Redesigning OSX Spaces: 45˚ Is All It Takes
Almost all Mac users have used, at least once, Apple’s solutions to windowing woes: Exposé quickly rearranges all open windows in an ad-hoc grid for quick perusal, and Spaces enables separate virtual desktop which lets you divide your workspace into sensible areas. It’s the second feature I want to discuss. Switching between each Space is quick and easy, but with a simple redesign tweak it could be greatly improved.
The default setup for Spaces provided by Apple is four spaces placed in two rows and two columns. Switching between spaces imitates physical world movements, so the user moves by pressing control plus the arrow key in the desired direction. This grid setup, while seemingly innocuous, is at the heart of a number of usability issues.
The first problem is the arbitrary distinction between solid and fluid boundaries. User can always go right and left (illustrated by the green and blue arrows), but can’t always go up and down (shown by the red arrows). That is, the topology of Spaces is that the left and right edges connect, but the top and bottom edges do not. Stranger, perhaps, is exactly how the left-right boundary conditions are treated. The mental model is as if you took a horizontal strip and rearranged them in a grid. Moving right from the top-right space moves you to the bottom-left space. In essence, it’s a topological spiral which results in a strange breakage of symmetry. While I can see the argument for why this makes sense, in the heat of the moment, it’s just confusing.
The true problem that comes from all of this is a lack of habituation. I have to know which space I am in order to figure out how to get to the space to which I want to go. Even if I know my email is in the lower-left space, without knowing which space I am in, I’m not sure which direction I need to move. That breaks my train of thought by making me think about the system-state and not what I’m doing.
Before you get in a tizzy over whether Apple could ever make a design mistake, here is a simple solution that solves all of these problems. Just rotate the layout of the spaces by 45°.
Here’s why it is better:
- No matter which space I am in, the keyboard shortcut to move to any other space is always the same. To move to the top-most space, I can always use the up arrow command. The same is true for the other three directions. If my mail is in the left-most space, no matter where I am, I can use left to get there. Unlike Spaces as it stands now, with this tweak the interface becomes habituatable.
- There is no strange wrap-around behavior. It’s a much simpler mental model.
That’s about it. A change in orientation seems to solve all of the problems.
Aza’s Note: An open question with Luka’s solution is how to extend it to more than four spaces. If you’ve got a solution, put it in the comments.