Thu 11 Jan
In the past week or so, I’ve had to update or install new versions of software from Apple, Microsoft and Adobe. Having undertaken these tasks more or less in succession, I noticed something I’d never paid conscious attention to before: how the sizes of their progress screens — the dialog boxes that visually track the completion of each software installation — also served as visual indicators for the character of each application.
If you look at the screen captures below, you’ll see what I mean. Apple’s progress screen for the iWeb component of its iLife suite is reasonably sized and fairly discreet. By contrast, its Microsoft Office counterpart demands a markedly greater amount of attention while, at the same time, projecting an outsized version of its logo behind the progress bar. Meanwhile, the new progress screen for Adobe’s Photoshop CS3 beta release is larger still, even as its progress bars are paradoxically thinner than either of the other two.
In terms of screen real estate, Microsoft’s progress screen is over twice as large as Apple’s, and Adobe’s is three times as large. Yet all three display the same amount of useful information, exactly the same amount. You can argue that it’s helpful to see how the Photoshop installer ticks off the various stages of the installation process, but it doesn’t truly tell the user anything more valuable than does Apple’s, which displays one event at a time in text above its progress bar.
There’s really no truly compelling reason for the disparity in sizes amongst these functionally similar interfaces, I think, except perhaps to visually communicate the power of the software. Which is to say that the Microsoft and Adobe screens presumably help reassure customers who’ve just spent the small fortunes required to purchase these products that they’ve acquired a large passel of powerful tools.
To me, it’s no accident that the size of these progress screens also bear some relation to each program’s complexity; Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop are among the most feature-intensive and frequently problematic applications on the market, and the size of their respective installation interfaces inadvertently hint at that fact. It reminds me a bit, too, of the phenomenon of people who drive exceedingly large cars, or buy houses that are simply far larger than they could possibly need: the concept of bigness, which is often used to connote strength and demonstrate value, can very often communicate a lack of self-awareness and hint at deep troubles. Size matters, folks.
Thanks to Emir Bukva, I’m appending here the installation progress screen from the popular TextMate text editor. It’s shown at the same scale as the Apple, Microsoft and Adobe installers, above. Relative to TextMate’s reputation as a favorite tool of Macintosh programmers turning out some of today’s most elegant and least bloated software, the economical screen real estate that this installer claims only helps prove my point, I think.