Mac OS X: Accidental clicks on column headings

Posted by Pierre Igot in: iTunes, Macintosh
September 28th, 2005 • 9:15 am

This is a rather fundamental problem that I have with a number of Mac OS X applications, and I am not sure there’s an easy solution.

The problem is, in most applications that use a columns-based display of lists of items—including the Finder, Mail, NetNewsWire, and many more—there is very little space between the column heading and the actual column contents:

Column heading in NetNewsWire

It’s a problem in those applications where you frequently want to select the top-most item in the column. Why? Because it’s far too easy to accidentally click on the column heading instead. And when you do that, in many of those applications, the click on the column heading results in a change in the order in which the items are listed in the column, which causes the top-most item to now be listed somewhere else.

This happens to me quite frequently in NetNewsWire, which, as a news feed reader, lists news items in chronological order, with the most recent at the top. A writer posts a new item in a news feed that I am subscribed to, I click on the news feed to see its contents, the new item appears at the very top of the list, and I go to click on it with the mouse and accidentally click on the column heading instead. In NetNewsWire, this causes the column sort order to change, and the new item now ends up somewhere in the middle of the list. I then have to deliberately click on the column heading twice more to restore the original order.

I know very well that there are ways around this problem. For example, I could use the keyboard instead of the mouse to browse news feeds in NetNewsWire (although this comes with its own set of problems). But the fact remains that, sometimes, the most natural thing for me to do is to use the mouse (because my hand is already on it), and quite frequently when I use the mouse I accidentally click on the column heading when I meant to select the top-most item.

This problem is by no means limited to NetNewsWire, but it’s the application in which I experience it most often. I mostly use the Finder in View as Columns view mode (where there are no column headings), and when I have to deal with a Finder window in View as List view mode, I don’t often have to select the top-most item. I use Mail with messages listed in chronological order from the oldest to the newest, so the area where I click most often is the bottom of the list, not the top where the column headings are.

In iTunes, I don’t often have to select the top-most item in the list of tunes. And in the “Browse” view mode with the three columns (Genre, Artist, and Album) in the top half of the window, accidentally clicking on the column heading for these columns is not really a problem, because it results in the exact same action as clicking on the top-most item in the column, which is always the “All” option.

So basically the problem is with applications that use a columns-based view of lists of items and where the user often needs to select the top-most item in the list.

Like I said, I am not sure what the solution is here. But it’s most definitely a problem.

2 Responses to “Mac OS X: Accidental clicks on column headings”

  1. ssp says:

    A very interesting point. I am regularly seeing the same problem. And my impression is that it wasn’t as bad in OS 9. It turns out that the OS 9 column titles had a little (2 pixel or so) shadow/frame at the bottom which wasn’t sensitive to clicks. A small difference in terms of pixels but possibly a large on as far as usability is concerned.

  2. tehrob says:

    I would just have to say that it would be up to the developer to change this.. ie. apple, or similar. I would say the easiest solution is to make the title bar noticeably different from the rest of the selectable text on the screen. As an alternative, like at least one program I can think of doe, you get rid of the clickable sort option and make the user right click on either the column that they want to change, or the title bar it’s self, and have “sort (insert name of coumn here) menu” and it will sort it first acending, then decending. It is a less than perfect solution, but if it happens that often to you, then maybe it is A solution.

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