What Makes UI Good?

Thanks to a comment from Terry on my post about locking your smart phone, I’ve been digging around looking for ways to make my beloved iPhone more secure.

Surprisingly or not, Apple has made it maddeningly difficult to even the simplest precautions.

Terry’s comment, which I read a bit hastily, mentions changing the root password on your iPhone. This standard operating procedure for Linux-based systems, e.g. your Mac or your iPhone.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. OS X introduced a version of the kernel underlying the GUI elements, so your Macbook and your iPhone both run on modified Linux and as such, can be manipulated using the root user.

OK so, how do you change the root password? For OS X, you can find instructions online, and probably work it out using the Apple Support notes. For your iPhone, you can’t, at least without breaking Apple’s terms by unlocking it.

Please let me know in comments if this can be done without an unlock.

So much for that easy measure of security, but why would Apple make it so hard to take this precaution?

It’s all about good UI.

I read an interesting post on “Why Apple is great at interfaces when others are not“, and the short answer given was because they make UI enjoyable.

Rather than survey a bunch of users on every decision, the Mac team decided each issue among themselves, invariably going for the option that might amuse a user the most, that would give a user the most pleasure, and therefore imbue the Mac with personality.

Usability is not a science by any means, but most people agree that Macs “just work”, which makes them easy and possbily fun to use. But at what cost?

In my Mac experience, I’ve noticed that OS X does like to keep the power user stuff as abstract and hidden as possible. Not that I need those functions very often, but when I do, they’re inevitably hard to find and use.

This is solid design. Make the UI fun and simple and hide the stuff that could seriously bork up the O/S, especially since power users aren’t a large percentage of the market anyway.

And don’t power users have their own choices anyway, like any number of Linux distros?

True, but maybe you’ve noticed that more people (like yours truly) are fleeing Windows for Linux. The diehard Linux types have; it seems like at least once a day, my Digg technology feed has some item about how switchers like me are either ruining Linux or making it better.

Here’s an interesting one from today with very interesting points about how habits from Windows (right/wrong/ indifferent) impact both Linux support and design.

I love choice, and one thing I love about Linux is the choice in distros. So, even if Ubuntu gets too easy and sells out, there will always be a distro for the power users.

Anyway, it’s interesting to see UI evolve, especially when you have a transparent view of why features change or don’t.

So, a typically meandering post, but my initial question remains. Does good UI assume you are average? Is this why I can’t change my iPhone’s root password, and why I have to Google the way to do this on OS X?

Find the comments. I’m interested to hear your thoughts.




  1. Mac OS is not based on Linux. It is based on a Mach kernel and a set of BSD userspace programs running with Apple's user interface on top. Mac OS *is* a Unix, but Unix != Linux.

  2. Thanks for the clarification. I guess either way, it's still a commercial spin-off of an Open Source O/S, right?

    Any comments on the UI points?

  3. I'm not a Mac owner or a regular user of Macs, but my son and one of the project managers I work for have Macs that I have to troubleshoot occasionally. Like the default configuration of Ubuntu, Macs want you to do most of your system administration through your non-privileged user id. Well, not totally non-privileged, but the main user of the machine should have the privilege you need. To execute commands as root, you just preface the command with “sudo”. You will be prompted to confirm with your password. You can continue to issue “sudo” commands for a period of time without giving the password again. If you MUST actually login as root, you can use “sudo passwd root” to change root's password.

  4. Yeah, I'm aware of all that, including su, which I do occasionally on both machines when necessary. Windows started following the same scheme years ago too, i.e. requiring administrator privileges to install.

    You probably know what a pain it is to login to XP as “Administrator”, at least on the Home Edition, hidden by default and all with a blank password if I remember correctly.

    So, the logic is common: abstract the power stuff as much as possible so if need be, troubleshooters can use the uber account. Crappy thing is once default passwords get in the wild and you don't change the uber account's password, you're basically hoping for the best, not preparing for the worst.

  5. Hey Jake,

    As always an interesting read!

    I would actually argue that the problem you faced in finding and using the power user features was due to dropping half of the user experience ball. Good UI is both art and science…Apple's got the art part for sure.

    Based on the quote you provide above “Rather than survey a bunch of users on every decision…” … sounds like the may have just skipped talking to a user constituency (this would be the science part) – power users.

    It is completely possible to design both for novice or occasional users + power users at the same time. The profession calls is progressive disclosure – showing you only what you need to know, but allowing you to easily discover the power feature components.

    That's just my $.02. (maybe that should Euros?)

    – Misha

  6. Assuming that quote/anecdote is correct, we're talking about decisions made about 25 years ago. There couldn't have been many users to survey, at least those with any GUI experience.

    Which begs the question, if you're aiming for transformational, do you want input, or do you just go with your gut?

    Design is hard because it is art, and as such, is based in opinion more than function. Plus, you can rarely throw away the old paradigms and start fresh, like the Mac team did.

    I think aiming for the average user works pretty well b/c it's a larger addressable market, and average users are more likely to give up and dismiss what they perceive to be a poorly designed product. Power users will figure out stuff on their own; that's why they're power users.

    I don't envy designers 🙂

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