Tue 16 Aug
Here’s how much tiny user interface cues can matter: this afternoon, I spent about five minutes scratching my head in front of an Open dialog box in Adobe Photoshop, trying vainly to locate the files I’d saved several months ago to a particular folder. They just weren’t where I expected them to be.
The dialog box was displaying the contents of the folder in list view, and I had clicked on the Date Modified column to sort most recently modified items last. At least that᾿s what I thought I had done; the triangle icon was in fact in the correct mode — pointed end at the top, wide end at the bottom. But apparently, some kind of preference file had been corrupted, and the list was actually sorted so that the most recently modifed items appeared first.
I’m only a little embarrassed to admit that it really did take me longer than it takes to put on and tie my shoes to sort that out. Part of the reason is that I’ve never had such an interface cue actually turn out to be flat out wrong, at least that I can recall, so I simply didn’t think to doubt it. A detail so miniscule — the triangle measures roughly seven pixels square — is expected to fulfill a powerful cognitive responsibility by being, essentially, an infallible indicator of state. The glaring obviousness of the lesson aside, it was still a useful reminder to me that, indeed, there are parts of an interface that absolutely must never be incorrect. Even if the consequence is relatively minor, like my five minutes of befuddlement, such an error is nontrivial simply because it’s the last thing anyone would expect to be wrong.
Which reminds me: in previous versions of Mac OS X, the contents of Open and Save dialog boxes would be frequently slow to update. You could move a file into a particular folder via the Finder or some other application, and when you tried to open it with a dialog box, it might be simply missing — at least until you switched from list view to icon view and back, and sometimes not even then. That was really annoying, and a hairy way to run a file system — it was probably the most underrated embarrassment of the OS, especially when Windows users would sit down in front of a Mac. That’s an interface cue — predictability and presence — that simply had to be infallible. In Mac OS X Tiger it finally is, seemingly. It’s about time.