The days of consistency are over David 10 Sep 2005

41 comments Latest by Shawn Oster

With the introduction of iTunes 5, Apple removed all and any doubts. The days of consistency for user interfaces in the look and feel department are over. The rise of the web killed it and Apple is riding this new wave with no regards for the old HIC guard.

Sure, you’re not in doubt that iTunes is still distinctively Apple. Just as all our 37signals applications have a distinct flavor. But the devil sure had a play with the details. Apple is injecting the expectations from the widely inconsistent web in the desktop.

Personally, I’m digging it. It’s enough familiarity to make you comfy and enough fresh tones to make it interesting. Not only that, but it shows that Apple haven’t lost the will to tinker with the formular. Changing the chrome rims on their star application (and discontinuing their best-selling iPod).

Consistency is overrated. Change is good.

41 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Nathan 10 Sep 05

When is it OK to be inconsistent and when is it NOT OK to be inconsistent? What are the guidelines?

I personally don’t like to see Apple using different GUI’s for different programs (i.e., iTunes, Mail). It takes away from the consistency, overall feel and uniformity of the operating system. Don’t get me wrong, the new iTunes doesn’t look terrible, but it doesn’t look similar to any other Mac application.

When posed the question of whether or not to change the way iTunes looks, why did Apple decide to change it? What was the draw that was obviously overwhelming to them?

Chris Mear 10 Sep 05

Consistency in the look is gone, yes. But consistency in the behaviour is here to stay, and this is what makes Apple so fab.

Jan 10 Sep 05

I like the new look too. I would love to see it used in other apps too (like safari). Personally, I like multiple themes (if they are well designed). A uniform, consistent desktop is a bit boring to be honest.
It can’t go too far though. Interface elements should remain recognizable. A button can have lots of different looks, but it should still look like a button.

Peter Cooper 10 Sep 05

A point many have missed with the iTunes change is that it’s now so much more efficient. The old style had a lot of “padding” here and there, whereas you can shave a good 50 pixels width with iTunes 5. Mail got the same treatment and became more usable as a result too.

These apps are not entirely inconsistent, they’re just “variations on a theme”, and that’s enough for them to be “consistent” in most people’s eyes.

Stefan Seiz 10 Sep 05

Of course change is good. But applying that to the inconsistencies in Mac OS X (just take finder windows changing between metal and aqua if you click on the know in the upper right of a window) is just — excuse me — plain bullshit (IMHO of course). “Change is good” should never be an excuse for lazy UI Designers or a lack of coordination in a Team working on an OS or other software.

The only thing good here, is that it seems we are moving away from metal. If that will manifest in the next release of the OS in a consistent way, then — change is good. Consistency, after all, is what makes the Mac OS what it is.
And if that is what you meant (the transition away from the established metal look), then i totaly misunderstood you Jason — sorry then.

Stefan Seiz 10 Sep 05

“know in the upper right” = “knob in the upper right”
“misunderstood you Jason” = “misunderstood you David”

Gee — why can’t MT implement editing of comments for the next N Minutes like 37 does that in their apps ;-)

David S 10 Sep 05

I don’t mind iTunes 5, but it does look like they tried a little too hard to remove “excess” chrome, especially on Windows.

Thomas Baekdal 10 Sep 05

As Chris also pointed out. Consistency is rarely about color, or visual eye-candy - but how you interact with the program.

Consistency is still as vital as it has ever been, and iTunes 5 is actually a perfect examples of this. The interaction hasn’t change, the metafors are still the same, people who used iTunes 4 can go directly to 5 without having to redo the learning process.

Apple has with this upgraded their application, without breaking any of people previous skills and knowledge. This is among the best examples of how you maintain consistency and still make something look new.

Tomas Jogin 10 Sep 05

The problem is that Apple is setting the bar here; Apple is showing Mac developers by example that their own HIG is irrelevant and meaningless, that Apple don’t even care about it themselves; that applications should not be consistent, or even use the common widgets or forms available in Cocoa.

If third party developers followed Apple’s queue (which luckily they haven’t, yet), every application would look differently from every other application, and instead of using common widgets all apps would come up with new ones for each useage. If they did what Apple is doing, the Mac wouldn’t stay user friendly for very long.

Eric 10 Sep 05

As others have pointed out, iTunes may be cosmetically inconsistent, but functionally it and other OS X applications are pretty damn consistent. The distinction between cosmetics and the functional aspects of the user interface is important, and to blur the two is silly.

Repeating the “change is good” mantra also lacks some necessary sharpening. Change is not necessarily good. Change for the better tends to be good. Change for the worse tends to be bad. Change for the sake of change is highly dependent on the context.

James Cruden 10 Sep 05


jordan 10 Sep 05

Personally, I think this is something of a preview for how the next version of OSX will look. Mail and the unified toolbar started it, this is the next step.

For my part, I absolutely love the new look.

Marko Samastur 10 Sep 05

Change for the sake of change is in my opinion most likely bad.

I know variations of a theme can be a problem for some people and if this is a problem for you depends on if they are the same people you want to reach.

Phil 10 Sep 05

Actually, Apple is putting out the call that developers can make custom interfaces if they look good and people understand them.

I think Mac users still have enough taste and are spoiled enough by Apple’s apps that if really ugly apps started showing up, no one would use them.

This is really the begining of a new era where design is key over robotic consistency. Computers are more freindly if they’re visually interesting without being cluttered. A completely monotone screen is called a command line. Would you decorate your house in the same color and shape for everything?

And that is the new challenge. Visually interesting UIs without clutter or confusion. It’s very hard to make an application look good and function well. Really, it’s something that Apple almost has a monopoly on.

Jesper 10 Sep 05

“Change for the sake of change is in my opinion most likely bad.” I agree. But I also agree that consistency for consistency’s sake is foolish.

Take a window. Fill it with buttons and other controls and populate it to look like the standard dialog. Take another window, exactly alike, *but* with a different window background look. Surely people may be confused the first time they see such a window if all they’re used to seeing is the other kind of window. But the window is not automatically *less usable*.

Again: Change for the sake of change *is* bad. But the iTunes change was *not* for the sake of change. iTunes takes up less space, and you can fit more data into an app that’s practically built on two lists. The “LCD” display at the top has also been changed for the better - by placing the time to the left and right of the time bar, they could use the second line to show artist/album, making song title a permanent fixture, as well as making the current position in the song a permanent fixture.

The only thing that could even vaguely be considered change for the sake of change is the shift in style, but I’ve seen mock-ups of iTunes 5 in brushed metal and it looks cramped and heavy. We’ll never know the reception that might have enjoyed. It’s all speculation at this point.

And I love it, not the least for the way in which it, finally, ties together Metal and Aqua by looking a lot like Mail. From this perspective, this *is* more consistent, and we can only assume that by making over their flagship apps, they’re moving towards this. The skeptics should consider this.

Christopher Fahey 10 Sep 05

In the Preferences dialogs in Microsoft Office apps, Microsoft has consistently put the same items in the same tabs, version after version, no matter how illogical and/or messy the groupings are, no matter how unintuitive everything is. Most of these settings have been consistent from version to version for over a decade, even though (a) they’ve always been inconsistent between different Office suite apps, and (b) they are often incredibly illogical (with highly-related features buried across multiple tabs, or with inappropriate GUI element usage). Nothing changes in the UI, even as the number of features and settings has increased many times.

I’ve always wished MS would scrap all of the Office Preferences interfaces, to rebuild them from scratch, logically and consistently. But they refuse to do it.

Why? My theory is that they need to keep them consistent for upgrade and training purposes. When you have a product for which tens of thousands of people actually spent lots of time and money getting formally trained to use, you risk losing sales if everyone needs to be retrained to us a million UI changes.

Power users generally scoff at the idea of having to be actually trained to use Word, but I assume MS has thought about this a little bit. If 1/3 of all MS Word users need to look up in a training manual how to change their default document margins, then altering that feature even the tiniest bit risks flummoxing that user. Multiply these changes by a hundred or a thousand (i.e., a complete UI overhaul) and you can bet that thousands of IT directors will tell their bosses to skip the upgrade because retraining costs will sink them.

sloan 10 Sep 05

The issue isn’t consistency of elements from one version to another, its how consistently BAD the apple UI has become over the last 5 years. The Windows version doesn’t even have a window bar in the top left. They removed the whole top left drag area! Tiger is a travesty in many ways… seriously, Apple looks like a company that is NOT built to last. Right now Steve Jobs is making the calls on design and looks and is winning… what happens when he retires? Are they going to find another golden boy? Of course, MS is following right along with mistake after mistake in Vista, so who knows, maybe Apple will live another 30 years…. I believe though, that there will be opportunities for other companies, like Google, that are tech based with tons of cash to make a go of it and knock either one of them off in another 5 years or so…

Marko Karppinen 10 Sep 05

One of the consequences of this change for Mac developers is the fact that you need a lot more graphic design expertise and resources for writing custom widgets than you used to.

Of course, all of this is old hat for web developers, but up until surprisingly recently you could put together a stellar Mac app without knowing anything about pixel pushing (given that you outsourced icon design). This is very much changing with Apple’s new approach and, for example, Dashboard.

Anonymous Coward 10 Sep 05

Hey, what about

thomas Aylott 10 Sep 05

iTunes began as a brushed metal interface in a world of the ‘classic’ os.
Now iTunes is prophesying the new metal of leopard.
They’re not being inconsistent, they’re getting ready for the future.
This is what iTunes is going to look like until Mac OS X.6 comes out.

Julian 10 Sep 05

Yeah, well, doesn’t look bad, but there are some new problems introduced. It’s not exactly easy to resize the left pane where the playlists are as that drag thing’s just one tiny pixel wide. My dad would have a hard time dragging that… on the other hand, you don’t do that very often.

Resizing the columns, which are devided by one-pixel lines too, is easier though cause you don’t have do hit them exactly.

And they took away the whole top-left title bar on Windows. You can’t drag it there anymore and, what’s more problematic, you can’t just click there to bring the window to the front. I always used to leave just that bit uncovered by the other windows. But well, change is good, even if it’s me who has to ;)

Okay, that was nitpicking, they can’t care for everyone, so I better stop here.

Sunny 10 Sep 05

I think you are all missing the point here. I believe they are moving towards a consistent UI in Leopard. Mail (in Tiger) and iTunes 5 are just a precursor of that.

Midnite 10 Sep 05

Sunny, what makes you think that? Tiger Mail and iTunes 5 themselves have different GUIs (graphically). Throw the recent Dashboard into equation and, ekhm, it seems clear that the move is towards *less* consistency.

Matt Moriarity 10 Sep 05

I hope this is a precursor to Leopard’s GUI. If they would replace Brushed Metal with the iTunes 5 style, and Aqua with Mail 2.0 style, I would be so happy. I think they are just testing them out to see if people like the GUIs.

Sunny 10 Sep 05

Well the Unified Title and Toolbar for one thing. And also the sidebar (similar to Mail) and lack of chrome all around in iTunes. I do admit that the radius of the corners in iTunes 5 is disappointing but emphasis is towards consistency. The different shade of gray (compared to say the System Prefs) is also quite nice. So we have a nice choice between light and dark windows. I would like to see all the iLife apps get the darker shade as iTunes.

Dashboard on the other hand is a different animal. The emphasis there is on flash rather than substance. Apple seems to have given developers a free reign over the look and experience of widgets. Expecting consistency on that front is a bit hopefull. Frankly, I am not a big fan of Dashboard but I understand where you are coming from.

Also there seems to be this expectation that Apple should get this right the first time. I think the Unified look will only evolve and get better. For now its fine, but it can (and will) improve.

mini-d 10 Sep 05

I think, Apple wants to make app brand like Garage Band. So, every Apple app has their own identity. Look Garage Band, look another app. They’re almost different. They have, at least a few consistence in some GUI, but the rest is moved by a personal taste.

I wish turn back in the OS9 time. So consistent, so equal, so fast…

Dan Boland 10 Sep 05

Am I the only person on Earth who doesn’t hate the brushed metal look? Anyway, I’m indifferent regarding my view of the new look of iTunes, though I did notice the inconsistency with any of their other apps.

I’m surprised that no one has brought up (well, besides David) the absolutely brilliant gamble that Steve Jobs took in discontinuing the #1-selling music player and replacing it. In order for the gamble to pay off, the replacement had to be even more breathtaking than the Mini, and by God, the nano makes the Mini look dated as hell by comparison.

Dean 11 Sep 05

A couple points…

1. You can drag the window (in Windows) from anywhere in the upper grey area. Some folks here mentioned the loss of the title bar area in the upper left, but this doesn’t seem to matter now.

2. iTunes 5 corrects the one MAJOR issue I had with previous versions - I can now finally reorder my own playlists by dragging tracks up or down the playlist. When making compilation CD’s, it used to be near impossible to change the track order for that “perfect” mix.

(Note: if you have previously created playlists and want to reorder them now in iTunes 5, you’ll have to save out the list to a text file and then recreate the list by importing it back in.)

Ben Askins 11 Sep 05

I’m not really sure what the big deal is. iTunes 5 behaves in the same way as iTunes 4, and the visual change is so subtle as to be barely noticable.

Mark O'Sullivan 11 Sep 05

I hate to say it, but I found the upgrade absolutely repulsive. I actually uninstalled itunes after I saw what they had done. Is it wrong of me to be so turned off a program by a change in look and feel? I can’t help it. I thought it was just awful. I want my old itunes back.

For the last seven years or so, Mac (in my opinion) has been at the leading edge of design in both their hardware and software. This is the first time in all of those years where I feel they fell below the bar. Go ahead, flame-on.

Justin French 11 Sep 05

After the release of the new Mail interface and now iTunes, I suspect that Apple are just growing tired of Aqua, and are busy road testing some new ideas as part of Leopard or some other future release. I think the squarer lines and subtle tones also reflect a sense of maturity. Aqua can grow up.

pk 11 Sep 05

who the hell cares about visual consistency at this level? the interfaces all work expected results. frankly, the various versions of the interface make the mac more usable for me. now, if i have a jumble of windows open, i know what window belongs to what application.

consider as a direct opposite: adobe cs’ crappy interface. everything looks exactly the same, so it’s easy to end up in the wrong application. even more infuriatingly, the same tools work differently in various apps and are in completely different places in the interface. so not only do i need to be hyper-aware of which window i’m clicking on, i need to remember the zillion little inconsistencies between the apps’ tools and window behaviors. it drives me crazy.

kmilden 11 Sep 05

Actually they are trying to blend the brushed with the standard like the new look of Mail in Tiger. Expect to see the iApps to get the interface revisions in iLife ‘06 this January. And the finder as well as other apps with the next release which is - Mac OS X v10.5 “Leopard”

charlie 12 Sep 05

in branding, consitency does not me lack of change. but it does mean that there are to be no large changes, no large discontinuities.

itunes 5 is an evolutuion of the previous look. thomas aylott and ben askins are right here - it’s a gradual change, foreshadowing changes in the whole osx look in the near future.

as a nice anectdote - my kids (boy 10, girl 7) are the main users of itunes at home. when they first opened itunes 5 they both went ‘hey! what happened?’ but were not bothered that their songs, playlist, and all the usability were all the same. in short, they noticed immediatley, but were not bothered in the end.

Meikel Steiding 12 Sep 05

hmmm strange to read that topic on 37.

When apple introduced this Mail look every Nerd with a Usability/Interface interested started this story about consistency and good old days.
I always wondered if this is really a consistency issue we have here. If we take the Mail example again, what’s up with Entourages Look or Eudora? Are those apps, from a consistency point of view, bad as well? I mean isn’t this distinction between the look of different windows/apps adding a lot of usability. iCal brushed, iTunes brushed, Finder brushed, a lot of Shareware brushed. Identifing objects on my desktop at a glance is gettin harder and harder.
I mean isn’t consistency as mentioned here a topic from interaction design? Isn’t that about the behavior of systems and services( And aren’t the HIGuidelines describing the appropriate behavior for standard OS X apps? What does the behavior have to do with the overall look? Basic elements and arrangement should be consistenst for easy recognition and intuition of the following action but is the overall look really such an issue?

I like the new itunes a lot. It is harder, more straigt, somehow it communicates well more self consciousness.

Go straight. F*ck gradients, f*ck curves. Show Edges.


Dan Boland 12 Sep 05

Once I upgraded to iTunes 5, I can no longer see anyone’s shared music unless I show: Radio (in General Preferences). WTF? Does anyone else have that problem?

Ralph Waldo Emerson 12 Sep 05

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.

since1968 12 Sep 05

Wow Dan, I totally disagree. I’m not a UI designer, just a programmer and an end user. When I see brushed metal, stripes, and now this new polished look in iTunes it just makes my desktop look messy. I wish the wrappers were at least uniform and then let the designers get creative with the contents.

since1968 12 Sep 05

Sorry, that should have been “David,” not “Dan.” Although there may be a Dan out there with whom I totally disagree as well.

Shawn Oster 14 Sep 05

It’s good for those that view their computers as pets, it’s bad for those that use computers as occasional tools. As a software developer I treat my computer like those little show dogs people put in sweaters… the right icon set, wallpaper, start up sounds, icons placed just right, etc. so I love UI tweaks and changes.

My mom on the other hand could care less and it freaks her out whenever something that was working changes. I get a frantic call that something has disappeared or a new option as appeared.

As many people that dig change there are those that want something stable, there is no right or wrong here, just the fact that you can’t please eveyone all the time :)