Usability – Leopard Dock and iTunes


In school, when working on UI development and web applications, I focused greatly on users and how they would interact with the application to accomplish tasks as part of a larger workflow. One of the key things that we have to try to focus on when designing interfaces is to come to a mental model that is the same as the user’s. Any designer who expects their user to stretch their mind to try to match the designer’s mental model is an idiot. Rather, the designer should be the one to make sure that the user understands what the interface does. If you’re in a general subject, or have no idea how to approach designing your app, you can start by looking at other apps on the same platform, and working from that point. At the very least, your app can act like other apps on the same platform; it can at least be consistent.

And that brings me to the first rant regarding UI design on the Mac OS: consistency. Apple has made good strides – with Leopard, at least – to pull the UI back to one consistent style and way of doing things. The trouble is, we still have some Carbon hold-outs and some apps that look and act completely differently. John Gruber had a write-up about this topic back in 2003, but I take the opposite stance on the idea of “click-through”…

Safari supports click-through for most interface elements. This means that even when a Safari window isn’t in the front (including when Safari isn’t the current application), you can click on its toolbar buttons. iTunes does not support click-through, so you can click anywhere in a background iTunes window and the click will simply bring the window to the front. (Except of course for the window titlebar buttons – close, minimize, zoom – which now support click-through system-wide in Mac OS X, which is an entirely other story.)

Safari’s support for click-through is a terrible idea. You might think otherwise, especially if you come from a non-Mac background, but trust me on this. The argument for click-through is that it’s somehow a time-saving shortcut – I see the button in the background window, why not just let me click the mouse once to invoke it? But how much time does an extra mouse-click to activate a window before clicking a button cost you? A fraction of a second, almost nothing.

He goes on to state his case for why he thinks click-through is a bad idea. I disagree with his opinions about it, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make here. In fact, I would still use the Mac platform even if they had kept the non-click-through nature of OS 9 (Gruber came from OS 9, which would explain some of his feelings).

The problem is in iTunes. See, in iTunes, if you click the green Zoom button in the upper-left corner, the app goes into a handy “remote/mini-player” mode. And iTunes, in its normal full-windowed mode will not support click-through, but as Gruber points out a few paragraphs down, the mini-player does support click-through. This is still true 4 years and 3 revisions later. If the rest of the operating system supports click-through, from the caption buttons to standard controls, where is iTunes at in terms of ignoring it? The window control buttons that are on iTunes even support click through all the time. This isn’t consistent – both within the app itself and in relation to the OS and other apps. (Gruber also believes very strongly in consistency. He also published a piece ranting about the lack of consistency between Dashboard widgets and regular apps and their “themes”, back when Jobs previewed Dashboard.)

But there’s a worse issue with usability in Leopard: contrast and the ability to see the status of an app in your dock. If you look at the keynote video from WWDC, the new dock is striking and just really beautiful, and the reflections look great, but I noticed something missing: the familiar black triangles.  Sure, they weren’t that easy to see, but they were noticable enough to tell you what applications were running. They’ve been replaced with something not nearly as good: little spots of light. Their white-blueish color isn’t exactly helpful, because it tends to blend in with the glossy reflections of windows and the desktop. Many windows tend to be gray or white, so the white dot doesn’t stand out. I would have thought that they could do a contrasting visual as we see in the menu bar of Leopard. Allegedly, we’re going to see some minor UI changes before Leopard is released, so I hope this is one of those changes.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate Leopard or iTunes, or any of Apple’s UI work. It’s definitely awesome, and continues to make steps in a positive direction. But like anything in life, it can always get that much better.



Oh, I forgot to say that iTunes’ mini window is actually a good place for background clickability because it allows the user to have a non-intrusive iTunes controller for easily pausing music without having to download and install a 3rd party solution. Nothing in that window can destroy or replace data.


Only the 3 buttons in the titlebar should be available for background clicking. They’re very useful in a background state. But the rest of a window’s content should almost never be background clickable. It’s dangerous. For example, what if the Submit Comment button I see directly below this comment field were background clickable? If I were to background Safari to go check something and the only portion of the Safari window visible in the background was the area around that button, chance are I’d click in that area and probably hit the Submit Comment button before I was ready to submit.

With background clickability, the user has to take the time to look for a safe area to click in, aim the mouse, and finally click. It’s absurd, ridiculous, dumb, a huge waste of time, and can have dangerous results if the user is not expecting it.

Jason Terhorst


I would imagine that it’s due to the fact that most people are used to launching Dashboard via the keyboard or mouse shortcuts. That, and the fact that it’s old hat.


I totally agree with you, Jason. I also think that the green-button-inconsistency is an even bigger issue (not only iTunes, just take a look at Safari’s behavior).


In most images and videos of Leopard, there’s no Dashboard icon in the Dock, why?


The “active” dot is actually blue with a white glow. That should make it stand out on any background.

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