icons in brilliant photo-quality. Definitely no improvement to size- and memory saving bitmapped icons and regarding simplicity.

Keep the graphics of the display simple. The number of elements and their behaviours should be limited to enhance the usability of the interface. Graphics - icons, windows, dialog boxes, and so on - are the basis of effective human-computer interaction and must be designed with that in mind. Donīt clutter the screen with too many windows, overload the user with complex icons, or put dozens pf buttons in dialog boxes.

An interface that gets in the way.

The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I donīt want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job. 14

Bruce Tognazzini describes Appleīs new interface as too obtrusive. Itīs good design, but itīs also very trendy. Especially loyal Apple-users who have become familiar with all the functionalities of the Apple GUI, and who considered their software as an exemplary standard in terms of usability, consistency and design, will be alienated by OSX and the new "Aqua" interface.

Overall, the interface is too obtrusive for professionals. While I hope that is not inten-ded, it is a possibility. It would fit in with Appleīs decision to no longer make professional towers, instead supplying either all-in-one machines or low-capability minitowers with limited slot space, abbreviated keyboards, and round mice. It is difficult to work on your own graphics when Appleīs graphics are constantly demanding your attention. If Apple is interested in regaining the professional market, it will need to supply a softer, more neutral "skin" than the Aqua weīve seen. 15

Drop-shadows and 3-dimensional button-effects enforce the illusion of dealing with a "real" interface. As the interface already is an illusion, using metaphors as prosthetic tools for explaining the navigation, such 3D effects try to enhance this illusion. Such aesthetics may work for product-selling CDroms or websites, but compared to more simple and ergonomic interfaces - when it comes down to usability and time-effectiveness - they will always fail.

Categories like time-effectiveness and usability may not count so much for a website about a new car. Quite on the contrary, the user-experience while navigating through the content is most important here. Once a user gets bored, the site is not appealing anymore, and probably wonīt be visited for a second time.

Why users like paradigms.

Hardly any users get bored by their GUI. Instead they are not aware of its "look" most of the time, although they spend a lot of time using it. Obviously the design of a GUI has to fulfill completely different needs and requirements. It has to be as unobtrusive as possible to provide fast, determined interaction and good usability.

Websites change their design from time to time. In the ever-changing environment of the WorldWideWeb, this is a necessary measure to keep users interested. Of course this should not be the case for a GUI. Users need their standard computer environments to look and work the same every day. They want to find their files where they put them, and navigate through their data efficiently.

To make sure a user can do that, she has to learn how to interact with her computer first. Once she knows how to use a GUI, she works with different applications to solve tasks. By the time she gets advanced, she uses shortcuts for special commands, and maybe knows how to autmate recurrent actions. She becomes a so-called power-user.

Like the loyal Coca-Cola customers, Apple power-users will be alienated by a new product. By changing not only the look, but also the functionalities of the GUI, power-users will have to invest time to learn the new interface. Special things are not where they used to be, and certain tasks work differently. After some time, the power-user (inbetween threatened to being a novice user) is in control again. Many of such power-users might then look for alternatives instead, refusing to learn something new they donīt even find convincingly better than before.

A paradigm shift only happens if there is a new paradigm on the way. And a new paradigm first has to prove that itīs better than the old one.
Is the Mac OSX "Aqua" a new paradigm then? For most of the previously advanced arguments, it is obviously not. It is rather a cosmetic implant that the patient does not want. But the patient seems to have no choice...


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