Where minimalism fails With Apple’s Less-is-more Approach

Brian Dillard

This post was previously on the Pathfinder Software site. Pathfinder Software changed its name to Orthogonal in 2016. Read more.


So I’m watching the big Apple notebook event and getting totally excited about the impressive new graphics capabilities. Finally, I’ll be able to get decent visuals on World of Warcraft on a Mac laptop. Then we get to the part about the new trackpads and my excitement wanes. Once again, Apple is opting for ultra-minimalist hardware and then using software to compensate (poorly) for that design choice.

Here’s Steve Jobs:

We’ve got a new trackpad for notebooks. It’s a gorgeous, large, multitouch glass trackpad for notebooks. It’s 39 percent larger tracking area than before, it’s multi-touch for gestures, it’s glass for silky-smooth travel. And we’ve optimized the coefficient of friction on the glass, so it’s really beautiful. And the entire trackpad is the button. It gives you more area on the trackpad and keeps you from hunting for that button. You can get multi-button support from software. And we’ve added some new four-finger gestures that are really nice.

Four-finger gestures may be really nice, but I’d opt for two hardware buttons any day. Whether you’re playing video games or simply using productivity and development apps, you should be able to summon context menus without having to resort to arcane gestures. Apple’s obsession with scaling hardware down to its essence may result in beautiful products, but usability almost always suffers. Need some more examples?

  • iPod volume controls: Ever since the original model came out in 2001, users have had to cope with the iPod’s irritating lack of a physical volume control. If your music library’s like mine, the volume levels change drastically between tracks – even when you tell iTunes to level things. It’s pretty annoying when the track changes from a quiet one to a painfully loud one while you’re busy navigating some random menu. You’ve either got to rip your earphones out of your ears or painstakingly navigate back to “Now Playing” so you can once again adjust the volume. Then there’s the single button that toggles between volume control, fast-forward, star ratings and media info. There’s nothing more annoying than trying to fast-forward through a track using the slider control only to accidentally crank the volume all the way up and deafen yourself.
  • Mighty Mouse: Worst mouse I’ve ever purchased – and also the most overpriced. The promos claimed that the single giant “button” would create a right-click or a left-click depending on how I pressed it. In reality, no matter how carefully I tried to attune my muscle memory, half of my right-clicks ended up as left-clicks instead. In the end, I disabled right- and left- click capabilities and went back to using the stupid option key. Then I really wised up, threw the Mighty Mouse in the garbage and bought an extremely ugly but extremely functional Microsoft notebook mouse.
  • iPhone phone interface: The iPhone works great as an Internet device, but it’s a lousy phone – and not just because of AT&T’s immature 3G network. No, the real problem with the iPhone-as-phone is that its menu system is such a minimalist trainwreck. I can summon my “Favorites” list with a double-tap of the phone’s single hardware button. But to get to any of the other sub-menus within the Phone application, I must launch the app, get my bearings – because the app retains whatever sub-menu I was using last time around – and then click an icon to get to Recents, or Voicemail, or Keypad. Actions that required a single click on a dedicated hardware button on my crappy old Motorola phone take three clicks and a lot of decision-making on the iPhone. Then there’s the menu system once you’re actually in the middle of a phone call – you know, the one that requires you to choose “Keypad” from a list of options before you can even respond to a standard touch-tone interface.

My point – and I do have one – is that minimalism should be a means to an end; the end itself should be usability. Simplifying a device’s hardware does no good if it means forcing the user to think about how the software interface works. I’ll almost certainly purchase one of these notebooks – possibly several. But as with so many Apple products, I’ll curse softly nearly every time I use it. Apple’s products are the best thing going in the notebook market, but they could still be so much better.

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