Window Dress for Success

Window ChromeNow that Mac OS X Tiger has given us yet another variation on window chrome — the user interface ‘parts’ that frame windows in the operating system — I got to thinking about how they all work together. Well, to begin with, I’ve more or less given up on the idea that there truly is any kind of overarching strategy at work between the various styles of chrome offered by Apple. For instance, there’s no clear reason to me why the Finder is adorned with brushed metal or that Mail 2.0 looks completely foreign from its logical close cousin, the Address Book. Even saying there was, at one point, some kind of tidy logic governing chrome styles, that original concept has taken yet another debilitating body blow.

What Do You Mean

Given the absence of an expressly articulated strategy, it seems reasonable to assume that this is an instance of user interface design put in service to marketing — always a part of usability engineering, sure, but here it’s in a greater proportion than we’ve commonly seen in major operating systems. Taken together, the three dominant chrome styles available in Tiger are pretty clearly making emotional appeals to various segments of the user population. What they represent is a vocabulary, if you will, of imperfectly reconciled expressions of usability — they’re vehicles through which the developers are sending right brain signals about their products.

So, while on the train to the D.C. area a few weeks ago, I jotted down some notes about the way window chrome styles are used and to what purpose, and I tried to decode what it is exactly that a developer is trying to say when they choose one style over another.

What follows is a brief and dramatically unscientific table that outlines my interpretation of each usage, divided up between Apple and, um, the rest of the Macintosh developer universe. It’s a gross division, to be sure, but I think it’s a decent summary of the messages that I’m hearing, at least. I would actually be keenly interested if others, especially independent software developers, are interpreting these things differently.

Interpreting Window Chrome Usage in Mac OS X
Window Chrome Type What Apple Computer Is Telling You When They Use It What Third Party Developers Are Telling You When They Use It
050602_window_plain “We don’t consider this piece of software to be
particularly important or a very convincing tool to sell new Macs, but here it is anyway.”
“We have reluctantly given in to the Aqua sensibility, but we still don’t buy that trendy
brushed metal or other fickle nonsense.”
050602_window_chrome “This is a really, really important piece of functionality, so you should pay close
attention, even if we don’t fully understand it ourselves.”
“It’s not clear how best to use this trendy brushed metal stuff, but you should consider this software
to be as cool as anything from Apple.”
050602_window_unified “Okay, we grudgingly admit that not everyone is crazy about brushed metal, so here’s something
more subdued but still a little fancy.”
“We can’t stand brushed metal, but we want to keep up with the times, so here’s something
a little fancier than a plain old window.”
  1. Hah! Funny and clever stuff….not to mention accurate.

    Personally I really am a fan of the new style (the last one you listed). It seems to work for me on all levels. It’s attractive, but not overdone like brushed metal. It can be easily grabbed and dragged like brushed metal. And it works for me on an emotional/astethic level, too — it’s pretty but not so much so that it gets in my way. It’s toolbar provides a nice subtle backdrop icons can pop off of.

    I like it. It’d make my day if Apple ever came out and said all apps will now use it.

    (Yeah, that’ll happen.)

  2. “I’ve more or less given up on the idea that there truly is any kind of overarching strategy at work between the various styles of chrome offered by Apple.”

    Of course there is not. Have you ever worked at a software company? It’s hard enough keeping two similar products in synch that are on the same codebase. Apple’s products are built and owned by different divisions within the company; obviously there’s no strategy to unify them. I’d say that any unification that we were used to up to now was essentially accidental. I predict we’ll not only never see increased unification, but instead we’ll see more and more dissimilarity as time goes on.

  3. Nice to see your grid getting a workout with that little table, Khoi! This UI issue reminds me of some work I’m doing for a huge university at the moment. The uni has a very strict style guide (and departments can be fined for breaches of it), but nonetheless, every different person I work with wants to “make that heading Trajan” or “Delete the logo” or “Move that black bar up a few centimetres”, just to put their faculty stamp on it and to make them feel like they’re somehow involved in the design.

  4. Heh, thanks Virginia. Actually, that was like the first table I’ve coded in like three years. I barely remembered how to do it, and I still can’t get the little windows to bottom-align with the bottom borders. Oh well, it got the point across, anyway.

  5. I’m actually a fan of the first window type. I find it to be simple and to the point in the same way that most Apple hardware appears, with clean, original lines that accentuate; not interfere.

    I’ve trashed many apps purely because they used the brushed metal window style for no reason at all other than its trendiness. This over-use of metal communicates to me that the programmer/designer was more concerned with making their program ‘hip’ than writing something solid.

  6. “We can’t stand brushed metal, but we want to keep up with the times, so here’s something a little fancier than a plain old window.”

    Any particular reason you said this and used the NetNewsWire app to say it 😉

    Personally I really prefer the new unified theme, I can grab anywhere to drag, and elements of the toolbar sit nicely. Finder and so many other apps would look much less aggressive if they just got it together and used it a bit more.

    Eitherway there is little consistency in their use. But then consitancy got worse with tiger with examples like the spotlight window not belonging to any app anywhere it seems.

  7. cellpadding and cellspacing. Probably one of those two is messing up your borders.

    Anyhow… Apple is surpisingly consistent, but it seems like they’re starting to lose a bit. I have a feeling that a lot of things will switch to the new style for the next release of X (assuming there is one). The interface has been evolving through every release, so…

  8. What is really odd is when you read the HIG on metal windows, it says that some windows ‘look too heavy’ in metal. They show an example of TextEdit with the metal window, and it does indeed look heavy and oppresive. What gets me is that the Finder itself adopts this style, *despite* the whole ‘heavy and oppresive’ thing. Oh, well.

  9. Khoi,
    I’ve just discovered Subtraction for the first time, and I am absolutely astounded. This is beautiful work! I’m trying some new (for me) 3 column stuff and every solution creates another problem. But 8 columns? I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes! (And I found a link to Subtraction from, just so you know.) Really . . . wow.

    Anywho, I personally like all the Apple designs, but not the fact that they are mixed and matched. I wonder why they don’t simply allow the user to select which window style they prefer? Hmm.

    Keep up the fantastic work!

  10. Ooh, proper use of quotes outside the text box. I haven’t seen much out there on the Interweb. Even better would be to use em’s instead of px’s to make it scale up and down with the text size, but probably the folks who are sizing up their text may not necessarily care that the quotes line up perfectly.

    Is this technique used elsewhere in the site?

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