Apple’s not-so-cursory shake-up

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06 September 2015
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Apple’s not-so-cursory shake-up

As a user experience professional, I find myself getting unreasonably excited by the smallest new innovations to help users, in the real world or online. But nothing has come close to the absurd childlike glee I felt when seeing the tiniest but most ingenious addition to an operating system for years.

Most designers and developers think that UX is all about making things easier for people. That’s actually only a small part of it. Of course, in the majority of cases, getting a user through a checkout process or notifying them and helping them fill out forms is the meat and gravy of UX life. But actually, UX is about finding problems and fixing them.

Doug Englebert’s invention, the first ever computer mouseDoug Englebert’s invention, the first ever computer mouse

The mouse was an evolution of the trackball, invented in 1941 for a fire control radar plotting system, and domestic mice have been used on PCs since the early 80s. That’s 35-ish years worth of wrist action. And through this time they’ve had myriad problems, from crudded-up wheels to stolen mouse balls. But with multi-monitor setups such a popular choice for developers and designers, and second-screen presentation setups the norm, we have another issue to contend with — Lost Cursor Syndrome.

Every developer’s dream, right? Except for one small thing — WHERE THE FUCK IS MY CURSOR?Every developer’s dream, right? Except for one small thing — WHERE THE FUCK IS MY CURSOR?

You’re working on screen 3, and something catches your eye over on your left-most monitor. Moving your hand to the notification, you click it away as your colleague interrupts you. After your riveting eight-minute conversation about TPS reports, you return to your code, on the third screen. You move your moues to click an icon.

Nothing happens.

You move it again. There’s no sign of your cursor. So what’s your next step?

You shake your cursor.

Your brain is hard-wired to see and respond to certain stimuli, especially seeing as the rudimental gelatinous orbs in the front of your skull called eyes *actually have very limited range of detailed vision. Your peripheral vision is very well tuned to motion, but it still relies on something *relatively large moving around to be able to notice something. Shaking the mouse has the effect of giving your brain something to look for, and is tapping into the primitive hunter-gatherer part of your cortex.

And here is why I’ve been lamenting about Apple’s new innovation. In their new beta of OSX, named El Capitan, they have implemented the simplest of features: shake your mouse, and your cursor temporarily grows on the screen.

Apple’s smallest new feature may be it’s bestApple’s smallest new feature may be it’s best

What I find so clever about this isn’t that they identified the problem — one that many of us suffer from, and have done for years — and it’s not even that they came up with a solution. In fact, they’re not the first to do so. Windows has a little-known feature in that you can enable a hit-this-button-to-make-my-cursor-pulse.

The really clever thing is that they identified the user’s attempts to solve the issue — shaking their mouse around — and detected and enhanced the user’s behaviour, to assist them. Unlike the Microsoft solution, the user doesn’t have to change their behaviour at all. They just do what they would do naturally.

One thing this highlights is that mouse-based navigation may be on it’s way out. Pens and tablets have been used for years in the design community (I have adopted an Intuos Special Edition for my own use as it’s so much easier to navigate a screen absolutely, than with a relative-moving mouse), but the advent of cheap consumer touchscreens in the way of mobile and tablet devices has changed the way we use computers and the web, as Comscore reported last year we’re way over the tipping point of mobile-to-desktop media consumption. And then there’s the coming onslaught of VR, AR, myoelectric and motion interfaces and direct brain-interfaces that will make mice completely obsolete.

Until then, innovations like this are a wonderful example of user experience being put to use. The only disappointing thing is that it’s taken us several decades to get here.

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