Finder: More on selection highlighting in column view

Posted by Pierre Igot in: Macintosh
September 26th, 2009 • 9:45 am

My recent posts about dragging and selection behaviours in Mail, the Finder, etc. have been generating a certain amount of e-mail correspondence. It is obviously an issue that strikes a chord with a number of Mac users.

And it is also quite obvious that even experienced users—including myself—have various degrees of awareness of how things actually work in Mac OS X—let alone why they work the way they work.

To take yesterday’s post about the apparently inconsistent behaviour in the Finder in windows in column view as an example, it has been pointed out to me that there is actually a visual difference between the situation after clicking on a folder in column view and the situation after deleting selected items within that folder.

While the two situations produce an almost identical result, which is that the enclosing folder is selected and highlighted in the foreground selection colour, in the first situation (after clicking on the folder), the triangle next to the folder’s name is solid white:

Solid triangle

On the other hand, when the folder in question is selected by the Finder after the user deletes items within it, the triangle next to the folder’s name is only an outline:


It’s a very small difference (of a few pixels) and I suspect that there are many Mac users who have never noticed it. Yet this is the only difference between the state where select and select all will go to the next column (solid triangle) and the state where select and select all will go to the current column. (In both cases, command-Delete will delete the selected folder.)

Now, if the only way to obtain the triangle outline was to delete something in the folder’s contents, it would make little sense to have a separate state just for this situation. But you can also get the triangle outline (instead of the solid triangle) by using keyboard navigation in a Finder window in column view. Unlike mouse clicks, keyboard navigation with the cursor keys in column view selects folders without putting them in this “forwarding” mode where select and select all apply to the next column on the right.

Still, I find it questionable that an action that does not necessarily involve the keyboard (deleting selected items inside an enclosing folder, which you can do by dragging these items to the trash with the mouse) leads to a different state that is typically obtained with keyboard navigation. It seems somewhat arbitrary and definitely confusing to me.

And more generally, I have to say that the two different triangles are far too subtle a difference to indicate such a difference in the way the window will now respond to a command such as “Select All.”

The bottom line is that, contrary to what I said in my post yesterday, there is some sort of logic to the whole thing. But it seems to me that it is a logic that is far from intuitive and predictable.

Apple’s engineers can hide behind the fact that they use the two states of the triangle to reflect the two different states, but the fact remains that this whole thing is not very intuitive and ends up giving the impression of inconsistency, which forces the user to use redundant mouse clicks just to make sure that his selection is what it appears to be and will do what he expects it to do.

I should also note that I have found yet another scenario where things appears to be inconsistent. Say I have selected a folder in column view and I use shift-command-N to create a folder inside it and press Enter to validate its name:

New folder

Now look at what happens when I press command-Delete to move that selected item to the trash:

Deleted new folder

Instead of doing what it does when you delete a selected item that is a file (and not a folder), i.e. switch the focus to the previous column with the enclosing folder highlighted in the foreground colour and the triangle outlined, this time the Finder just deletes the folder but leaves the previous column in the background with the enclosing folder highlighted in the background selection colour and with a triangle in solid black!

Once again, why is there a difference here? There might be a logic to it, but it’s far from obvious, and once again it gives the user the impression that he is not in control and has to use multiple redundant gestures to achieve what he wants to do.

I think that, more generally, there is simply a lack of intuitiveness in the Finder with its mix of spatial and non-spatial navigation, and that things have been stagnating for many years on the user interface front at Apple. (Let’s not even mention elsewhere.) Apparently, the current Finder with its mixed metaphors is the best file management tool that Apple’s engineers can come up with. There has been pretty much no innovation in that department since Mac OS X was first introduced—only fine-tuning and marginal improvements.

But, as the examples above illustrate, the fine-tuning can only achieve so much. At some point, if you don’t attempt to question the metaphor itself and just add subtle variations such as the solid/outlined triangle to reflect various states, you run the risk of losing touch with the fundamental intuitiveness and predictability expected by a regular Mac user who does not have time to focus on user interface issues and pay attention to each and every tiny details each time he does such basic things as moving stuff around and deleting stuff.

I think that’s the situation we have reached here, and it will probably take some drastic decision-making at higher levels at Apple to finally get to the “next stage” in UI innovation and recapture some of that initial magic that the spatial metaphor introduced in computing nearly three decades ago.

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