Mac apps don’t have to look like Mac apps

October 30, 2009

A common misconception is that Mac apps must look like Apple’s own apps. A lot of developers misinterpret Mac users’ high visual standards as a call for plain Cocoa apps only, with no visual innovation or interpretation. What Mac users are really saying, is:

Give me an app that looks at least as good as what Apple produces

In fact, Apple is the first to break from using standard Cocoa (think iTunes). Do users let this slide only because it’s Apple? I don’t think so. Here are a number of applications (including iTunes) that don’t look like standard apps, and are well received by the Mac community.

Lightroom 3 (beta)
Lightroom 3 has a completely non-standard UI and interaction model, and I love it! The UI is dark and stays out of your way. The “links” in the top right of the window (e.g. Library, Develop etc.) let you quickly adjust your workflow to the task at hand. Overall, the UI is polished, snappy and a pleasure to use.

Panic’s Coda may look like a Mac app at first, but it was one of the first apps to successfully embrace the one-window paradigm, which was very non-standard for Mac apps when it was released (more recently, Adobe has adopted this concept). Coda also helps you switch workflows by changing the active “tab” (the buttons above the document area). This concept was, and still is, something very unique to Coda. Coda won an Apple Design Award, and is lauded as a truly fantastic Mac app.

Pixelmator offers a clean, crisp UI for editing photos. They’ve played off Apple’s Heads Up Display (HUD) concept, but pushed it throughout the app to everything including the document window’s chrome. I think their UI is gorgeous and unobtrusive — it makes me want to use it just so I can look at it.

iTunes, though one of Apple’s own products, is consistently different from the core platform. Even though it’s not consistent with other apps, I’m happy with it because it looks good. I enjoy being able to see what UI changes are in the pipeline, as iTunes has been a proving ground for more general user interface changes across the platform.

I could keep going, but I think the point is clear. User interface innovation is widely accepted by Mac users so long as it is an innovation and not sloppiness.


4 Responses to “Mac apps don’t have to look like Mac apps”

  1. One interesting tidbit to mention might be the fact that the Panic guys came up with a custom toolbar style that later found its way into Leopard – innovation can really go the other direction as well.

    The funny Cabel Sasser did a great presentation about Panic, Coda and design:

    The toolbar episode starts at 22:20

    • Yeah, I was telling Ken that I think some of the folks that try to find differences between an app and the “native” behavior when they find out the app is in Java are just anti-Java and are looking for justification.

      You can’t argue with those people. As someone once said, “You cannot use reason to argue a person out of a position they did not use reason to get into.” Of course, sometimes people are ready to change positions and reason can help.

    • Ken Says:

      Great point Marco! Those who blindly idolize Apple are but pure consumers. There is much room for improvement and innovation, and Apple realizes this comes from more than just within it’s own walls.


  2. But what mac users really do not like are application which looks only a bit like a mac application, like you use the ‘standard’ swing components. Using of a unified toolbar is really important for giving a good impression.

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