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It’s Not About Intuitiveness

Matt Birchler, “Mistaking Familiarity for Intuitiveness”:

But… this rings so true to me in some of the conversations I’ve had with people over the years, as well as Gruber’s recent complaints about the iPad overall.

What gets me to roll my eyes is when people drift into the “iPads aren’t as intuitive as Macs” argument, because that’s kind of insane.

He doesn’t come out and say that I said Macs are more intuitive than iPads, but it seems close. Let me point out that I used the word “intuitive” only twice in my piece on the awkwardness of iPadOS at 10: both times referring to iOS’s “just tap an app icon to open it” interface.

Most people get maybe 2% of the potential of their Macs and Windows PCs today. Have you watched most people use a computer lately? Most people I see have all apps in full screen all the time, no matter how big their screen is. Most people I see use keyboard shortcuts for copy and paste, opening new tabs, but basically nothing else. I’ve seen numerous Mac users download apps, open the DMG, and run the app from the DMG forever because they don’t know you should move it to the Applications folder. Many people have a desktop full of files because the desktop is the file system.

All true. I strongly believe most people would be better off with iOS as their main computer than MacOS — including most Mac users today. It is a problem that most Mac users just store every file they have on the desktop. There is a huge opportunity on that point alone for iPadOS to surpass MacOS as the superior system for non-experts.

But how many people think iPadOS has a good interface for managing files? Crickets. The Mac interface for managing files is too overwhelming for typical users to understand, but somehow iPadOS offers something worse.

As I have to say in every one of these pieces, I’m not arguing that macOS is trash, nor am I arguing that iPad software is perfect and needs no refinement. I’m just saying that humans have a tendency to mistake familiarity for intuitiveness.

Again, my criticism about iPadOS has little to do with intuitiveness. If anything, what the iPad gets right is clearly more intuitive than the Mac — direct manipulation with touch vs. indirect manipulation via mouse pointer is clearly far more intuitive and natural. That’s what makes the state of iPadOS so crushingly disappointing — it has an inherent leg up on MacOS on intuitiveness by nature of its conceptual foundation. The problems with the iPad are about consistency, coherence, and discoverability. Launching the first on-screen app with a simple tap, but the second on-screen app with a tap-and-hold-then-drag-to-the-side-but-make-sure-you-drag-it-all-the-way-to-the-side-or-else-you’ll-get-Slide-Over is inconsistent, incoherent, and requires unnecessary dexterous precision. iPadOS should be less finicky than MacOS, but all of the multitasking features are the other way around.

And then there’s discoverability. Advanced iPad features are mostly invoked only by gestures — which gestures are not cohesively designed. The Mac is more complex — which is good for experts and would-be experts, but bad for typical users — but its complexity is almost entirely discoverable visually. You just move your mouse around the screen and click on things. That’s how you close any window. That’s how you put any window into or out of full-screen mode.1 Far more of iPadOS should be exposed by visual buttons and on-screen elements that you can look at and simply tap or drag with a single finger.

Affordances are not clutter.


  1. I’ve never been a fan of full-screen mode on MacOS, and split-screen full-screen mode on the Mac is as inscrutable as on the iPad. It’s always felt bolted-on. Even the fact that the menu bar is hidden in full-screen mode is wrong. It’s trying to make the Mac into something contrary to its true nature, simply because many people want the visual simplicity of full-screen apps. Again, this is a huge missed opportunity for iPadOS, where full-screen mode is its true nature. ↩︎