Human Interface Guidelines: The Mac Zealots’ Con?

by Chris Howard Apr 26, 2006

Recently when questioning the Apple Way, it was politely suggested I read the Human Interface Guidelines and then I’d know why the one-button mouse had survived over 20 years. That wasn’t the first time I’d had HIG waved at me when suggesting Apple do something differently in OS X. So I decided it was time I read the HIG and learn why Apple’s way is the right way. Except, that’s not what I found.

For many years, whenever anyone has dared question any part of the Mac OS experience, hordes of Mac zealots would flame them to a crisp, fanning those flames with the Good Book, that is the Human Interface Guidelines. (Insert appropriate oooohs and aaahs and other sounds of veneration here). The one-button mouse and all its associated interface implications was a favorite of the HIG Wavers.

Except, the problem is, the Gospel according to HIG is a crock: A con perpetrated for the last 22 years. Where did this venerable Book of HIG come from? I guess, like me, you thought that an independent organization was established to oversee HIG. Not unlike W3C works to develop Web standards.

But guess what? You’ve been misled. Deliberately of course. It’s time to blow HIG’s cover.

A couple of myths
There’s two myths surrounding Human Interface Guidelines:

Myth #1: Human Interface Guidelines are universal, with one text that should be applied to all operating systems.

Myth #2: Human Interface Guidelines are a universal truth, defining correct design, interoperability and usability of computer interfaces.

The truth about Myth #1
There isn’t one unifying HIG. Each OS or interface developer has their own. So if you search the Internet, you can find the GNOME HIG, the KDE HIG, the Windows HIG and of course, the Apple HIG.

The first HIG myth reminds me how a couple of years ago, Microsoft released a report from a study claiming that Windows had lower TCO than Linux. Guess who sponsored the study? Microsoft.

Guess who wrote the HIG that supported the one-button mouse? Apple. Okay you might say, but maybe the usability research behind it was independent. Yeah, and maybe it was a different Microsoft that sponsored the TCO study.

This is so much like the “God” argument, with most religions claiming theirs is the one true God. Except in the HIG case, it only seems to be the Mac zealots claiming Apple’s is the one true HIG.

The truth about Myth #2
The other fallacy perpetuated by Mac zealots is that the HIG defines the best way of doing things—which of course to them, means the Mac way. How many times have you been beaten over the head with that one? I know I’ve lost count.

As the Introduction to Apple Human Interface Guidelines says:

These guidelines are designed to assist you in developing products that provide Mac OS X users with a consistent visual and behavioral experience across applications and the operating system.

Nothing in there about superiority of the Mac way over any other interface, nothing about “one-button mice rule”.

As that Apple HIG says, the primary purpose of the HIG—any HIG— is so developers can create software that provides an interface consistent with the rest of the OS or interface.

Myth busted
So there you have it, the HIG myth busted by Apple’s own HIG.

Human Interface Guidelines are nothing more than a set of guidelines by interface designers for developers so their software is consistent with the interface. And in no way does an HIG claim or justify that any approach (eg 1-button mouse) is superior to any other OS or interface’s method. Read the Apple HIG and it’s predecessors and there’s no claim of one-button mouse superiority - even when used on a Mac. The HIG simply states that to be Mac OS compliant, an application should be operable with a single button mouse.

I’m not anti-OS X by any means and will happily admit it’s superiority in a lot of things. But not everything. It’s just that I’m tired of been beaten over the head with HIG every time I dare point out things I don’t think OS X does so well.

So next time you get accosted by a Mac Zealot waving HIG at you for daring to suggest the Mac could do something in a better way, politely suggest that he actually read it, because maybe you are onto something.

In the words of Mythbusters, these two HIG myths are busted and busted.

Footnote: So why did the one-button mouse survive over 20 years? Because Apple wanted it to, so it wrote the HIG to ensure it would.


  • I will never understand the nonsense surrounding 1-button mice. I have been using 3rd-party (i.e., Kensington) multi-button mice since the early 90’s.

    Back then I was working in a fast, long-hours, high-productivity graphics and presentation design group for a large engineering firm. I give “Turbo Mouse” credit for saving me from carpal tunnel. I’ve never looked back.

    Today I use a 4-button stationary trackball, with: a “normal” button, one for click-n-drag, one for dbl-click, and one for “right-click”. That last saves me the petty annoyance of having to use both hands to “Control-click”, just to get that contextual submenu that every Winblows user claims as their birthright.

    1-button mouse users who have never worked in a high-end graphics environment will never know that awful wrist pain. There are better worlds out there, and the 1-button purists should just get over themselves and rejoin the rest of the Solar System, already in progress.

    tao51nyc had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 45
  • I have a sort of love hate relationship with contextual menus. The nice thing is it can give easy access to certain features related to what your clicking on at the moment. The problem with them is though that not everything will have a contextual menu attached to it, and unless you actually try to bring up such a menu there is usually no way to know, simply by looking at an item, if it will have one or not. The problem comes every so often when a developer puts some feature only in a contextual menu. As a result if you aren’t always checking every item for the possibility of having a menu, and have not read the manual, then you could very well miss that feature for a long time. Having the items in menus on the top of the window/screen works better since the menu’s are clearly visible and easier to find. There are even worse systems, for example having only a key combination, but the contextual menu can be a two edged sword in my opinion.

    kartack had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 2
  • Love them or hate them, contextual menus are part and parcel of the computing experience of the vast majority of users - yes, they could be implemented in a more consistent fashion by developers, but market forces are still the best for hammering that out.

    I’m a diehard Mac fan, but many Mac fans, I have seen, tend to fall into the trap of idealized notions about “what should be” while ignoring “what is”, in the rest of the world, and dealing with it accordingly. 90% of the computing world is dominated by Windoze, and hence, 2-button mice and contextual menus. We’d like these users to switch to a Mac for the better experience, but then promptly inconvenience them by giving them a 1-button mouse and making them use both hands to perform the same task. Windows users find this annoying. Those petty annoyances can add up.

    Computers and software were (and are still) a business, last time I checked, driven by market forces and consumer choice. Not a religion. I drive a Mac because it’s like owning a Mercedes as opposed to a Kia or Neon. But I’m also an advanced pro user, who has grown accustomed to multi-button mice for a more efficient experience. Apple is late to the table on this. A “Mighty Mouse” won’t replace my Kensington trackball, as I want my wrist to remain as immobile as possible.

    tao51nyc had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 45
  • Obviously, Apple’s HIG is not meant to apply to all operating systems, and it’s not meant to be the holy grail, as you pointed out.

    Nevertheless, it was developed as a result of TONS of research—mostly NOT by Apple, by the way—by Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.  The “one-button” mouse was the result of actual science, not PR bullshît.  That, however, was in a different universe—one with neither Windows nor Macintosh in it.  The world has adapted to graphic interfaces, and they have matured greatly.  They’ve also gotten very complicated.

    As a result, everybody has written their own HIG, and Apple has greatly modified theirs.  Sometimes, Apple doesn’t even follow theirs.  That doesn’t mean they should be ignored, though.  Every HIG was written to give people guidelines so that their applications operate similarly enough to others so that the users don’t have to learn how to use a computer from scratch every time they use a different program.  People used to have to “learn to use” programs—relatively intelligent people.  Most people have no CLUE what it was like before the Macintosh, so they make fun of those who value the HIG.

    Stick to the HIG of the system you’re in, and life will be better for you, the developer, and for your users.  When you have a good reason—as the “good book says”—deviate, but only as necessary.

    What's the Frequency Kenneth? had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 11
  • You’ve just discovered that the Apple Human Interface Guidelines are, um, Apple’s?

    Yes, they’re Apple’s. And, with an odd do-it-the-opposite-way-sometimes-so-we-weren’t-sued, used by Microsoft, and with a terminal-based bias, IBM in their CUA.

    What was important about Apple’s HIG was they were the first successful attempt to define a standard set of motions, symbols, menus, mental-model and other elements that were consistent throughout the OS and the applications. The was revolutionary, that the OS intruded in the applications, and that there were guidelines on how and where elements were to be used.

    Previously every application had it’s own idiosyncratic interface. The skills you learned on one application were almost entirely useless in another. The edit functions could be anywhere, using any keystrokes. Sure there were some conventions; Emacsisms, WordPerfectisms, Lotus 1-2-3isms, But the now familiar, universal, #-X, #-Y, #-V, #-C, #-Z, #-P, were a huge breakthrough. The same with standardized menus; File always being the first menu, Edit the second, Help the last. Heck, that the elements even looked the same; the same font used in the applications, menus having the same spacing and outlines, etc., was astonishing.

    These, along with a universal clipboard, universal printer drivers, and universal fonts, was what helped make the MacOS a breakthrough in terms of use. No longer was using a computer a series of completely different applications: Under MacOS there was a coherence to them all. MacPaint had a familiarity with MS Word. What worked in MacPaint worked the same way in MS Word. You were immediately at home, ready to concentrate on the functional differences with the cosmetic & organizational ones standardized under the HIG.

    Using or ignoring the Apple HIG has made & broken applications. MS Word for Mac, I think it was Version 5, reflected too much it’s Windows twin (back then they were compiled from a common set of code) and used Windows conventions instead of Mac ones. Mac users regularly found their expectations confounded and hated that version of Word, in many cases reverting back to the prior version or refusing to upgrade until the following version went back to ‘the Mac way’. MS paid the price with heavy criticism, poor sales, and high support costs.

    However not all is static. The HIG rules have matured over the years, things like drop-down-triangles adopted from pioneering 3rd party applications, application bars added, system services improved.

    And, it must be acknowledged, the worst abusers of the Apple HIG has always been Apple. From the ongoing bizarreness that is the QuickTime Player and the brushed-metal themes to reinvent-our-own-wheel menu-bars & selection boxes Apple has always been inconsistent in respecting their own rules, doing things that would be widely denounced from every other vendor.

    Finally, there is indeed now a common set of best-practices throughout most interfaces. Lots of rules like Fitts Law & such that reflect physical limitations & the mental models folks have when interacting with technology. However the Apple HIG were the first, and arguably some of the best, and their success has been a powerful factor in the success of the MacOS.

    maggard had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 5
  • Footnote: So why did the one-button mouse survive over 20 years? Because Apple wanted it to, so it wrote the HIG to ensure it would.

    Darn apple in its fiendish attempt to force its sadistic whims upon us, purposefully designing poor interface guidelines to thwart our attempts to close programs from the dock!

    Pur-lease. Coz Apple has ~so~ much to gain from preventing us using 2 button mice…

    Benji had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 927
  • Having read many sets of Human Interface Guidelines (Mac, Newton, OS/2, Windows 95, and others.) I have to say that Apple consistantly does a very good job at conveying the spirit of what they are trying to accomplish to the reader. For example, the Newton interface guidelines did a great job of explaining why things are laid out the way they are on the Newton. Buttons are on the bottom of the screen, input areas are in the middle, and status areas are at the top. This allow the user to write without obscuring status items, and click buttons that take action without obscuring the writing or the status items.

    The Mac has reasons why it is the way it is that are very powerful, backed up by research, and they do a great job in calling out what the spirit of the OS is.

    Sadly, Microsoft does not do this as well. Don’t believe? Read both sets of HIGs.

    soft_guy had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 21
  • Please note, apple doesn’t prevent use of multi button mice, and when you plug them in they work as expected. I have done and continue to do some IT desktop support for users; BELIEVE me they got it right with the one button mouse for most users. Some folks are so dense that they don’t even know that there is another button on a windows mouse. Are you a savvy power users, then do what others have done and get a groovy mousing device that does what you want it.

    Of course, this does NOT help laptop users… and becomes less of an issue with more savvy users being the norm.

    KiltBear had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 3
  • Thanks, maggard, for putting it better than I probably could have.

    FYI, Word 6 was the disaster. I know folks who continue to use Word 5.1 in Classic and consider it to be, bar none, the best word processor ever developed.

    But to sum up: Anyone who told espoused Myth #1 either
    1. meant Apple’s HIG, obviously, since we’re talking about Apple products and not toasters, e.g. “Everything that occurs within the user’s experience in front of their Mac should occur in the same manner, or
    2. is simply ignorant.

    And Myth #2, far from being false, is precisely what defined the (Apple) HIG - “defining correct design, interoperability and usability of computer interfaces” was exactly the reason they went to the trouble of putting them together.

    As maggard pointed out, the most objectionable (and common) offender has been Apple itself (at least in the contemporary era), even after they have revised the HIG several times.

    CapnVan had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 68
  • Nothing in there about superiority of the Mac way over any other interface, nothing about “one-button mice rule”.

    So you’re suggesting that Apple simply made up a list of guidelines so that user interfaces would be consistent across applications?

    Apple’s HIG wasn’t created to convince you to follow the guidelines. Nor is it some kind of quiz where Apple has to show it’s work. The goal of the HIG is to document the guidelines based on Apple’s research. Period.

    If you’re expecting some kind of song and dance trying to sell you on the HIG, you won’t find it. That’s not it’s purpose.

    So why did the one-button mouse survive over 20 years? Because Apple wanted it to, so it wrote the HIG to ensure it would.

    I guess that’s why automakers keep selling automatic transmission vehicles. Regardless of what customers want, Ford, BMW and Toyota all just want to keep selling automatics.

    I mean, it’s a proven fact that cars with manual transmissions get better gas millage and give drivers more control. More control is better, right?

    By following that logic, everyone should want to drive manual transmissions since they are superior to automatics. Even your grandmother. And if they don’t I guess that means they’re just too stupid to learn how to drive stick?

    Scott had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 144
  • “Footnote: So why did the one-button mouse survive over 20 years? Because Apple wanted it to, so it wrote the HIG to ensure it would.”

    Uh huh. Listen, I’m not looking to get into a flame war here, but, please, keep the comments on which you’ve done no research to a minimum.

    There were a number of reasons that led to 21 years of single button mice. Certainly not least of those was the inertia of a big company. Or the spectacular failures of management in dozens of decisions.

    However, as you would no doubt have noticed had you done even a cursory Wikipedia search, for example, ultimately, the basic rationale for a one button mouse has always been that, according to Apple’s research, novice users find them easier to use.

    If you disagree with their conclusions, business decisions, whatever, that’s fine. For example, I haven’t used a one button mouse in some time. But then, I’m not a novice user. Or maybe you’d argue that there aren’t all that many “novice users” around any more. We could have a fun debate about that. There’s plenty to discuss.

    But commentary is usually more effective when it’s informed by knowledge. If you go out and look at the process that led to the development of the original Mac 128 , the Lisa, the one button mouse, etc. and the regrets many of those developers have since expressed, you might discover why it can be annoying to read simplistic footnotes, et al.

    CapnVan had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 68
  • I remember trying to tell someone in my church about the Bible verse right before the so-called “Lord’s prayer.”  It says that we are not to stand up in front of others and cite a rote prayer, but that we are to find a quiet place and say a prayer of our own to ourselves, something LIKE the Lord’s prayer.

    But everyone simply ignores what the Bible really says and goes about doing what they want, which is usually standing up in front of others and reciting the prayer in unison.

    Chris, your article is the same kind of futile effort of telling these Mac-bots “here’s what the Bible really says,” while they promptly ignore you and go about their business of doing what they always do, defend Apple at every perceived slight, rolling out the usual cliches comparing computers to cars and one-button mice to automatic transmissions.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 2220
  • CapnVan, there’s nothing uniformed about that footnote. It’s a logical conclusion that anyone could make. From your point of view, you would consider it a cynical conclusion, but nonetheless, Apple chose to keep the single-button mouse alive because of their own beliefs. Beliefs which have not been borne out by other OSes which happily work with two-button mice for many years, just as Mac OS could have if Apple hadn’t have been so single-minded (pun intended) for so long.

    You reinforce my point about subjectivity by saying “Apple’s research…” Of course Apple’s research is always going to come up with the answer they want. Just as Microsoft’s research magically discovered lower TCO for Windows.

    When it can be shown that all of OS X and it’s methods are based on 100% independent research, then I will pay attention to people who claim Apple’s way is justified.

    Funny too how there’s been no backlash from novice users of other OSes about how complicated 2-button mice make things. Having worked in IT and trained users, I found the 2 button mouse caused no problems, even for the novice.

    Kenneth said: Obviously, Apple’s HIG is not meant to apply to all operating systems, and it’s not meant to be the holy grail, as you pointed out.

    True, but Mac Zealots wave it around as if it is a document universal truth.

    Thanks, Beeb. I guess I’m just a sucker for punishment and enjoy banging my head against a brick wall.

    Chris Howard had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • I’m going to ignore Beeb’s post as it’s not really worthy of a reply…

    When it can be shown that all of OS X and it’s methods are based on 100% independent research, then I will pay attention to people who claim Apple’s way is justified.

    So, you actually want apple not to do research in order to raise their credibility.

    I don’t know jack about the HIG but I remember Wil Shipley saying something along the lines of “who cares what colour a button is if it’s obviuosly a button” and frankly I agree with him. I mean Delicious Library breaks all the woolz but has won loads of awards and is generally terrific in that regard right..

    That said, I do think (and I may be completely wrong about this, not being a software developer) that the HIG serves an important function in reminding Us All that really thoughtful interface design is both hugely important and extremely difficult. And with the condescending tone here I’m not feeling inclined to accept your declaration that the guidelines do not represent a useful crystallisation of what’s, you know, Generally A Good Idea.

    Clearly though, if MacPots are using it to prove all kinds of things it doesn’t prove, well then it doesn’t prove them. You have my sympathy you poor little sugarmuffin you.

    I’d also like to go on record saying I absolutely *love* the one-button mouse. I don’t know what human psychocomputerometry theories Apple have based their evangelism of it, but the theories of people like Siracusa that the interface should use physical metaphors really make sense to me. And prodding something to see what happens is a very basic, instinctive human behaviour. So I think the ideal of a one-click, point-and-shoot interface for computers is a really terrific one to (cough) aim for and I have to applaud apple for trying hard to make it work.

    Benji had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 927
  • Ben said this:

    And with the condescending tone here…

    After saying this:

    I’m going to ignore Beeb’s post as it’s not really worthy of a reply…

    Yes, obviously you have a real problem with people being condescending.  Unless of course, it’s you.

    Beeblebrox had this to say on Apr 26, 2006 Posts: 2220
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