June 05, 2008

Future Photoshop UI changes

So, what’s Adobe up to interface-wise in the next versions of Creative Suite applications?

 

We’ve been working hard to make the interfaces of the various apps more consistent.  Because the Adobe Fireworks and Dreamweaver betas are available on Adobe Labs, you can now see some of the interface changes that will appear in the next version of Photoshop as well.  I’d like to address some of the concerns and questions I hear bubbling up.  In particular, I hope to put Mac users’ minds at ease about a few things.

 

First, I want to lay my Mac bona fides on the table.  I’ve been using the platform since Sept. 1984, and I really sweat the little details and conventions.  (That’s one reason I’ve raved about NetNewsWire, Panic’s Transmit, and other great Mac apps.)  I use Safari instead of Firefox in part because FF’s use of Windows-style buttons & form elements feels alien on my system.  So yeah, I care deeply about this stuff.

 

As the CS3 product cycle was wrapping up, Adobe’s user interface designers started showing their ideas for subsequent releases.  Lots of things (tabbed documents, improved panel management, more usable workspaces, etc.) seemed like slam dunks.  On the other hand, the designs all featured a prominent "application frame"–a window containing both UI elements & documents–on both Mac and Windows.

 

I think my initial reaction can be boiled down to three letters: "WTF?"

 

"Are you telling me," I asked, "that we’re going to put a huge, battleship-gray box into the background on the Mac, as it is on Windows?  Why would we do that?"

 

The designers pointed out that the app frame has a number of advantages:

 

  • It facilitates N-up (2-up, 3-up, etc.) document layouts that adapt as you adjust the interface.  Think "live window tiling"–great for comparing, compositing, etc.
  • It makes it easier to move the entire application and its contents, including from one monitor to another.
  • It prevents documents from getting obscured by panels (palettes).
  • It blocks out the contents of the desktop, minimizing visual clutter.  (A number of Mac users have requested this option for many years.  I’ve known quite a few people who open a small blank document, hit F to put it into full-screen mode, and then put it into the background to hide the desktop.  Willingness to live with that kind of hack demonstrates some genuine desire for a real fix.)

 

On the Mac (unlike on Windows, where an app frame has always been present), using the app frame is optional.  It’s a one-click enable/disable via Window->Application Frame.  On either platform you can also float documents above the app frame, mixing them with docked windows if you’d like.  Whether on Mac or Windows, you can resize application windows by dragging any side, not just the lower-right corner.

 

I’ve recorded a quick demo that shows the app frame enabled & disabled; documents in & out of tabs; and some of the N-up layout options available with or without the app frame enabled:

 

After I’d used the app frame for a little while–well, what do you know?  I like it, and not because they pay me to say so.  It’s easy to flip the frame on and off, but I find that I like the way it reduces distractions.  Your mileage may vary, and that’s why we made using it an option.

 

The app frame has brought to light the questions of what is & is not considered "Mac-like."  This inspired me to do a little investigation into the state of Mac software.

 

It’s interesting to note that showpiece Mac apps like Scrivener and NetNewsWire feature the ability to run in full-screen mode, blocking out the desktop and other distractions.  Panic’s Coda Web development tool is among those combining interface and content into a single window.

 

What about Apple’s own applications, as they would be presumably be the definition of Mac-like, right?  I noticed a couple of things:

 

  • The pro video apps (Final Cut Pro, Motion, Color, DVD Studio Pro) configure their windows/panels to take over one’s screen completely.
  • Aperture and iPhoto put all the UI into a window & optionally take over the screen in a dedicated full-screen mode.
  • The iLife and iWork apps (Keynote, Pages, iWeb) all feature a UI approach that marries together content & interface in a single window.  (For reference, here’s a little gallery of all these apps.)

 

And so, I’d argue, putting UI + content into a single, manageable window (as the CS4 app frame does) isn’t "un-Mac-like" at all.  Despite my initial freak-out (the one being echoed by others when seeing an application frame in Fireworks), you could argue that the application frame makes Adobe tools more Mac-like–if "Mac-like" means "Apple application-like."

 

I’ve also heard comments about the new Adobe apps’ custom interface elements and their ability to resize windows by dragging them from any side, not just from the lower-right corner (as required in most Mac apps).  On Daring Fireball John Gruber characterized this capability as "just like in Windows."  Digging a bit more, I fired up Final Cut Pro 6.0 and made some discoveries:

 

  • You can drag-resize panels and document windows from any side, not just from the lower-right corner.
  • The close/minimize/zoom buttons are extremely small; they always appear monochrome (instead of respecting the OS appearance preference of Blue vs. Graphite); and they don’t show a dot in the close box of files with unsaved changes.
  • The UI is full of unique elements that don’t appear elsewhere in the OS–e.g., custom scrollbars sitting next to OS-standard ones.

 

I then took a look at Motion.  Again scrollbars are custom (though different from Final Cut’s), remaining monochrome regardless of OS appearance preference.  Application windows can be resized individually and together from any side, though with more apparent limitations than in FCP.  Things are similar in DVD Studio Pro, where you can resize what amounts to an app frame from any side.

 

Instead of "just like in Windows," "just like in Apple’s own apps" might be a better way to put it.  In any case, whether the convention exists elsewhere is beside the point.  The point is, Is it useful?

 

As I wrote earlier, I believe Adobe teams need to work hard to make their products feel like polished, native citizens on each OS.  Deviation from the norm for its own sake is unhelpful.  Having said that, OS conventions should support innovation, not stifle it.  If we can improve functionality (e.g. enabling more flexible document resizing) without imposing any burden (extra UI chrome, etc.), why shouldn’t we?

 

Our job is about functionality, not ideology.  Whatever works best, wins.  Obviously the Apple development teams feel free to depart from strict adherence to the baseline OS when they feel that doing so would benefit their customers.  I’d argue that Adobe teams should have similar latitude.

Now, at the end of the day, will we ship with the application frame visible by default on the Mac?  I don’t know; maybe not.  We want people to feel invited–not forced–to use the new functionality.  No matter how much I write here–and thanks for reading this far–some Mac users are going to have the "WTF" reaction to the application frame.  Hopefully they, and you, will keep an open mind until you’ve gotten to try it out.  I think you’ll find–as I did–that there’s a lot to like.

Posted by John Nack at 4:42 PM on June 05, 2008
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