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.


  • Since some folks are still in denial that anyone is misusing HIG, let me give a couple of quick examples:

    Firstly the comment that initiated this article:

    when you finally get around to looking at the Human Interface Guidelines, you might begin to understand why the one-button mouse lasted so long, and continues to be happily supported today.

    This is myth #2 in action. Reality: The HIG does not define “why”, only “how”.

    To quote Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines…
    Avoid Feature Cascade
    The best products aren’t the ones with the most features. The best products are those whose features are tightly integrated with the solutions they provide, making them the most usable.

    This myth #1 in action. Reality: The Apple HIG is not universal and does not apply to all OSes. The clear implication of that comment is that Apple’s HIG is superior and that other OSes devlopers would do well to read it.

    There’s just two quick example from two different discussions on OS X features. Go trawl any Mac forum and you’ll find someone perpetuating those two myths.

    Again I’ve been amazed how many people have agreed with me while having a go at me. eg as Waa said:
    And since when did anyone think that the Aqua HIG was supposed to be universal or that it was devised by an independant group? Of course Apple made it for OS X.

    Excellent, another who agrees about what the Apple HIG is and is not. I hope now by just the two above examples, you can see why I wrote this piece, Waa - and everyone else who thinks no one is misusing “The HIG”.

    And sorry for my footnote… I should have said:
    And why did the one-button mouse survive over 20 years? Because independent research (that only Apple paid any attention to) unequivocally proved it vastly superior and that novice computer users were so confused by an extra button that they refused to go near computers until it was removed. Or they flocked to Macs in droves.

    No wonder the Mac dominates the market. New computer users are so afraid of having to learn the complexity of computers, such as the two-button mouse, that they all buy Macs.

    I wonder how long a person can be considered a novice though? A week? A month? A year? 20 years? Maybe it’s taken twenty years to get rid of every novice. Although… pity the four year olds on Windows, they must be terrified of that second button.

    With over one hundred buttons on the keyboard, one more on the mouse is so intimidating.

    Hang on, I’ve got a great idea… How about we teach the novices to use ctrl-click until they get over their terror of the extra button? Oh you don’t want them to know about context menus. Fair enough - it’s not like context menus are there to make using the computer easier…

    See? It was much easier for me to simply cynically suggest Apple kept the one-button mouse because they wanted to.

    You know what? The second mouse button can’t hurt you or your data. So why not let it be there and when the novice is no longer a novice they can then learn to use it? Works fine that way on Windows and Linux.

    Contrary to what some have implied, switching to a two-button mouse would not have alienated users. Could you just imagine it: “Apple have a two-button mouse?! I refuse to use one. I’m switching to Windows in protest.”

    I have met only ONE user out of thousands in 20 years of computer support, who was afraid of the second-mouse button. And God forbid, it’s actually my wife!! Sympathy please smile

    Interestingly, I know a woman of 42 who only first learned computers one year ago, and that was on Windows. Now doing a graphic design course she is using Macs at school and they have one-button mice and she hates them for it. It is the one thing she won’t stop complaining about. That from someone who you probably still would call a novice.

    Maybe novices can learn to use the two-button mouse…

    Chris Howard had this to say on Apr 28, 2006 Posts: 1209
  • I don’t understand the article… I thought OS X was compatible with 2-button mice.

    Luke Mildenhall-Ward had this to say on Apr 29, 2006 Posts: 299
  • Chris,

    The underlying message in your article is that Apple should stop shipping systems with a one button mouse since it can’t be defended by it’s own HIG. You’ve decided that two myths somehow prove that a one button mouse is “correct” and have set out to debunk them.

    While I don’t see either myth as the smoking gun behind Apple’s choice, I’ll address each one individually.

    Myth #1: There is one unifying HIG.

    I have no idea where you came up with that myth.

    However, when a company’s product or service is first to market or becomes the de-facto standard on which others are judged, people start using it’s brand as a noun - just like Kleenex or Cool-Aid. Since Apple practically invented the term Human Interface Guidelines, they have become synonymous with the term HIG.

    Yes, I’m aware that Xerox invented the GUI, but as with other technologies such as the CD-ROM, USB, etc., Apple was the first to successfully integrate the GUI into a well designed, successful product.

    For better or worse, Microsoft Windows has it’s own “HIG” - although it’s called “Windows Experience Guide.” Notice how the word Human isn’t present in the title?

    Myth #2: The HIG defines the best way of doing things

    The word ‘best’, along with other words like ‘quality’ and ‘superior’ are highly subjective.

    However, the Apple HIG clearly states “The implementation of Apple’s human interface principles make the Macintosh what it is: intuitive, friendly, elegant, and powerful.” When I think Microsoft Windows, the words “intuitive, friendly, elegant, and powerful” certainly don’t come to mind. I would use the words ‘clumsy, utilitarian, poorly designed and overly complex’ instead.

    But, I think Mac OS X (and Microsoft Windows) is more than an implementation of it’s HIG. It’s also a product of it’s corporate culture and how it views it’s target audience.

    For example, you seem to group computer users into two separate camps: novices and everyone else. 

    novice | noun a person new to or inexperienced in a field or situation : he was a complete novice in foreign affairs.
    ORIGIN Middle English : from Old French, from late Latin novicius, from novus ‘new.’

    But you’re forgetting an important group: the casual user. These are users who are not new to computing, but have no interest in learning all of intricate and details about an operating system or applications. Office workers, artists, grandparents who only own a computer so they can get photos of their grandchildren via email, etc. 

    Many people just don’t care about keyboard shortcuts or contextual menus. Nor are they afraid of a second mouse button, they just don’t want to be bothered with it. And why should they? Because you prefer a two button mouse? Because Microsoft or the rest of computing industry thinks they should? Is there Is there a section of the Windows Experience guide that says so? Unless your application has special needs, such as a 3D modeling tool or video editing suite, requiring a two button mouse is often the result of poor design. Note I said REQUIRING. Having support for and requiring a second button are two different things. 

    I think that Apple understands that the casual user exists and isn’t afraid to cater to their segment of the market. By shipping with what is effectively a one button mouse, it’s as if Apple is pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes. And that seems to make some people unhappy.

    Contrary to what some have implied, switching to a two-button mouse would not have alienated users. Could you just imagine it: “Apple have a two-button mouse?! I refuse to use one. I’m switching to Windows in protest.”

    People who learn to use a computer though Windows have no option but to learn how a two button mouse. Microsoft made the choice for them. If Apple shipped Macs with a two button mouse by default, they would effectively take away a users choice to use a one button mouse.

    You like choice, don’t you? But only if it’s the choice you would have made?

    Scott had this to say on Apr 29, 2006 Posts: 144
  • OS X’s HIGs really can’t be used to justify it as being better than Windows or Linux - the different skins are all over the place! Brushed metal here, unified there, burnt metal for the other.

    There is only one way to decide on which is best - use all the options and then take the one that gives you a warm glow inside. For me, OS X. For a friend of mine, Ubuntu. The head of Chemistry at my school, however, has only ever used Windows - so he’s not in a position to make the decision.

    great_high_wolf had this to say on Apr 30, 2006 Posts: 5
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