The UI Paradox

As a power user on the Windows platform and a quick learner on the Mac platform, there is something about the difference between the two that has always intriuged me. I’ve noticed it in many forms over the years, but I was reminded of it when I read this rather silly report on the TUAW site… I’m sure the fellow who wrote it had his tongue firmly in his cheek, but if you browse through the comments under the main article you’ll find a very interesting thread of discussion has emerged relating to the Mac’s little green zoom button. Seems the zoom button is not without its fair share of controversy and a rather passionate, yet civil, debate is raging there about the differences between the way windows (with a small ‘w’) behave on Windows (with a big ‘W’) versus the way they behave on the Mac.

The basic gist of the discussion is about the subtle difference between the user interfaces of both platforms and the author tries to draw an assertion that the UIs actually cause people to work in quite different ways, and he even goes so far as to suggest that the differences in UI design actually attract different personality types. Not too sure about that one…

But it has always intruiged me that PCs – the machines with the DOS heritage, the machines that started life with nothing more than a simple black-on-white command line interface – are these days operated by the vast majority of users almost exclusively with only a mouse. It’s interesting to contrast this with the Mac, a machine born of a GUI heritage. The Mac is the machine that revolutioned the world with a point-and-click interface. Yet, in my experience, Mac users are far more likely to be the ones who know all the fancy keyboard shortcuts for tasks. Ask any reasonably competent Mac user how to perform a task on their Mac and in a majority of cases they will answer you with a keyboard shortcut. I just think it’s interesting that the machine with the GUI heritage is the one that seems to spawn the user base with the greatest knowledge of keyboard shortcuts – some of which really are quite arcane. The average Windows user on the other hand, drives his or her PC almost exclusively with the mouse. Maybe it’s just that there really are so many average (and below) users on the PC platform that they just don’t bother to learn these shortcuts… I don’t know.

The other paradox, as was mentioned in the comment thread on the TUAW article, is that most Windows users operate in full screen mode nearly all of the time, whereas most Mac users are far more competent and skilled at managing multiple open applications – they have to be because of the Macs UI design – and therefore more skilled at actually using the whole windowing concept. (The commenters to the TUAW article look to blame this behaviour on the controversial zoom button.) I find it mildly amusing that the operating system actually named ‘Windows’ seems to have a far lower percentage of users that CAN actually deal with multiple open windows.

Does this actually say anything about the types of users each platform attracts? Are Mac users better multitaskers? Or is it more to do with the fact that Windows users have a larger user base, and therefore a larger percentage of clueless users? Or is the average Mac user generally more competent at finding their way around the operating system than the average Windows user? Do the navigational quirks of each operating system in fact encourage a totally different approach to learning and using them? Is the Zoom button a flawed idea or a great idea?

I don’t have any answers… I just find the paradox of it quite amusing.

CC BY-SA 4.0 The UI Paradox by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?