Yosemite's Visual Design

Khoi Vinh:

My biggest complaint, personally, is that this fresh coat of paint does a poor job on visual contrast. Interface elements are often so light in color and/or so close to one another in color that they “bleed” into each other all the time. The effect is a blown-out look, as if a novice photographer stepped up the exposure on her camera well beyond advisability. In previous versions of OS X, it was common to use dark, sometimes hard edges to help delineate where one piece of UI ends and another one begins. Apple’s designers have seemingly restricted themselves from employing that very basic technique throughout Yosemite, or at least have sought to dial back its use significantly.

Some UI elements, particularly windows, feel washed out and vague. The problem is particularly egregious on non-retina displays, but it also exists on retina displays. Yosemite needs a lot more contrast in some areas.

In other areas, there’s too much contrast. One problem I have is that it is difficult to see where the focus is, since there’s so much saturated blue in the UI. Look at this screenshot, with all of its competing blue areas. Where’s the focus?

It’s in the search field, but there’s a lot of blue to go through until you find the one you’re looking for.

While not perfect by a long shot, the difference between a normal UI element and an active one was more obvious in earlier versions of OS X.


I do want to push back a bit on one particular bit of criticism: the translucency. I’ve seen a number of people complain about Yosemite’s inconsistent application of translucency. You see through some windows sometimes, but not always, and some windows behind other windows are not taken into account when drawing the translucent areas.

I think these complaints are missing the point.

This is not about the physics of light. It’s not about how windows are stacked. It’s not even really about translucency. This is about personalization.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Apple is running an ad showing how people personalize their Macs.

Personalization is important. All the way back to early Macs, Apple allowed users to personalize their computers. Here’s a screenshot of System 7’s Color control panel that allowed you to change the color of your windows.

Yep, changing the color of your windows was a thing Apple allowed you to do back then. Meanwhile, today’s Mac don’t allow you to customize a whole lot of their user interface. You can change the desktop background, but that’s about it. And changing the desktop background is uniquely pointless, since you’re always covering it up with windows. You never actually see it!

Apple’s translucency fixes that. This is not about seeing through your windows. This is about personalizing your computer. Yosemite’s translucency allows you to see a bit of the color of your desktop background, for the first time giving the desktop background an actual point.

Here’s a screenshot from Apple’s website that shows how translucency allows the calendar app to take on a bit of the color from the desktop:

This is not there so you can see what’s behind the window. This is there so the calendar looks like your calendar, not just like any calendar. You like red? Cool, use a red desktop background, and your Mac’s user interface takes on a red hue.

All in all, this feels a bit like what happened to Windows 8, but on a smaller scale. It’s a step in the right direction, but it has lots of poorly executed, poorly thought through details. Still, between the two, it’s hard to deny that Windows 8 is the more daring, more interesting take on what a modern desktop operating system should be.

Yosemite’s Finder is still the same basic Finder Apple shipped in the first Mac. The world has changed around the Mac, but the Mac has remained the same.

Perhaps now that Apple has rethought the visual design of OS X, it’s time to also rethink its functionality on a more basic level.

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Ross Floate:

The internet security world has for years had white-hat hackers—people whose job it is to test code for security flaws. It’s time for designers to adopt the idea. Next time you’re working on a long-term project, appoint a designated white-hat jerk; someone whose job it is to keep thinking about how a person or group with a bit of time on their hands might try to bend and twist your system for a few laughs.

Via Daring Fireball.

Laura Franz:

Text already looks smaller on hand-held devices than on larger devices. This is fine because people tend to hold small devices closer when reading. Current popular wisdom is to preserve the measure by further reducing the font sizes for held-held devices. In practice, retaining a comfortable font size as much as possible better preserves readability. The result will be a less-than-ideal measure but a more comfortable reading experience.


I like Windows 8, but one of the things I do not like is how Metro and the desktop interoperate (or don’t interoperate). After the backlash against Windows 8, I was afraid that Microsoft would backtrack from its Metro design language, but this concept video from Microsoft makes a lot of sense to me, and seems to mesh well with how I use my Surface.

When used as a tablet, every app behaves as a tablet app. When used with a keyboard and mouse, every app behaves like a desktop app. No more arbitrary distinction between Metro apps and desktop apps.

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How to fix your Surface Pro 3

The Surface Pro 3 has become one of my favorite devices. I use it all the time. It’s perfect for the tasks I used to use my iPad for — reading magazines and comic books (the screen size is effectively the same size as a typical comic book), web browsing, playing games. It’s fantastic for taking notes during meetings. It’s a great drawing tablet. And it’s a really good small laptop.

There’s one thing that drives me crazy, though. At least once a day, I accidentally brush against the Windows button, which immediately hides the current application and dumps me into the Start screen.

Here’s the thing: you don’t need the Windows button at all. If you swipe in from the right screen edge, you get a Windows button on your screen, right next to the capacitive button. The capacitive button is completely redundant.

It’s possible to disable the button, but that also disables the power button, which means that, yes, you won’t accidentally brush against the Windows button anymore — but you also won’t be able to turn your Surface on anymore. So not really a great solution.

Here’s the only solution I’ve been able to figure out that disables the ducking Windows button, and nothing else.

Step 1: Buy a thin sheet of foam rubber and double-sided adhesive tape.

Step 2: Cut out a small square of foam rubber, and apply the tape.

Step 3: Stick it on that damned Windows button.

Step 4: Complain to Microsoft and tell them that you want a setting that allows you to turn the button off without also making it impossible to turn the Surface on. Also, put a real button into the next hardware revision. I’ll buy it just for that alone.

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Managing Phone Photos

Michael Tsai:

It’s always been necessary to prune the locally stored photos now and then; otherwise they will consume all the space on your phone. Now, there is seemingly no way to see, from the phone, which photos I should be pruning. And there’s still no way to delete a large number of photos without individually tapping them.


I find it bizarre that there is no way to tell (a) which photos are only stored on the device, (b) which photos were taken with this device, or (c) which photos are on Apple’s server.

While this is incredibly annoying to people who know what they’re doing and want to have the ability to manage photos manually, a lot of iPhone owners — perhaps most of them — do not manually manage the photos on their phones, and would not do so if they had the option. Which is one of the reasons why I think it’s absurd for Apple to still sell a 16GB phone. The people most likely to buy it are probably precisely the ones least likely to understand that they need to manually manages the pictures they take so they won’t fill the limited space on their device.1

I understand why it makes sense for Apple to sell a 16GB phone. They need an entry-level model that gets people into the store so that they can upsell them to a higher-margin model. «Starting at $199» is a great argument.

The problem with this approach is that a lot of people who buy the 16GB model probably shouldn’t.2 When people ask me which phone to buy, I always tell them to buy the largest phone they can. I’ve seen too many people who simply stopped taking pictures with their phones after half a year or a year, because their 16GB phone ran out of space.

A 16GB iPhone has about 12 Gigabytes of usable space. The iPhone 6 has a 8MP camera; that should translate to between 2 MB and 4 MB per picture. If you do nothing else with your phone — install no games,3 record no movies, do nothing at all — your phone will be full after you’ve taken about 4000 pictures. If you take a few pictures of your cat every day,4 eventually end up with a phone that effectively stops working, and don’t know how to solve that problem, this is a terrible user experience.

Addendum: Cloud storage of data will eventually solve this, but not yet. To really be accepted by normal people, it probably needs to be completely transparent. That means unlimited online storage capacity at zero cost (i.e. subsidized by the purchase of the device), and it means constant, good data connections. As of right now, neither exist. Telling people that they will be able to take all the pictures they want, and use the pictures they took in their original quality, just as soon as they subscribe to Apple’s photo storage service, pay a monthly fee, and wait for their phone to have better reception? I doubt that another subscription service is a viable solution. Online storage will solve this, but not yet.

Question: how many of the hundreds of millions of iPhone users have subscribed to iTunes match?

Another aspect of this: Apple is now changing its software to deal with storage issues. For example, the Messages app can delete old messages automatically. However, I don’t see this as a good thing. I see this as Apple’s bad hardware decisions making their software worse. How many people will accidentally lose a message they still wanted to have, because of this feature?

  1. The most casual users need the most high-end computersback

  2. By the way, it’s not just people who don’t know how to manage their phones who would be happier with a bigger one. There’s a reason why my phone has 160 GB of storage — ten times what the entry-level iPhone offers. We’re living in an era where storage space is cheap enough that running out of space simply shouldn’t be an issue anymore for normal people, ever. Every second people spend manually deleting photos off their phones is a second wasted needlessly. back

  3. Which, by the way, will also need a lot more room on newer iPhones, because they need higher-res assets. back

  4. Here you goback

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More Things I've Written

Recently, I’ve been writing a bunch of documents on usability for Appway, the company I work for. A lot of it is generally applicable, and might be of interest to readers of this website.

By the way, we’re looking for UX designers and frontend programmers in Zürich or Chiasso. Here are the job ads (if you apply, feel free to mention me as a reference on your cover letter).

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Phone Sizes

When larger Android phones originally started appearing, iPhone users in particular had quite negative reactions to the trend. BGR’s Jonathan Geller wrote:

The phone is too big. You will look stupid talking on it, people will laugh at you, and you’ll be unhappy if you buy it. I really can’t get around this, unfortunately, because Samsung pushed things way too far this time.1

Linking to Geller’s article, Gruber added:

Hard to believe how much promotional effort Samsung and AT&T are putting behind this thing.

I’m not even going to link to what the Loop had to say,2 but you can do a Google search for «galaxy note» and restrict it to the site to get an impression.

(For reference, the original Note had a 5.3-inch screen. Gruber now thinks that Apple will introduce an iPhone with a 5.5-inch screen, and the regular Galaxy S5 is now at 5.1 inches.)

The interesting thing is that there are a lot of iPhone owners out there for whom — relative to the size of their hands — their iPhone is already bigger than the Galaxy Note was for the men who wrote those articles. It didn’t occur to those authors that their hands were probably larger than most women’s hands, and that the experience they had with the Note wasn’t altogether unlike how many women feel while using their iPhones today.

In that context, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the Note turned out to sell well — after all, in relative terms, a lot of iPhone owners were already using very large phones.

A person with small hands holding an iPhone 5, and a person with large hands holding a Galaxy Note 3; relative to the hands, both phones look similarly sized

On the left, a friend of mine holding her iPhone 5S. On the right, me, holding my Note 3 (that’s a 5.7-inch screen). The iPhone 4 was a bit smaller than the iPhone 5S shown in the picture, and the original Note was a bit smaller than the Note 3 shown in the picture, so a comparison of the 4 and the original Note would look similar.

Here’s another comparison.

A picture of my hand, holding a Note 2; a person with smaller hands holding an iPhone 4S; me again, holding an iPod touch. While the iPod touch and the 4S have similar sizes, relative to hand size, the 4S looks almost the same size as the Note 2

On the left, I’m holding a Note 2. The middle picture shows Ashley Bischoff holding an iPhone 4S. On the right, me again, holding an iPod touch that is about the same size as the iPhone 4S.

A phone’s size is relevant in two respects: relatively and absolutely.

In relative terms, the larger a phone and the smaller someone’s hand, the harder it is for them to use the phone, particularly if they’re using only one hand.3 Men’s clothing is also often bestowed with larger pockets — or pockets at all — which make it that much easier to carry large phones.

But a phone’s size is also relevant in absolute terms. Larger screens can show more content, and they can display content at larger sizes. And your hand size doesn’t matter when you’re using your phone for things like watching movies, reading books, taking notes, or editing images.4

Many people are drawn to larger phone sizes, but larger sizes only useful up to a point—an expansive screen can do more harm than good if the phone becomes too large for someone to use.5 The size at which that happens depends on the individual person.

That’s why phone size is such a difficult topic. It depends on you, and it depends on what you do with it. I’m glad that Apple is about to introduce a larger phone,6 but I also still believe there are people who would benefit from an additional phone that’s even smaller than the 4S.


Via Ashley Bischoff, an article by Zeynep Tufekci outlining some of the issues that phones designed for man-sized hands can cause:

Since officials often claimed that tear gas was used only on vandals and violent protesters, I wanted to document these particularly egregious circumstances. Almost by reflex, I pulled out my phone, a Google Nexus 4, which I had been using on this trip as my main device, sometimes under quite challenging circumstances.

And as my lungs, eyes and nose burned with the pain of the lachrymatory agent released from multiple capsules that had fallen around me, I started cursing.

I cursed the gendered nature of tech design that has written out women from the group of legitimate users of phones as portable devices to be used on-the-go.

I cursed that what was taken for granted by the male designers and male users of modern phones was simply not available to me.

I cursed that I could not effectively document how large numbers of ordinary people had come to visit a park were being massively tear-gassed because I simply could not take a one-handed picture.

I especially cursed that I could not lift the camera above my head, hold it steadily and take a picture—something I had seen countless men with larger hands do all the time.

I’m 5 foot 2 inches on a good day and my hands are simply not big enough for effective one-handed use of the kind of phones that I want to use for my work.

Increasingly, on the latest versions of the kinds of phones I want to use, I cannot type one-handed. I cannot take a picture one-handed. I can barely scroll one-handed—not very well, though. I can’t unlock my phone one-handed. I can’t even turn on my phone one-handed as my fingers cannot securely wrap around the phone while I push a button with a finger.

Continue reading.

  1. As an aside, I don’t understand the amount of hostility in the tech industry. It’s almost as if a tech company releasing a product you don’t want were tantamount to a personal attack on your character. These are multinational corporations who couldn’t possibly care less about us. I don’t think they deserve the kind of (negative or positive) emotional investment that we tend to have in them. back

  2. It’s not hard to guess. back

  3. This also depends on the OS. For example, while Android phones have a back button below the screen, iPhones have the back button in the worst possible position for people holding their phones in their right hand: in the top left corner of the screen. That’s one of the reasons I think that a physical back button is a good idea, despite of the drawbacksback

  4. Which is why there are a lot of women with small hands who love phones with large screens. I’m absolutely not saying that all women want phones with small screens. What you do with the phone has a huge effect on what kinds of tradeoffs you’re willing to make. back

  5. Samsung tried to square this circle by adding a ridiculous tiny-screen mode to the Note 3. Their intention was to allow you to interact with the phone in a way that made the UI more easily reachable with one hand but still allow you to use the full screen when you wanted to. Needless to say, I don’t think it ever caught on. back

  6. One of the reasons why I’m not carrying an iPhone anymore is because I want a much larger screen. back

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I’ve written about the problem of typing Swiss German text on virtual keyboards. In short, since there are no spelling rules for Swiss German, and since there are many vastly different dialects of the language, auto-correction does more harm than good. But since Swiss people often mix German and Swiss German in written communication, simply turning auto-correction off is also not a good option.

As part of her Master’s degree at ETH Zürich,1 Laura Peer has developed an Android keyboard that solves this problem. The keyboard, called Kännsch,2 analyzes the text messages stored on the device it’s installed on. Together with a prebuilt database of words that different dialects have in common, this analysis allows the keyboard to accept Swiss German text without wrongly correcting words. In addition to that, the keyboard is extremely aggressive in learning new words, which allows it to quickly adapt to each individual user’s writing style.

The keyboard sends usage data to a team of researchers at ETH. The words used by each individual user, along with the user’s location, allow the team to continually improve the keyboard, and optimize it for local dialects.

You can read more about it on the ETH News section (in German).

  1. My alma matterback

  2. «Kännsch» means «do you know?» back

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Louie Mantia:

Just the other day I was wondering… what happens now? Not with me, but with the next fourteen-year-olds who are ready to be inspired. Do they look at Dribbble and decide to make things? Do they jump in and make an app?

I started by tinkering, customizing. Just as an engineer might. You start with something that exists and you change it to understand it. You do things on your own. But now… companies like Apple have locked down things like theming. It’s so hard today that no one even bothers. Changing icons is hard too. With some apps you can’t even do it without an app breaking because of code signing.

Most of the people I know listed above have a similar story. Maybe young people will be inspired by our apps, maybe they’ll be inspired by our art. But will they be able to tinker like we could?