[1] Blog Post(s) About Parenthetical Plurals

Recently, I’ve been specifying a UI for configuring recurring events. I have a number of pet peeves when it comes to copywriting, and in this design, I had the opportunity to address one of them: parenthetical plurals. Take this form from Apple’s Calendar application, for example:

The “s” is conditional based on the number the user enters into the field. But this isn’t print—the form could be dynamic. When the value in the field changes, the software could do a quick evaluation to determine if it is greater than 1, and if so, add the “s”.

I’ve included this behavior in my UI specification. I’ll be interested to see if I get any push-back from the developers. Given the complexity of the form, the implementation of this little bit seems trivial.


Physical knobs are wonderful things. They can be large enough to grab with you whole hand, like a door knob, or small enough to twist between thumb and forefinger, like a radio dial. They can be textured and made with materials to improve friction. They can give tactile feedback as they are turned. They can snap into position or stop turning when they reach the end of their range. They can fit an infinite range of values into a tiny circle. They are intuitive controls that don’t even require the user to look at them as they are used.

However, knobs do not translate well to virtual UIs. All of the tactile qualities are gone, and the twisting motion that is so intuitive to those of us with opposable thumbs becomes an awkward test of hand-eye coordination in two dimensions.

And so, we find another case where Apple’s skeuomorphic designs, while visually beautiful, are less usable than they should be. The latest version of GarageBand has an impressive collection of simulated instruments, all of which provide controls for adjusting the sound. Here, for example, is the control panel for a Bass Synthesizer.

As you can see, they are all knobs. Beautifully rendered, yes, with animation that is smooth as butter, but the first time I tried to turn one, it did not behave as I expected. I grabbed the knob on one side and tried to rotate it clockwise by dragging my mouse in a circle, effectively tracing the knob with the cursor. The knob turned just a little bit, but then stopped and finally reversed directions and turning counterclockwise until I stopped moving. With a little bit of experimentation, I figured out that to turn a knob, you should move your mouse straight up and down. Up will turn it clockwise, and down will turn it counterclockwise. Moving the mouse left and right has no effect.

I wasn’t the only one to have this problem. I got to observe my lead guitarist as he used the software for the first time. He did exactly the same thing I did. He never got the up/down movement, instead discovering that he could control it by swiping up and down on his Magic Mouse (the same action you would make on a scroll wheel). This turns out to be the most elegant method of controlling them, and I’m sure it’s what Apple had in mind.

Apple went to great lengths to design these panels, customizing them for each type of instrument. There are many different styles for different types of keyboards.

Tech Synth

Electric Piano

Vintage Clav

Yes, that vintage clavichord has rocker switches and scratches in the finish. But how easy is it to tell whether the treble filter is on or off? Keyboards aren’t the only instruments that got special treatment. Here’s a bass guitar.

Even instruments that wouldn’t have controls on them have been given the treatment, such as this upright concert bass.

The sheen on the dark-stained wood grain of the knobs and the little notches in them are exquisitely crafted, but I can think of more informative ways to show the settings.

Yes, it’s true that a knob can fit more data in a smaller space. For example, this pan knob takes up much less space than the slider beside it.

It also gives a numeric readout while in use, which the previously mentioned controls do not. But it doesn’t seem like these panels are cramped for space.

Knobs are inherently physical controls. There are better widgets for use on screen.

Face Recognition

Back when iPhoto debuted face recognition, I was very impressed. Today, however, I find that it rarely recognizes people correctly, especially my family members, who are the ones that I have the most photos of. I don’t know why. Perhaps it is because I have photos of them in so many different positions and expressions that iPhoto’s internal model of them has become too generic. Perhaps it’s because I have photos of my daughters tagged from when they were newborns to teenagers. Regardless, I have to type in their names an awful lot when I’m editing photos.

It gets really annoying when I have a series of photos of a group of people. It occurred to me that iPhoto should be able to recognize that several photos are very similar in their composition and then be able to infer names from one photo in the sequence to the others. This could be done based on color, shape, and position, in combination with the existing facial recognition. This would put some of the magic back in the feature and save me a significant amount of time.

In the Details: From where?

I pointed out Apple’s map integration with Calendar, allowing travel time to be specified and thus providing notification of an event when it is time to leave, back in March. Since then, I’ve been annoyed several times by a limitation that has been built into it.

Notice that the travel times listed are “from Home”. Apple has built in some kind of logic to determine where you will be when it is time to leave. I haven’t been able to determine all of the rules, but it seems to take into account the time of day and the day of the week. So, if you are creating an event on a Saturday, it is going to give you the distance from home, whereas an event scheduled for a Tuesday afternoon will give you the distance from work. It will also look at other scheduled events on the same day. If you are scheduling a late dinner with friends at a restaurant, and Calendar already knows that you have a rehearsal at your church scheduled earlier that evening, it will provide the travel time from the church.

That sounds fairly sophisticated, and I appreciate the automation, but when it makes incorrect assumptions, the only way to change its mind is to change the date or time of the event to trick it into thinking you will be somewhere else. To make matters worse, changing the time doesn’t immediately change the options in the Travel Time menu. You have to close the event and reopen it to reinitialize the menu with the new time.

As I said, I do like the automation, but there should be a way to specify the point of origin when a mistake is made. Furthermore, any time the contents of a menu depends on another value in a form, it should be updated every time that value is changed.


Back in May of 2011, Apple sent out a survey. That isn’t something they do very often. And unlike most surveys, this one contained only one question: What is the one thing you would like Apple to improve upon and why?

My answer to that question was better support for a family unit. I wrote about it here. There were a lot of great announcements during the WWDC keynote yesterday, but the one that excited me the most was Family Sharing.

Family Sharing is a new way to bring harmony to your family’s digital life. Up to six people in your family can share purchases from iTunes, iBooks, and the App Store without sharing accounts. Pay for family purchases with the same credit card and approve kids’ spending right from a parent’s device. Easily share photos, a family calendar, and more to help keep everyone connected.

This is exactly what I’ve been wishing for. I’ve been somewhat successful in maintaining a single music library that we all share, but it is error prone and inconvenient for my wife and daughters. We’ve been able to share apps only because I’ve been able to set up the App Store on their devices using my account while everything else uses their own accounts, but again, it’s kludgy. Family Sharing is going to reduce the number of headaches I have to deal with in my role as family IT support. The ability to share calendars will be huge.

It would be very interesting to see the results of that survey. I wonder how many of yesterday’s announcements directly addressed the answers they received. I like the romantic notion that my answer contributed to this feature set in some small way. Thanks again, Apple.

In the Details: Keep On Reading

Safari’s reading list is a really handy feature that I use daily, more often to add new links, than to read the ones i’ve saved. In Mavericks, the reading list was given a new behavior. When you scroll to the end of the page you are viewing, a little banner scrolls up into view displaying the title of the next item in your list.

If you continue to scroll, you meet a little bit of resistance, but if you push on through, you scroll to the next article, which automatically snaps to the top of the window. This resembles the behavior of Reeder and similar RSS readers on mobile devices.

In the Details: Map Integration

Apple has been slowly integrating maps into all of its software. Calendar was recently made a bit smarter. If you enter a location for an event that is in your address book, it will go ahead and map it for you. Then, it will calculate the distance and offer you both driving and walking travel times.

To cap things off, you can select “when I need to leave” as an alert time. Oh, and since you’re going out, why not go ahead and show the local weather while they’re at it?

In the Details: Label Anchors

In Mac OS X’s Dock, labels appear above items as you cursor over them. Typically, a label is centered above its item, remaining centered as the item grows and shrinks with the Dock’s magnifying behavior. At the very edge of the screen, however, that isn’t possible. So, the entire label stays on the screen while its little anchor slides back and forth, pointing to its item.


Unfortunately, if the label is short enough, as is the case with the Trash, the anchor ends up floating away from the label.


In the Details: Not Enough

Apple made a change to the Shift key in iOS 7 that, while subtle, was just enough to cause confusion. In the previous version, when the key was “depressed”, the icon had an outer glow effect.


This effect made it obvious that the button was enabled, because it was obviously different from every other button on the screen. In iOS 7, the only visual change is that the icon fills in.


While this certainly distinguishes the two states, it is not enough to tell you what state is represented. You don’t see the two states at the same time, as I’ve shown them here, so the comparison between them isn’t as important as their relationship to the rest of the buttons on the screen. And while the microphone and delete icons are outlines in iOS 7 (notice that they are filled in iOS 6), that is too subtle a cue. I have, many times, pressed the Shift key to enter a capital only to realize that it was already enabled.

Full Screen Apps

There are some applications that I like to use in Mac OS X’s full screen mode, especially applications that I have running all the time but only occasionally reference, like iTunes, Yojimbo, and NetNewsWire. These are also applications that have been designed as single window apps, and they work quite well that way. I would never use, say, Adobe InDesign in full screen mode, because that wouldn’t jive with all of the palettes. I use three displays, after all.


And then there is an application like Apple Mail. It’s mostly designed to be a one-window application, and that works fine for reading mail in full-screen mode. However, when it is time to create a new message, that pops as a new window. In full screen mode, it becomes a modal in the middle of the screen. It covers up whatever is in the main window, such as the message you are replying to, and you can’t move it.


If you want to reference something in another mail message—a very likely scenario—you have two options: take it out of full-screen mode or press the Cancel button. Now, as it turns out, when you press Cancel, it prompts you to save the message. You can find it again in the Drafts folder. That’s not exactly intuitive.

So, while I want to treat Mail as one of the other single window applications that I run all the time and occasionally reference, running it in full screen mode is just a hassle.