Friday, February 25, 2022

System Preferences Reimagined


As features have continued being added to macOS, Apple has opted to force new preferences inside existing ones to avoid icon overcrowding. Focus Mode on iOS is crammed into the new ‘Notifications & Focus’ tab on macOS, Night Shift is a tiny button on the bottom right under the Display settings, and the Control Centre is managed behind the ‘Dock & Menu Bar’ icon through a process of having the user individually click-through 15+ different tabs to customize their Menu Bar.

And while some settings are crammed together, others feel needlessly scattered. AppleID, Family Sharing, Internet Accounts, & Users & Groups are four different preference icons, while on iOS they are essentially all managed under a single tab.

I’m not thrilled with this particular reimagining, but this is an area that Apple should be looking at.

Shawn Adrian:

Am I the only one who can literally never find a thing on this panel without using search?

I used to know exactly where each icon was, but several versions ago the order changed, then the icons changed, and now I spend a long time hunting every time I open the window. It’s better to just open the relevant pane using LaunchBar.


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I'm not thrilled with this particular reimagining, but this is an area that Apple should be looking at.

I don’t think it works. My impression is it removes one layer from the information hierarchy, when really, System Preferences already has a layering problem. For example, Apple ID already has a sidebar. Where does it go (you could make the sidebar a tree, I suppose)? All those Manage… and Options… buttons are already awkward and bad. Removing one layer here would make all that worse.

Another example: Sharing already has two layers — the list of services, and once you click one, detailed configuration of that service. Except then it adds another layer with the Options… button, and as I’ve recently learnt yet another layer when you right-click a Shared Folder with an Advanced Options… button (oof).

The redesigned Displays is also weird about this. I kind of get what they were going for, but what they really ended up with is two different panes in one; one that shows the arrangement, prominently, and then a second one that does “everything else” the way the old pane used to (with, to be fair, newly added features). That second one really ought to be a detail view of the first; instead, because it’s a sheet, you can’t actually see the visualization of display you’re configuring when configuring it. Why did they do it this way? Probably because they ran out of space.

(The worst offender is perhaps Siri, as also recently brought up here. You click Siri Suggestions & Privacy…, which turns out to be a sheet where you can configure per-app Siri settings. Inside that, there’s About Siri & Privacy…, which is a sheet in a sheet. In that is Siri Suggestions, which turns out to be a disclosure triangle, and Learn More…, which is a not-quite-a-sheet inside the sheet inside the sheet. Neat.)

How do other teams solve this? Quite differently. VoiceOver settings and advanced audio settings are (partially) in separate “VoiceOver Utility” and “Audio MIDI Setup” apps. However, one advantage of that approach is: these apps have room to breathe. They have a menu bar (gasp) with a meaningful, context-relevant selection of functionality. Audio MIDI Setup even has a resizeable window. I don’t particularly like that these are “apps”, but I love how that allows them to break out of the rigid, limited structure of the System Preferences window. Non-resizable; fixed menu bar; few layers.

Which brings me back to BAG’s mockup. I think what’s needed isn’t for macOS to follow iOS’s way and simplify System Preferences into Settings. What’s needed is the opposite: for macOS and iOS to both become more honest about their complex information hierarchies. Imagine if Sharing Setup were an app. It would be far more obvious that you can configure a Shared Folder to do advanced scenarios.

I used to know exactly where each icon was, but several versions ago the order changed, then the icons changed, and now I spend a long time hunting every time I open the window.

Yup. I’ve gotten really bad at this. “I know Accessibility is here somewhere, but where?” I have no idea what, if anything, the significance of the order of items is. General is first because it’s, well, General. But why does Language & Region come after Spotlight? Who knows.

I also still don’t understand the distinction between the sections. One seems lower-level than the other, but then Security & Privacy seems like an exception to that.

Wow he made the icons less distinguishable and put it in a sidebar. This is worse in every metric.

Finding individual System Preferences is vastly easier if you go to the View menu -> Organize Alphabetically.

Not sure why Apple hasn't made this the default. The category-based ordering became indecipherable a long time ago.

To me, what's most infuriating is that the search has been broken for over half a decade. It you type too fast after first focusing the search box, it scrambles your input.

Beatrix Willius

The System Preferences show decades of design with no overall planning.

Why is it too complicated to sort anything in a listbox? In Security&Privacy -> Privacy there are now too many entries on the listbox of the left side. And hunting through the list of applications on the right side is never fun, too.

"I'm not thrilled with this particular reimagining"

Yeah, if System 6 had got this right with its flat side panel, Apple wouldn't have tried something new with every major release of its operating system.

IMO, Apple should take a look at Windows 11, where everything is sorted into a multi-level hierarchy, and is directly searchable from Start (so to find the uninstaller, you just click Start, type "uninstall app", and you get a deep link into the "Apps & features" section, where you can remove installed applications).

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