Apple recently posted a useful tip on toolbars in programs like Finder, Mail, Preview, Keynote, Pages etc. I’d firstly like to supplement that tip by saying that if you hold down just the command key while pressing the toolbar button, you can cycle through the various display options: text only, icon only and icon+text, all in small and large sizes. Shift+command cycles in the reverse order.
Exciting stuff. However, that’s not the point of this post. No no no. Instead, I’m going to have a big rant about toolbars in OS X. Take a look at this screenshot:
Here we see (from top to bottom) iTunes, Mail, Finder, TextEdit, Firefox, Address Book, Safari and Preview. All of them, as you can see, have got a toolbar of some description, but this screenshot really demonstrates how “diverse” toolbar design has become in Mac OS X. We have unified metal in iTunes, unified Aqua with “bubbly” buttons in Mail, old school metal in the Finder, Aqua in TextEdit, an absolute abomination in Firefox, a bit more metal in Address book and Safari and then pure Aqua in Preview. I don’t really know what to call all of these, but it’s clearly a mess.
Anyway, this still isn’t the focus of this post. The real focus is on those massively inconsistent toolbars. First a bit of background…
When Apple first demoed Mac OS X Developer Preview 4, they had put a stupid purple button at the top right of every window. Clicking this put the operating system in “single window mode”, which did exactly what it said on the tin — only one window would show at any one time. This was horrible and had thankfully disappeared by the time the public beta arrived. However, as if somehow Apple’s UI fairies just had to put something in that top right corner, a mysterious new button appeared there in 10.0.
This new button was very odd, it could be found in some applications, but not in others. What did it do? Why was it there? Well, it turns out that, in (some) programs with toolbars, it revealed or hid the toolbar at the top of the window.
What?! A button whose visibility is dependent upon the application in question? In the window title bar?! Correct. The formerly sacred title bar area had been polluted with a button whose function should probably have been relegated to a “View” menu or similar. Sadly, this lozenge-like button has stayed with us since 10.0 and its functionality has remained the same. Or has it?
As you can see in the screenshot, only four of the eight programs have the lozenge button in the window title bar (Mail, Finder, Firefox and Preview). Now this is pretty inconsistent, but it gets worse if you look at the functionality of the toolbar buttons in each case – I would say it only functions as expected in Mail and Preview.
In the Finder, the button almost functions as expected, but 1) the command-shift click keyboard shortcut doesn’t work and 2) when you press it with no keyboard modifiers, the toolbar does disappear but the window also changes from brushed metal to Aqua! What? How does this functionality belong here? What were the UI designers thinking when they implemented this? I cannot imagine.
Admittedly Apple isn’t at fault in the case of Firefox, which has its own cross-platform issues to contend with, but it’s worth a mention all the same: in Firefox, pressing the button does make all toolbars disappear (including those provided by plug-ins), but it does so with no animation (as would be provided by NSToolbar). Furthermore, none of the keyboard modifiers work and, worst of all, when you you select the View>Toolbars>Cutomize option in the menubar, a whole world of UI hell breaks loose. The interface for customising the toolbar clearly tries to look like Apple’s interface, but fails on all counts and could have been better designed by a five-year old. Dog. With severe visual impairment. And no limbs.
So that covers those four. What about the four apps that don’t have the lozenge button? iTunes, TextEdit and Address Book offer no customisation of their “toolbars” whatsoever. I think I know the reasoning behind this from Apple’s point of view. In iTunes, one of Apple’s flagship programs (and yet one of its most offensive), they probably use the same argument as they do against theming in OS X – it would introduce inconsistency between different copies of the application (Windows and OS X). But if that is the case, it’s a bit weak.
The iTunes toolbar contains controls similar to those in the Finder, such as View and Search, so why not allow user customisation? I’d like to see provision for quick access to the graphic EQ, amongst other standard toolbar controls like the Print and Inspector buttons (as found in iWork, for example).
Now, I realize that in OS X terminology, TextEdit is displaying a “Ruler”, not a toolbar, but why not allow customisation of that as well? The Styles, Spacing and Lists menus all look like they belong in a toolbar, as does the alignment button bar. Maybe it’s overkill, but maybe it’s not. The Format>Text menu already contains a “Show Ruler” command, so why not just add a “Customise Ruler” command as well?
Address Book certainly seems like a prime candidate for a proper toolbar, again having items similar to those in the Finder. Here, at least Print and Email buttons wouldn’t go amiss and maybe an “Add field” dropdown menu would be nice for quick access.
Now finally, what of Safari? Personally, I think that of the eight apps I’ve mentioned here, Safari comes closest to doing the toolbar “right” because it doesn’t have a lozenge button, but does allow for customisation of items and their order on the toolbar though the View menu. The only place where it falls down is the lack of provision for labelling the items and changing their size. I’m not sure whether Safari uses NSToolbar, a subclass thereof, or something completely different, but in my opinion, it’s a good thing that it lacks the lozenge and yet still provides a fairly standard customisation dialogue which can be accessed from a logical place.
So basically, I would like rid of that horribly inconsistent lozenge button, but would love to see more uses of NSToolbar around Mac OS X. It’s pretty good; the user can select how much screen space it takes up, it animates nicely and provides a sensible interface for customisation. You can even reorder the items in the toolbar without having the customisation dialogue box open – just hold down command and drag the buttons around (except for the homepage button and forward/back buttons in Safari, but that’s a rant for a different article).
Ever since I bought a MacBook I’ve wished very hard that Safari had a lozenge button. I would _love_ to be able to hide/show all the toolbars at the press of a single button.
I agree about the principle, though. And I wonder — does Cocoa or Xcode automatically put the lozenge in when one adds an NSToolbar?
Hmm. I dislike the inconsistency as well, but for me the lozenge is very valuable. Can there be any toolbar more deserving of hiding than NetNewsWire, with it’s one useful item, Search? I need to hide that thing 99% of the time.
“All of them, as you can see, have got a toolbar of some description, but this screenshot really demonstrates how â€œdiverseâ€ Appleâ€™s GUI design has become.”
Firefox isn’t made by Apple.
Wow, nice job summing that all up. The inconsistencies of OSX have been bugging me since I switched from OS9, and I think there’s no excuse for a company like Apple, priding itself on aesthetics and attention to detail, to have such an unrefined UI design. It’s almost as if we’re still in the beta stage for OSX, with all the graphics to be cleaned up before release.
I have a hunch that we may all be surprised by a brand new unified OSX theme when Leopard comes out (and not before then), quite distinctive from the current one, possibly in a dark grey or black color. Then again, this could just be wishful thinking.
While your rant has some salient points, I can’t help but mention that Firefox should really have no place in it.
Not only is Firefox not even an Apple product, it doesn’t even use an OS X native method for displaying interface elements. Have you looked at Camino? That would have been a better Mozilla app to compare against.
It just felt like you were comparing apples to oranges (please, forgive the pun), that’s all.
Garro: I see where you’re coming from – the lozenge is useful in the apps that use it properly. However, I personally just can’t get away from the feeling that something in the title bar should be in every title bar; either all or nothing. I think OS X is actually the only current major OS (or desktop manager) that doesn’t observe this rule as standard – but correct me if I’m wrong!
Corey and Matt: Fair enough. I know Firefox isn’t designed by Apple (and it was the only non-Apple program that I featured), but I just couldn’t help but include it, as I think that Firefox and the Finder are the two greatest offenders in terms of “lozenge” use. The rant was mostly directed at Apple, but also at the state of toolbars in OS X in general… Camino is brilliant and does indeed use a standard NSToolbar implementation.
Todd: I personally just “get by” with Safari’s RSS support (shocking, I know!), but NetNewsWire’s toolbar sounds a little redundant to me… Perhaps the search box should be placed somewhere in the main window?
angle: Thanks very much! I must say that Pierre Igot’s blog makes for a very comprehensive read on some of Apple’s current UI issues if you’re interested in that kind of thing! And I would also like to think that at least some kind of UI consolidation is on the way in Leopard.
I suspect the reason the pill-shaped button (a lozenge is like a diamond) was useful early on is that when OS X came out, the typical Mac had a much smaller screen than nowadays. Hiding the toolbar saves quite a bit of space when your desktop is only 600 pixels high, and it’s a feature you’d want quick access to.
That’s probably why they haven’t bothered in newer apps like Safari and iTunes.
I use the lozenge *all the time*, and I really miss it in Safari (where I have to use the keyboard to accomplish the same thing). I like not only being able to expand my work area (or viewing area), but there’s also a certain Zen-like concentration to having less chrome sitting around. Who needs WriteRoom when you have a lozenge?
I use Iridium. Get’s rid of all those nasty incosistencies. You could use UNO as well
Pingback: Andrew’s Mac Tips Weblog :: Mac OS X Musings Â» That stupid â€œlozengeâ€ button :: March :: 2007
Paul D, the problem with your theory is that iTunes predates Mac OS X — version 1.0 was available only for OS 9. The iTunes chrome was heavy then, but Apple didn’t trim it down until 5.0 in 2005, well after small screens had ceased to be a problem.
garoo’s and Paul Ridley’s comments bring to mind the (animated!) “Collapse Toolbars” command in Internet Explorer 5 for Mac.
Pertaining to the command-click of forward/back and home buttons in safari: I really appreciate being able open a new tab with those buttons. I thought this was a really good idea, and praised apple for a full ten seconds when I tried it and it worked.
Why doesn’t Apple find people like you, Rich, to consult about matters of consistency and UI and the like? It seems a shame that you write about this and care about this and is seems as though Apple does not care hardly as much. Oh well.
“In the Finder, the button almost functions as expected, “…”What were the UI â€œdesignersâ€ thinking when they implemented this?”
This may seem ridiculous when you think of that button in the finder as a “hide the tool bar” button, but it’s functionality was always described in presentations as the “go back to the OS 9 way of doing things” button. It’s sole responsibility was to provide an answer to those users who said they preferred the window behavior of OS 9. So while still a bit odd, it’s at least understandable that the window would change from a full aqua or brushed metal, to what is essentially a lickable OS 9 window.
The fact that the button DOES operate as a “hide the toolbar” in other apps is, I think, the more egregious flaw because it creates confusion about the purpose of the button.
I’d almost forgotten or stopped noticing how different things are, until I remembered I’m running UNO and Mail Stamps etc. It’s not perfect, but it is better.
UNO theme for Firefox
You actually didn’t mention the toolbar “feature” that annoys me the most. In most applications, hitting the little green “Zoom” (resize) button resizes the window to fit the available screen space, and in some apps it resizes the window to fit the content within it.
The developers of iTunes had an interesting idea to change the action behind the green button completely. Hitting that button puts iTunes into a miniature mode… that looks completely different. Granted, this mini-mode looks great and I think it should continue to be a feature, but not at the cost of removing another, very widely used feature! I mean the entire app is a series of lists, resizing the window to fit the content at the click of a button would be a GREAT feature, too bad they decided to remove it.
I don’t think Firefox should be included here. While it’s supposed to fit in (for the most part) with the rest of OS X, it’s intentionally designed to be cross-platform and easy to port to other systems, so it can’t really get to specialized to OS X. That’s what Camino is for.
Also, I’ve been thinking…Maybe the fact that iTunes predates OS X actually explains why it lacks the lozenge button–there was no such thing in OS 9, and they never bothered to add one. For other things like Safari and iLife, I agree with Paul D’s theory, though if this is the case, they should have removed the pill button from the other apps as well.