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Ten questions on the Finder and user interface

Finder iconI spend a lot of time using OS X. A typical day will involve somewhere between 12 and 15 hours usage, with somewhat less than that on the weekends. I've been doing this basically ever since the Public Beta. After all that time, there are obviously some things that make we wonder "What was Apple thinking?" when they made a certain decision.

So without further ado, here's a list of ten such questions -- in this case, I'm focusing on the Finder and the user interface in general. Answers aren't provided, of course, but please feel free to comment if you have any insight on any of them...

  1. Why can't I sort a Finder column-view window? Yes, the UI would be tricky, but it's quite doable (see Path Finder, which does it quite nicely).
  2. Why isn't there an easy way to colorize the Finder's sidebar? It can be done, of course, but it's quite the hack -- and this one no longer works in 10.4.
  3. Speaking of colors, why can't I colorize (or use a picture background in) a column-view or list-view window? Are only icon-view users thought to enjoy color?
  4. How come a folder in the Sidebar is spring-loaded (you can drill-down while dragging an object), but folders in the Toolbar are not? They used to be, but when the Sidebar was added, that functionality was removed from the Toolbar. I find the Toolbar more useful than the Sidebar (there's more room there, for one thing), but the lack of spring-loaded folder support there is somewhat crippling.
  5. Why can't I add a visual divider to the dock, without resorting to aliases with lame custom icons?

  1. Why can't I change the default Label colors easily, as I could way back in OS 9?
  2. How come, after four-plus years, we're still stuck with only "Blue" and "Graphite" as Appearance options? I don't want to install a third-party tool to modify the system's look, but I'd love a few more options.
  3. Why isn't there a global "disable bouncing dock icons" preference? I hate that feature, but not all programs let you disable it. Again, to get rid of it at present, I'd have to rely on a third-party solution.
  4. Why can't I have a Sidebar on my Finder windows without a Toolbar? I can have the Toolbar without the Sidebar, but disabling the Toolbar also disables the Sidebar.
  5. Why isn't the Finder written in Cocoa? I can understand the decision back in the 10.0 days, but are there still technical reasons that require it in 10.4?

None of these issues are (obviously) so awful that I don't like using my Mac. But if even some of them could be addressed, the experience would be just that much better!


34 thoughts on “Ten questions on the Finder and user interface”

  1. Another very annoying problem: You can set new finder windows to open by default in icon view (the default) or in column view, but not list view! Why not?

  2. froodiantherapy

    Another problem that looms largest for me amongst the various Finder inconsistancies is this: Why does the view options window have a radio button that is sometimes the default setting if it feels like that ruins my entire UI?

    I'm speaking of course about the "This window" "All windows" radio select. If I open the view options window, 97% of the time it's to change the options for that specific folder, but some of the time (and the unpredictability of it is the worst bit for me) it applies my settings to "all windows."

    And while we're on the subject, "all windows" really does seem a misnomer, doesn't it? It doesn't actually apply those settings to all windows (thanks goodness! one accidental click and I'd ruin custom view settings for countless folders).

    Anyway, I know it's not a huge thing, but it's a niggle that annoys me constantly.

  3. I'd be interested in knowing why, in your opinion, it would be better for the *user* that the Finder be written in Cocoa. If you have a definitive source telling which of Carbon and Cocoa is faster (for which task), I'd be interested as well.

    All the discussions I've seen on the subject are half and half, as much so that it makes me wonder if there's a difference at all. After all, both Carbon and Cocoa make native Mac OS X applications, as was explained by John Gruber a while ago. (

    If Carbon is really a second class citizen, why don't we see a blog post a week asking Adobe to rewrite Photoshop in Cocoa?

  4. Neither Cocoa or Carbon are actually better overall. It's just that Cocoa gets a lot of free features from the system. Most programs actually wind using at least a little from the as well, because some things are only possible (or are much easier) in one or the other. Some things are faster in one or the other as well.

    What we need is a rewrite of the finder full stop. Doesn't matter if it's still in Carbon, it just needs to be rewritten.

  5. Cocoa vs. Carbon is largely a choice for the developer, not the user.

    Cocoa is faster to develop new applications in, in general. It provides a richer API, and is less prone to error. It's a little slower to run, because everything is dynamically linked, so nothing can be inlined. Applications are smaller, because so much is available in shared libraries.

    Carbon is faster to execute code, being inlined C++ instead of dynamically linked ObjC. It requires a lot more of the developer, but the end result should look the same and run a little faster. But applications are bigger, because less comes from the common libraries.

    At this point, though, most of the advantages of either environment are available from the other. There are still a few SDKs of Apple's that are clearly easier in one vs the other, and similarly with a few libraries.

    The bottom line: What the Finder needs is to be re-DESIGNED before it's re-coded.

  6. One thing that I really don't get is how the "eject" icon that I have in the toolbar doesn't work for newly-mounted disks or disk images. I have to close the window that first opens on mounting, then reopen it for the "eject" icon to be enabled. WTF is up with that?

    I also hate... I absolutely HATE the sidebar! I'd like to disable it entirely and be done with it. I do what I can to narrow it up to nothing, but invariably some disk image will get mounted and give me a sidebar that is wide open. If I'm going to be stuck with a sidebar, I'd at least like the option to make it show only icons and NO text labels, but even that I can't make stick all the time.

    I'd also prefer to see the entire path leading up to the open Finder window listed up top, rather than merely the name of the folder that's open. If I'm copying from, say, one library folder to another library folder, it's easy to get confused over which is which. Overall, the Finder is still waaaaaay behind in usability and flexibility to the Explorer windows since at least Windows 98.

  7. Apple designs towards "less." It was probably a decision made in the early days of Apple. "More" can cause too much confusion for many users. Although, I'd love to have expert settings available for expert users.

  8. While we're on "small" annoyances...

    Why can't I change the colour and typeface of the filenames under the icons on my desktop? Depending on what I use as a desktop graphic, Apple's choice can be unreadable.

    Why can't I substitute my own icon for Apple's in any file or folder I choose, the way I could with Windows?

  9. Ahh, UI rants:

    1. Click through inconsistancy. Some apps use click through, some don't. Some are even worse in that you can click through for some things, but not others. If Mail is my focused App, and I click on a link in an inactive Safari window, the link doesn't get executed.. only thing that happens is that Safari gets focus. But if I click on a button of an inactive Safari window, the button gets executed. But if I click on a button of an inactive Finder window, the buttons don't execute. Gah. I have 3 monitors of desktop space, don't make me click more times than I have to.

    2. App menu bar should be with the App. Again, I have 3 monitors of desktop space. So that means that when I need to get to the menu bar of an App, sometimes I have to traverse 1 or more monitors with my mouse to get to the App's menu bar. STUPID! Put the menu bar with the App's window like every other OS out there.

    3. Mouse acceleration. I am very accurate with my mouse (years of gaming). I don't need the mouse accuracy to change on me depending on how fast I'm moving the mouse. Give me a slider in the Prefs like every other OS that allows me to turn Apple's stupid mouse acceleration off.

    4. Tiger's scroll wheel acceleration. So now I have to SPIN the mouse wheel to get it to work in Safari.. Great. If I don't spin it fast, it only advances a fraction of a text line at at time.. what good is that?

    5. If MS could write Windows Explorer for OS X, they'd make money. Finder sucks.

    6. Dashboard is cute but useless.. same idea that 'Sidekick' was in 1985, but whatever. But with more desktop real estate, Dashboard is dumb because I could put those apps anywhere. So what's next.. 4 or 5 layers of apps ala unix desktop paging?

  10. ("...If Carbon is really a second class citizen, why don’t we see a blog post a week asking Adobe to rewrite Photoshop in Cocoa?..."

    Well, because Adobe and quite many big software companies told Apple very clearly that they weren't going to do so. Those were the Rhapsody days. That's why Carbon exists.)

    Apple changed the way we interact with List View items when Panther appeared: before Panther you could do selections by the usual means for lists plus as if the items were small icons in Icon View. That means you could, say, start drag-selecting by clicking somewhere at the right side of the filenames and, for example, cover a bit of a long filename with the marquee and select the item (great if you have a bunch of distinctly long filename items to grab). Now it is impossible, plus it is more difficult to drag and drop List View items around: many times you err and reselect instead of drag, or viceversa.

    I absolutely hate it :(

  11. "John wrote on May 16th, 2005 at 8:21 am:
    One thing that I really don’t get is how the...."

    If you are in 10.3 you can click the button in the top right of the finder window to make your sidebar far as disabling it permanently, I don't know.

    As well you can see the whole path if you command-click on the folder icon in the top bar, but a permanent situation would be really nice.

    I feel your pain...copying folders to the same folder (especially when trying to just go to a different hard drive and the brain isn't functioning correctly :)

  12. Ryan Hoagland wrote on May 16th, 2005 at 11:05 am:
    "2. App menu bar should be with the App. [...] STUPID! Put the menu bar with the App’s window like every other OS out there."

    Absolutely, positively NOT. The reason, so far as I know, that every other OS does it this way is that Apple has a patent (Trademark? Copyright?) on the unified menubar. And if they didn't, most OSes (Windows, at the very least) would have already copied it, as Windows already has half-done with the Taskbar.

    Why? Fitts's First Law of User Interface Design: It's easier to click things on the edge of the screen because they effectively have an infinitely targetable area extending out past the edge of the screen. Just slap your mouse in that direction, and it stops on its own.

    Even Microsoft has documents discussing Fitts Law:

    Also don't forget that some Windows applications--Office, for example--creates a "super window" to contain the sub windows, simulating a fixed menu bar at the top of the screen, precicely because it is a good idea.

    Although the extreme case of having three monitors may be an exception (let's not forget that 99% or more of computer users do not), the fact is that Windows' Menu-follows-appication-window design is for most users a UI disaster. It:

    a) Fails to take advantage of the easier target provided by the edge of the screen, making targeted clicks harder, especially on high-resolution displays.

    b) Puts application menus in an arbitrary position, confusing novice users and eliminating the advantages of "learned" menu positions--File is always in the exact same place, no matter what I'm using, and if I'm using the same app I know exactly where all its menus will always be.

    c) Can create extremely confusing situations in window-dense layouts--I can't tell you how many times I, as a pro user, have clicked on the wrong menubar when I have 20 windows open simultaneously while developing on Windows, and how many novice users I've seen do this with only two. Better "active window" visual design helps, but it's still an issue.

    d) Creates akward situations when an app with many menus uses small windows.

    e) Is the source of issues with applications that are open but have no open windows. Though in some cases an app should "auto-quit" when its window is closed, there are just as many cases where an app should still be active with no open windows. This is effectively impossible on Windows, since there is no way to interact with the application if it has no windows open. A Taskbar item that automatically opens a window on click is a sort-of-solution, but it's more a kludge than decent design.

    This issue is the root of why most Windows users seem to prefer to fullscreen their windows--it simulates the consistent menu of the Mac UI--while Mac users can make better use of tiled windows.

    It's also worth noting that for most people, even those with several monitors, the human neck ususally makes it easier to do most work on one main area, relegating side monitors to previews and palettes. That's how I work, anyway.

  13. Yikes--not only was the URL I used above the wrong one, but there is no auto-wrapping or shortening here and it screwed up the width of the DIV on the page. No editing, so hopefully Rob will notice and fix that.

    Correct URL: welcome/dsmsdn/hfactor9_3.htm

  14. Am I crazy or has the behavior in file renaming changed in Tiger. In icon view I'm certain I only had to click on the filename once in order to change it. In Tiger I have to click once to select the icon and a second time to change the filename...which often results in launching it.

  15. I agree with Marc/MarcMarc that the menu bar at the top edge is the way to go. But, I've always been bugged by Ryan Hoagland's problem, namely, that it's a drag (so to speak) to mouse across to another screen to get to the menu bar. So, can't we have our cake and eat it? How about duplicate menu bars, one on each screen (provided that the screens aren't arranged top-to-bottom)?

    In Classic, the Kensington mouse driver enabled you to call up the menu bar under your mouse (it appeared with the menu choices stacked). It dealt with this problem quite well. Does anyone know of something comparable for OS X?


  16. Can we pleeeeaaaasssse once again be able to customise our dear Apple Menu a-la pre OS X without having to resort to a brilliant haxie like Fruitmenu? The standard Apple Menu is stiff serves no purpose other than to get to software update quickly and restart/shut down/sleep my mac.

  17. RE: Menu pop-up where you mouse is...

    This was a feature available under NeXTSTEP.

    I can't recall exactly whether the system had a two or three button mouse, but you'd hit the hit the rightmost button and your menu bar would pop up. It essentially made the menu a contextual one, and (if I recall) made the main menu disappear (although, in NeXTSTEP the menu was a menucolumn rather than a bar.)

  18. Re robg...
    "Why can’t I change the default Label colors easily, as I could way back in OS 9?"

    I really miss being able to do this too. I don't care about the label names, I care about the colours and their order.

    Re Ryan Hoagland...
    "Put the menu bar with the App’s window like every other OS out there."

    Ugh, no thanks. That is what annoys me no end under Windows. Marc explained it all far better than I can, so I won't say anything else, other than that I don't want Apple to change this. (Although the replication of the menu bar over multiple monitors, or choosing which one to put the menu bar on seems a fairly good idea.)

    Re Heath...
    "Can we pleeeeaaaasssse once again be able to customise our dear Apple Menu a-la pre OS X without having to resort to a brilliant haxie like Fruitmenu?"

    I'd settle for just an extra three additions to the menu: Applications, Utilities and (if installed) Developer. As it is, the first thing I do on a newly-installed OS X is add shortcuts to these folders to the Dock... but I'd much prefer them under the Apple menu, where they should be!

  19. jamesconroyfinn

    Finder is not inadequate. It does exactly what it says on the tin. It finds.

    Rob is right. There are small issues with usability but overall Finder is lovely.

    If you have so many serious issues with Finder either use Terminal, a 3rd-party Finder alternative or Windows.

  20. Apple allows for very easy selection of which monitor to place the Menu Bar on. Simply go into the Arrangement section of your Displays Preference Panel and drag the menu bar to your preferred monitor.

  21. Regarding whether the application menu should be at the top of the screen or the top of the app window—how about neither? The most usable OS I have ever worked with pound-for-pound remains Acorn's Risc OS—and that came out in 1987. Their solution? The main app menu *was* the 'contextual' menu, albeit more of a pop-up menu in this case. Ergo, hardly any extraneous mouse movements at all!

  22. My bigges minus in finder are:

    1) no colored folder icons if I color folder

    2) no icons on folders, and this is really annoying if you have several folders in the sidebar, and some of them have the same name

    3) mouse over full path for sidebar dragged folders

    4) be able to go "back" when drag'n'drop a file. I can go into folders (move file over folder and wait) but there is no way to go back easily (except you are in the panes view).

  23. You can choose which monitor the menubar shows up by dragging the small representation of it in the 'Arrangement' tab of the Displays preference pane.

  24. Pingback: Musings of a Chicagoan

  25. Ideas:

    I would like a tiled option for window backgrounds. Also, have options for the desktop picture to be aware of the menu bar, and shrink the picture down to the size of the actual desktop.

    Also I would love it if the window title would show the icon and name of the disk that your looking at, or if it would at least show it highlighted in the sidebar. Try opening a folder that is not in the sidebar to see what I mean.

    An option for a unified sidebar in the Finder would be good - have it permanently to the side of the screen. Any ideas?

    A 'pit' or 'cell' where you can temporarily put a file or folder for those hard drag and drops.

    Witch like switcher - have the same app switcher but show the windows underneath, but only for the currently highlighted app icon.

    Custom toolbars for particular folders.

    Custom sidebar icons for apps. e.g. Script Editor could have your scripts folder there for easy access or Safari could have the downloads folder.

    A get info window that automagically disappears off the side of the screen.

    An 'open with' panel, in the Finder, with choices of applications for particular file extension and type, etc.
    An expert mode for the Finder or the System for a higher level of customization or more options. The ability to do anything to a file in the Finder

  26. Re: "Fitts’s First Law of User Interface Design"

    Sorry, but times change and so should the 'rules'.

    What are you going to do when you can finally afford a large display? I'm talking the size of your wall, display. Don't pretend like you don't want one.. we all know you do. So you have your wall as your display with 40 or so applications all running in their own space... this is the trend remember? How many of you still use 15" CRTs at 640x480?

    The excuse of having the menu at the edge of the screen is silly.. I use the menus far less than any other clickable area. Why aren't my bookmarks at the edge of the screen then too? How about my URL or my Mail buttons? Yes system-level things make sense to have at the edge of the screen (Dock and Start Menu), but not application-level.

    Confusion: What's more confusing, that many documents all share the same App menu, or each document gets its own? In OS X, if I select Font-Ariel, does that change the font for just my focused Word document, or all Word documents I have open? How would you know without trying it first? If each document gets a menu bar, there is no confusion here.

    This leads to another OS X annoyance... The user has to know the difference between an App and a document on OS X. On other OSes, the only way to interact with the document is through an instance of an App.. the user doesn't really care what is allowing them to edit a document, just that they can edit it. The annoyance becomes clear when I want to Cmd-Tab between two documents in OS X.. I have to care about whether it's the same App or a different App servicing the two documents. If it's the same App, then I have to use a different key (Cmd-~). Why should the user have to care? In my opinion, Windows and Linux are better here in that Alt-Tab almost always steps through documents. There are exceptions here like Photoshop and Excel and I secretly hope they burn in hell for it. :)

    Re: Moving the menu bar. Sure you can move the Menu bar, but it's still going to be in the wrong place 50% or in my case 66% of the time. Gotta love carpel tunnel.

  27. Ryan,

    Like many here, I think you're completely wrong on moving the menus to the window. The menu reflects the foreground application/document and muscle memory gets you there. Changes affect the currently active document. When I look at it, Macs have always been far more document-centric than Windows.

    I'm not a Windows basher, I use Windows all of the time at work and it meets the needs of the majority of users, but for almost everything you cite as a Windows advantage, I disagree.
    --I've never had difficulty managing multiple documents in a Mac, but I find it to hellish on a PC, especially when they can only be accessed by using the Windows menu or clicking the grouped taskbar button (and in both cases, it's often impossible to identify which window is which in that list).
    --Windows rarely opens a new window for each new doc (in fact, it's against MS interface standards), instead it puts them all in a single window layered on top of each other. E,g, there is no visual indicator in Word to indicate that there even are multiple word docs open.
    --By the way, if you're using MDI mode for any app, how do you know which document (if not all) will be affected by any menu selection? Gee, I guess you have to try it first. Yep--no confusion there. Especially since the behavior is completely different than when not using MDI.

    I don't, and I doubt many people do, want a massive wall display for computing. It makes for a nice TV, but I'm not interacting with a TV. There are ergonomic issues with trying to use applications across a screen so large--eyestrain from continually scanning text across a wide field is an example, and already can be an issue with current displays.

    If you absolutely want the application menu with each doc, then install DejaMenu and you'll have a contextual menu directly under your mouse whenever you want it.

    And by the way, the Bookmarks menu IS at the edge of the screen whenever you use an app with bookmarks. It's at the top with the rest of the menubar.

  28. I must come down in favor of an option of global click through (which can be toggled on or off) and also the option of window-based menus instead of the global, fixed menubar. My emphasis here is on the word, option.

    It's not convincing to say this would be confusing for the user, since the vast majority of people use Windows and they "somehow" manage to figure it out. Millions of people are using window-embedded menus with no ill effect. We Mac users need to get out more; it's simply not that difficult.

    Why should I traverse miles of screen real estate in order to access a command? Yes, there are key sequences, but for those more comfortable with a mouse, please explain to me why it's more intuitive to locate commands far away from the window to which they apply than to locate them in proximity to the window to which they apply (and indeed IN the window itself).

    X Windows (X11) has behaved this way for years -- before Microsoft adopted the convention, so in the event this is some anti-Microsoft impulse, put that to rest right now.

    I agree that those who prefer a global, fixed menubar at the top of the screen should have that option. But I see no compelling reason not to implement this for those who would prefer it.

    I also want to see the Finder join the 1980s by adding the ability to resize windows from any border. And there should be many more global default options -- clearly displayed and clearly identifiable and selectable. The Finder seems to employ all these stealth default options which the user must unearth after days of use (or must consult macosxhints to learn -- and why is this not damning of an interface?

    I think Apple can greatly enhance the Finder without harming its minimalist, elegant aesthetic. Just because you clearly display default options in a dialog box doesn't mean you become Microsoft. And I can think of nothing MORE intuitive than having a menubar attached to the window which it governs.

  29. JohnS, If you tell me that you're still using a 15" display at 640x480, then I'll kindly concede. After all who would want a 23" HD display due to all the nasty eye strain involved?

    Jeff Mincey, I totally agree. All these should be options to the user. I view OS X as still very much in the development stage because there are a lot of options that simply aren't there yet. Another example is that I cannot figure out how to tell my printer driver under OS X to default to duplex printing. Instead, every time I print something, I have to click through a couple menus in the print dialog box to change it to duplex print.

    Don't get me wrong.. OS X is a fantastic OS. I'm definitely finding things in Windows that annoy me just as much. I'm just trying to advocate the things that will fix any annoyances I may have with OS X.

  30. JohnS, by the way: I agree, the grouped taskbar buttons are difficult to sort out when the start menu is on the bottom of the screen (default), move it to the side (with autohide) and then see how much easier it is to find exactly the window you're looking for.

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