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The Basics of UI (User Interface)
What are they?

By:David K. Every
©Copyright 1999

The point of this (and all articles in the Interface section) is not to imply that the Mac is perfect. It is not. There are consistency problems, and ways to improve behaviors on all machines (including Mac). But there are differences in degrees of usability as well. And for every one Macintosh flaw (or every 2 or 3 NeXT or BeOS or Acorn interface flaws), there are usually 50 Windows flaws. These problems with quality are what polarize the rest of the world against Microsoft and Windows.

Windows 95 UI is promoted as being "as good as a Macintosh". That is true only for people unfamiliar with the Macintosh, or people unfamiliar with Human Interface design. Even people that are not familiar with WHY they prefer the Mac still understand that there is a difference, and most people experienced with both platforms prefer the MacOS.

The three key elements to good human interface are; predictability, information, and simplicity.


Predictability is achieved by picking a metaphor that the user understands, then staying consistent with those rules at all costs.

The metaphor gives the user some relationship between the program and what the user expects the program to do. A metaphor that looks like a calculator on the screen, should behave like a calculator does elsewhere - no special format disk key, or other surprises. The user uses the virtual device (metaphor) as similarly to the real device; this predictability eliminates training time and allows the user to make associations and jump chasms in self-training.

Consistency means that once you create a behavior you stick with it. Keeping consistent and predictable means; having all windows or menus behave the same, having a shortcut key that always does the same thing (even across programs), and having a mouse button or action always do the same thing. Configurability is often necessary, but is usually the enemy of predictability and consistency because a user can change something so that it is no longer predictable.

Example: Imagine someone rewired your car so that when you pushed in the cigarette lighter it would ignite the cars gas tank. While this might be a nifty option (very James Bond) it is definitely unpredictable, especially if there is no warning label. Ironically, your cigarette WOULD get lit, so the label is accurate. While you might WANT this feature, there is very little reason for it, and the Dept. of Transportation and Ralph Nader would probably protest.


Information display is about how much information you can get to the user, while still conserving screen real estate (and not being cluttered or overly complex). This means choosing what is valuable information and displaying it - and NOT displaying irrelevant information. More is not better, unless you NEED more. Efficiency and relevancy of the data presentation are most important.

Example: Imagine if everything about your car was displayed in a myriad of gauges all across your dashboard; even to the point where it obscured your view - imagine an airplane cockpit and you get the idea. While it might be nice to know what the tire pressure is, or the relative humidity in the cars trunk, it is not necessary information. So this information would merely be available to impress your friends. Not only is the information useless, the overabundance of information and clutter would actually hinder you from getting work done (driving), by blocking your view and making you search for the information you care about. Is that the fuel temperature, fuel mixture, fuel pressure, or just the amount of fuel I have left?


Apple decided that the information on the screen should be displayed and positioned by importance. Immediate actions always appear in the center of the screen (dialogs/alerts/status). It is ordered like western reading/writing; upper-left is most important (first), lower-right is least important.

The menus should always be upper-left prioritized (commonly used). The right hand menus are for switching Apps, getting help, and other lesser used functions. Tools should be on the left of the screen (commonly used). For accessing drives, upper right corner of desktop. This leaves the upper left area of the desktop free for opening windows and viewing/navigating information (since that information is important). The bottom of the screen is for applications/aliases on the desktop, popup windows (for running applications) and so on. Bottom right (the least important) is the trash can, for removing information (and you keep this far away from everything else).

So the information is both separated, and logically grouped, all while being prioritized; from upper-left to lower-right.

Microsoft decided that upper left is the place for their device access. Why? Because it was different from Apple. Sure you can move it anywhere, but the default position shows a lack of understanding, and it keeps snapping back to the default position (depending on mood and so on). When opening your devices on Windows, the devices information is displayed in an area of the screen of lesser import to the device itself (to the right), or the window covers the device (and other devices).

In fact in Windows there are many things that are illogical.

  • Having the trash can close to the drives is not a good idea. Sure it saves on movement, but the point is that when a user is deleting things you WANT more movement (preventing accidents).
  • Having an application bar on the bottom of the screen, and a the menubar on the top of a window, means that no matter what you are always going to have the most distance to travel if you want to copy or link data from one application to another. (Mouse aerobics).
  • Switching Applications, or running applications on Windows are considered "low-Priority" and placed on the bottom of the screen.
  • Closing a window or resizing a window is considered higher priority than doing commands on that windows data (since the close and resize controls are higher in position than the windows menus).

On both machines things are relocatable, but on the Mac there is a method to the madness, on Windows it is just madness.


Simplicity; the word speaks for itself. Never make the user do two steps to complete an operation when one step will do. Never ask the user things they don't care about. The other part of simplicity is to avoid adding so many functions that users can't remember HOW to do something. Simple choices, simple methods. KISS!

Example: Imagine if to start your car, you had to set the manual choke, hand prime the carburetor, crank a generator while simultaneously counter cranking the a manual starter. Of course there would be a shortcut that if you crawled underneath your car there would be a "start' button, but that wouldn't be in the manual.

My examples may be a little ludicrous, but they are only slight exaggerations of what a car might behave like if it were designed by our friends in Redmond. Of course I didn't point out that this was Microsoft Car 3.01, and that half the users of the first two versions have been killed. I also neglected to explain that you need to fuel the car with Gates-o-line, and have the car repaired only by mechanics named 'Bob'. The rest of the UI articles will take apart piece by piece the good and bad of various UI's - from my non-biased Mac-o-phile(1) view of course.

(1) Mac-o-phile as a term is used in the same way as audiophile, not in the same way as the term pedophile... I like Macs, but not that much.


Read some or all of the rest of my UI discussions, and there are some good books on the subject of UI. They all support my conclusion, which is that the Mac is - more predictable, displays information better, is easier to use and understand. Or in other words - the Mac is the better UI. Other UI's are often done well, but Windows is done poorly.

Also in dealing with the GUI, including the look and feel of a computer. Apple is superior in the following areas.

  • Macs use screen real-estate more effectively and make better use of color.
  • The MacOS works better for the mouse, has user feedback and is more efficient.
  • Apple still leads in understanding and implementing Windows, Dialogs, Controls, Menus, and Shortcut-keys.
  • Mac is better at avoiding featuritis
  • Macs are better at displaying status, updating information, and prioritizing the screen.
  • Lastly there is an overall "feel" that goes beyond the sum of the parts.

These are all ways in which Apple has succeeded in creating a machine that is "insanely great", and why Apple continues to be #1 in UI, and why Microsoft's Windows continues to play catch-up.

The uninformed Windows user might be convinced that Win95's user interface is 'as good' as a Mac; the severely disillusioned might think it is better. However, Apple created a computer "for the rest of us," designed by people who understand UI design, and is used by people that don't have to. MS has given us a cheap rip-off of some of the easiest concepts "borrowed", but they are poorly integrated, done without an overall look or feel, and done by a bunch of hackers or marketeers who don't understand UI.

Those that use both computers know that the Mac is better. Those that voice that fact are given various hate-labels like MacBigot, arrogant, or MacZealots -- oh well, I can live with that. I know that I am really just a quality bigot, and Microsoft Apologists hate that.

Created: 01/28/97
Updated: 11/09/02

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