Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Intuition and iOS

Ben Brooks makes the case that tasks on iOS are not inherently more difficult or more of a puzzle than on OS X, they’re just different:

But, this is a big but, we do already know how to intuitively do one of these things. We know how to find, and then drag and drop shit where we want it on a Mac — it’s effortless not because the task is easier, but because we know the steps without consciously thinking of the steps since we have been doing it for decades. That’s why it feels easier.

It feels harder on iOS only because you have to stop and think about how to do things, and then you question (because you are a nerd) if the way you thought of is actually the best/right/fastest/easiest way to do that thing.

Dr. Drang is, as he puts it, “sympathetic” to Brooks’ argument, but he thinks Brooks used the wrong example:

But we really don’t have to use the Finder at all. Following Ben’s example, let’s say we have an image file open in Preview and we want to edit it in Acorn. That same icon in the title bar, known formally as a proxy icon, is our ticket, because if we click on it and drag it out of the title bar, it behaves just like a Finder icon.

All we have to do is click on icon in the title bar and drag it over to Acorn in the Dock, and it’ll open.

I’m certainly not the first person to make this argument, but one of the things I think makes for a major head shift when moving to an iOS-centric workflow is that there’s very often just one way of doing something in iOS, while there are multiple ways of doing the same thing on the Mac. Consider the “move file from one app to another” example being used here. On iOS, you use the Share sheet, and that’s the only way, unless the app is stored in iCloud Drive or Dropbox and both apps support that as the file store. On the Mac, you can use the proxy icon, the Finder, the Open/Save sheet, or — in some cases — simply drag the file across in the open workspace.

But that naturally leads to a further question: is having more options inherently good? (Where by “good”, I mean some combination of “more productive” and “easier to use”.)

The myriad options offered for manipulating files on the Mac can certainly be helpful, but it’s also very frequently confusing. Note that I said that it’s sometimes possible to drag a file from one app to another, but this behaviour changes in different apps. For instance, dragging an email message from the inbox of Mail into a text box on a webpage in Safari will insert the subject line from that email. Dragging it to the desktop will save the entire message. Dropping the email into Messages will send a subject line linked to the email message which, to a recipient on a Mac, will not open because they won’t have a copy of that message on their system; on iOS, the link simply won’t appear as a link and the message will just display the subject line. Dragging the email into a Pages document will insert what I’m guessing is the message ID:


Those behaviours can be helpful, but they can also be confusing. Limiting this inter-app file manipulation on iOS to just the Share sheet is more restrictive, yes, but it is also more predictable. If you’ve been using computers for eons, this predictability can seem unnecessary. But for those growing up in a computer-centred world, it’s possibly more logical to use an environment that doesn’t have this legacy baggage.