Thu 25 Jan
Mac OS X’s built-in Address Book is about as unglamorous a utility as any you can name. Aside from the fact that having a system-wide database of contacts that’s available to any application willing to hook into it is incredibly handy, very little about it could be described as interesting. It’s dead boring, in fact.
And yet, the other day, it surprised me. A colleague of mine sent, attached in an email, an updated vCard with his new home address. At first, I groaned a bit, because the relevant information — the new address — was buried inside of the vCard, hidden from view. I wanted it visible in the body of the email so that I could just update his contact information by hand. I was under the impression that, if I clicked on the vCard, it would launch Address Book and automatically add itself again to my contacts database — leaving me with two different cards for my colleague. Not a big deal, but an annoyance.
For whatever reason, though, I threw caution to the wind and double-clicked on the vCard. To my surprise, something unexpected happened: Address Book launched, alright, but a brand new screen appeared, one I hadn’t ever seen before. It identified the new vCard as a duplicate, highlighted the updated data, and offered to let me choose between retaining the original card, retaining the new card, retaining both, or simply updating the old card with the new information. I chose the last of those options, which also happened to be the default.
This is a smartly done and very handy bit of functionality, but the best part about it is that it’s so visually novel. The options arranged at the bottom of the screen, represented as a series of green and orange icons, are the most colorful parts of Address Book by far. Together with the unexpectedly playful, forty-five degree red snipe at the top right that reads “Update,” the whole screen looks an order of magnitude funner than rest of the application.
You can make an argument that the whole of Address Book could stand this level of novelty, and you might be right. But setting that debatable incompleteness aside, what I like about this new-to-me screen is the idea that an application can reveal itself to you over time, that an experience can be designed not just over the course of several sessions, but over much longer time periods.
In my case, it took me literally several years of working with Address Book to encounter this feature. In spite of how much care that the software’s designers took to make the feature forehead-slappingly logical and aesthetically entertaining, they were in no rush to show it to me; they let me discover it in my own time. They abstained from showing me daily tips, forcing me through extensive tutorials, or devising interaction paths that would unnaturally cause me to encounter it.
Instead, they just designed it and figured that when I needed to use it, it would be there — and that I’d be pleased to see it when I did. That kind of quiet self-confidence is rare in interaction design, I think; it represents a kind of maturity that we’re still working up to: the ability to hold back, to trust the users to embrace applications as a whole and to encounter details over time, to act more like artists than marketers. I know, I know. We’re just talking about a duplication dialog box here, essentially, and this is all a bit of an Apple fanatic’s triumphalism. But sometimes big ideas start with small notions.