The Pitfalls of Switching

When writing about installing applications on a Mac, I mentioned a tweet written by Keith Lang (who also wrote an interesting essay on rounded rectangles today). His girlfriend has just switched to a Mac, and he's tweeting about issues she's encountering. The tweets are sometimes funny, often insightful and always interesting. You should follow him and read all of the messages using the #gfnewmacuser hashtag. If you've been using a Mac for a few years, it can be eye-opening to see what new Mac users find confusing.

Here are two gems:

Where is my Application folder? It's not in the Dock, it should be in the Dock!

The Dock seems simple, but it's often misleading in subtle ways1.

I've seen a lot of people who did not understand that dragging an icon into or from the Dock was different from dragging it anywhere else. Especially removing apps from the Dock seems dangerous; a common reaction is "but I just wanted to remove the application from the Dock, not delete it!" when they see it disappear in a puff of smoke.

Not all icons in the Finder are created equal. There are the normal file and folder icons. Then there are disk icons, which appear in the same context as normal icons, but behave differently. Then there are the proxy icons in window title bars. Then there are the quasi-alias icons in the Dock or the Finder sidebar - but even among the Finder sidebar icons, there are differences. These non-obvious inconsistencies are confusing to new users.

A few of the different Icon types found in the Finder

All of these icons look exactly the same, but adhere to subtly different rules.

Her: "How do I delete that" [disk image]

Me: "Drag it to the trash"

Her: "But it changed into that thing [eject icon] ??"

Disk images are strange beasts. Explaining them to new users is hard since they have to learn a bunch of different concepts at the same time to get them. Some of these concepts are contradictory to what most users think they already know about computers.

I also think that changing the Trash can to an eject icon when the user starts dragging a disk or disk image may have been a poor idea. Changing the user interface during a user action is typically bad, since people decide what to do before they start the action. Changing the UI "under their feet" when they start executing an action is often unsettling.


Humans get used to all kinds of strange things. It's important to keep testing user interfaces with inexperienced users; otherwise, you'll miss all of those confusing, counterintuitive things your more experienced users got used to a long time ago.

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But wait, there's more!

Want to read more like this? Buy my book's second edition! Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web is now available DRM-free directly from The Pragmatic Programmers. Or you can get it on Amazon, where it's also available in Chinese and Japanese.