VisionThing: 'Face Off

News Item: When Mac OS X arrives early next year, the venerable and familiar Finder will be replaced with a new file-management interface derived from the Next OS's file browser. (See "The Millennium Mac," elsewhere in this issue.)

When I first sat down to write this column, I fully expected to flame Apple for this decision. The Finder is the result of over 15 years of careful evolution. Cycle after cycle of customer input and resulting refinement have created a user experience that is inextricably linked with the Macintosh.

But just as I began to write a carefully worded critique of the strategy, I asked myself: "What if I was faced with the task of improving a user interface that was invented before there was networking?"


I use a Mac not because I feel a sense of loyalty toward Apple or have some powerful religious fervor about the Macintosh. I use a Mac because I believe the Mac OS provides the best way for people to interact with their computers. I started using a Mac back in 1984 because I recognized what a leap forward the Mac interface was, and I continue to use it to this day for the very same reason. And I like to think that if someone other than Apple came along with a better way for me to interact with a computer, that I would stop using a Mac and start using this amazing new computer and its amazing new interface.

A computer is just a tool–incredibly adaptable and powerful, but a tool nonetheless. We must always be open to the possibility that no matter how accustomed we are to a particular tool, there might be a superior tool for performing the same tasks.

So I'm open to the idea that there might be a better way to manipulate files and work with resources on a network than the Finder. In May, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said that better way is a side-scrolling File Viewer that allows users to follow a hierarchical path to whatever files they're looking for. The advantage to this approach is clear: a single window can display all the folders and files at each level, without interceding windows obscuring the user's view. I can see this approach being especially helpful for new users, who constantly misplace files behind windows or lose track of where they are in the hierarchy of their hard drive while using the Finder.

But more sophisticated users, who might want to work with files in different branches of the hierarchy, would need to open multiple windows in order to perform tasks. The clean, straight-line approach of the scrolling viewer would quickly lose its clarity, as users struggled with multiple views displaying directories that might overlap in some places but not in others.


While a Next-style viewer would be simpler and offer more flexibility, it could also confuse and complicate aspects of the user experience, compared to what the Finder offers. My solution? Offer both. Just as the Finder today offers several ways to view files–sorted lists, big icons, little icons, single-clickable buttons–the new Finder could offer both viewer windows and old-style Finder windows.

Users could choose either the new interface or the classic one, and might even mix both. A viewer window could be open for viewing files on a remote server, while application icons are displayed in a Finder-like window, allowing users to drag-and-drop between the two. More than offering users choice, the two views could work together in an interface that's more powerful and more flexible than the sum of its parts.

Apple has had a lot of success lately in limiting user choice. Replacing standard serial and ADB with USB proved to be the only way to get USB accepted by the mainstream.

Some would argue that the only way to get users to change is to remove all other options. But I think you're just as likely to alienate users as you are to enlighten them by forcing a new metaphor on them. Others would no doubt observe that mixing metaphors is never a good thing to do, whether you're a writer or an interface designer. To them, I say: "Fine–then give the people both and let the user decide which is better."

I have no doubt that by changing the Finder, Apple is trying to develop a better way for users to interact with their computer. So why not provide both and let Mac users decide over time which view works best for them?

Questions? Comments? E-mail them to Andy at visionthing@macworld.com.

August 1999 page: 23

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