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Aug 01 ADC Direct

Volume Number: 17 (2001)
Issue Number: 08
Column Tag: ADC DIrect

Making It Aqua: Adopting the Mac OS X User Experience

Aqua and User Expectations for Mac OS X

by John Geleynse

The graphical user interface of the Macintosh which charmed so many people back in 1984 has come a very long way. Indeed, with the recent introduction of Mac OS X, Apple unveiled Aqua. Aqua is the new interface that builds on the ease-of-use tradition of Mac OS 9. Aqua makes use of color, transparency, and animation to enhance usability. It also delivers new behaviors that make using a Mac even more fun and satisfying for users from computer novices to professionals.

With Aqua's revolutionary new features and attributes, users will expect your application to adopt and build upon its design. Why? Because people who use Mac OS X want all their applications—from spreadsheets and word processors to email clients and design tools—to have the consistency, appearance, intuitive design, and ease-of-use characteristic of Mac OS X. Users know when a product doesn't quite feel right (and so will product reviewers.)

This article will help you understand what it will take for your application to meet these user expectations.

Decide Where to Spend Your Resources

The level to which you adopt Aqua will depend on many things, including your development schedule, market demands, competitive pressures, and resource constraints. The chart included here (see Fig. 1a) can help you prioritize your efforts.

Look closely at Fig. 1a. The most important thing about this chart is focusing on compliance with Aqua basics before moving on to more advanced Aqua feature development. Spend your time becoming completely compliant with all the items under the "Good" Aqua Adoption Scenario (such as System Appearance, adopting the Layout Guidelines, respecting the Dock, etc.) before spending any effort on the advanced features (supporting Sheets, Dock animation, etc.).

What follows is a discussion of the individual building blocks of a "Good" Aqua adoption scenario.

Fig. 1a - Aqua Adoption Scenarios

Create Quality Icons

Your application's icon is one of the most visible attributes of your application on Mac OS X. A quality icon should clearly communicate what your application does, what type of media it works with, and whether it's meant for every day use. Just as you wouldn't want a visual designer writing your code, developers should avoid designing icons unless they have a background in visual design. The latest "Mac OS X Human Interface Guidelines" document (see next page) goes in depth on this and can provide you with a much better understanding about the incredible attention to detail icons have under Mac OS X.

Respect the Dock: Location

Your application should respect the Dock's location on the screen. When your application opens new windows, resizes windows, or zooms windows, it should avoid sizing them behind the Dock (or where the Dock is when it is visible). Sizing a window behind the Dock is extremely annoying because users are then forced to shrink the Dock or somehow move the window to get at its resize box.

Respect the Dock: A Click on the Dock Should Always Open a Window

Your application should always present a window when your Dock icon is clicked. This is to eliminate the all-too-familiar case where a user closes a document window and thinks they've quit the application. The rules are straight forward:

For document-based applications:

If no document windows are open
          Open and create an untitled document
If all open windows are minimized
        Activate the last window minimized
For non-document-based applications (e.g. System Preferences)
Show your main application window

Comply with the Mac OS X System Appearance

Aqua has a very unique, rich visual appearance which uses anti-aliased text, shadows, transparency, and color. On-screen interface elements have unique visual characteristics that go beyond what people are used to on the Mac or anywhere. All of these characteristics are unique to Mac OS X and your application needs to adhere to the look of Aqua if it's going to feel as if it belongs on Mac OS X.

Some common oversights in this area include white window backgrounds (rather than pinstriped backgrounds), mis-aligned pinstripes, incorrectly sized controls, clipped buttons and static text, and the use of non-standard fonts and font sizes (rather than system and application font specifications).

These types of oversights can dramatically affect the user's perception of the overall quality of your product. Do everything you can to ensure the visual presentation of your interface matches the appearance of Mac OS X.

Adopt the Layout Guidelines

Along similar lines, the appearance of Mac OS X also has a lot to do with the spacing and organization of interface elements. The "Mac OS X Human Interface Guidelines" document goes into great detail about layout guidelines. However, for the most part you don't need to worry about memorizing all those numbers because Apple provides a high-powered interface design tool: Interface Builder, which lets you design compliant dialogs and windows with ease.

The Mac OS X layout guidelines were developed for readability, localizability, and future functionality. Compliance with them dramatically affects the readability and usability of your Mac OS X application.

Apple Help

As part of a "Good" Aqua adoption scenario, remember to provide user assistance in your application with Apple Help (and not your own help delivery mechanism.)

"Better" and "Best" Scenarios: Sheets

Sheets are a new feature of Aqua and one of the things frequently noticed by users. A sheet is simply a modal dialog attached to a particular document or window, ensuring the user never loses track of which window the dialog applies to (and allowing the user to continue working on other documents in the same application.)

You should use sheets for dialogs specific to a document when the user must interact with the dialog and dismiss it before proceeding with work. Some examples include: a modal dialog specific to a particular document (such as saving or printing), a modal dialog specific to a single-window application that does not create documents, or window-specific dialogs typically dismissed by the user before proceeding.

Don't use sheets for dialogs that apply to several windows. Sheets are intended to be used in situations when a particular dialog is associated with only the window to which it is attached. Sheets are not appropriate for modeless operations where the dialog should be left open to allow the user to observe the effects of changes applied. Such tasks are better suited to modeless dialogs, utility windows (palettes), or drawers.

Also, please don't use a sheet on a window that doesn't have a title bar since sheets should emerge from a definite visual edge.

Native Code Is Nice, But Not Enough

Remember that finishing your port to Mac OS X doesn't mean you've finished your Mac OS X product. Delivering a good Mac OS X product obviously involves native code but, most importantly, includes paying attention to the details outlined in Fig. 1a. Native code is just the first step in bringing your application to Mac OS X.

Other Aqua Topics

More on the topics discussed here (and others) can be found in both the "Mac OS X Human Interface Guidelines" document and the main User Experience web page located at Look online for the latest version of the "Mac OS X Human Interface Guidelines," and for links to Carbon- or Cocoa-specific documentation and sample code for all of the topics covered in this article.

Final Note: Looks Are Everything—Almost

Remember, users often judge the quality of a product by its appearance (or user interface.) So, if the visual presentation of your product is not Aqua compliant, they'll assume the overall functionality of the product is the same. Don't leave your UI work until the last minute. Build products that feel complete and have the Aqua look-and-feel. Pay attention to the details and you'll reap the rewards. Good luck.

New Mac OS X Related Releases

The following software is available from the Download Software area of the ADC Member Site at:

  • WebObjects 5 Trial

    Trial version of WebObjects 5, expires 9/30/2001. NOTE: WebObjects 5 Trial is the same as what is available under Mac OS X Developer Tools link. Please See WebObjects 5 Key document for licensing information.

  • Mac OS X Java 3.1 Developer Preview 2 and Java 3.1 Documentation

    Mac OS X Java is an implementation of Java 2 Standard Edition 1.3.1, including the client version of HotSpot 1.3.1 Virtual Machine, which DP2 uses exclusively. For improved applet behavior with this release of Java, use Software Update to install Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.1.1 Preview.

  • CarbonLib 1.4a6 SDK

    The latest pre-release version of CarbonLib 1.4 SDK for Mac OS is now available to all ADC Members. This SDK provides all the files needed to begin Carbon development. CarbonLib 1.4 supports Mac OS 8.6 and greater.

  • Apple System Profiler 2.6.1a6

    Contains AppleScript fixes, launch speed improvements, OS X report sync, search option window fixes.

  • Mac OS X Developer Tools 10.0.1

    Downloadable version of the May 2001 Developer Tools CD distributed at WWDC to attendees. Contains the Mac OS X Developer Tools 10.0.1, and a trial version of WebObjects 5 which expires 9/30/2001. NOTE: The Carbon SDK is not included.

    Developer Documentation

    The following new and updated documentation is available to help with successful Mac OS X application and peripheral development at:

    Carbon Specification
    Aqua Human Interface Guidelines

    Technical Notes
    TN1044 - Fundamentals of Open Firmware, Park III: Understanding PCI Expansion ROM Choices for Mac OS
    TN2016 - iTunes Visual Plug-ins
    TN2022 - The Death of typeFSSpec: moving along to typeFileURL

    Technical Q&As
    QA1053 - Using Pascal strings in Project Builder
    QA1043 - Using SetMovieGWorld to draw to the window back buffer
    QA1044 - Exporting TIFF files in little endian format
    QA1040 - 128Mb SDRAM Ics limitation on original "Bronze Keyboard" Powerbook G3
    JAVA28 - Creating JNI Libraries with Project Builder
    QA1039 - Fixing NSDocumentController to understand HFS file types
    QA1038 - HID Manager Event Data Underruns

    Sample Code
    SC - Graphics 3D: OpenGL Image
    SC - Cocoa: SimpleCocoaMovie
    SC - Graphics 2D: CTMDemo
    SC - Graphics 2D: CTMClip
    SC - Sound: CASoundLab2
    SC - Graphics 3D: Carbon SetupGL
    SC - Graphics 2D: BlitVBL
    SC - Graphics 2D: BlitNoVBL
    SC - Sound: AIFF writer sdev
    SC - Graphics 3D: aglString
    SC - Graphics 2D: CGGamma
    SC - Human Interface Toolbox: Tiler
    SC - Human Interface Toolbox: PackageTool
    SC - Java: JNISample
    SC - Cocoa: bMoviePalette
    SC - Devices and Hardware: HID Manager: HID Utilities Source
    SC - Devices and Hardware: HID Manager: HID Config Save
    SC - Devices and Hardware: HID Manager: HID Explorer
    SC - Devices and Hardware: HID Manager: HID Manager Basics
    SC - Graphics 3D: NSGL Teapot
    SC - Networking: NSLMiniBrowser
    SC - Java: JavaSpellingFramework
    SC - Java: JavaSpeechFramework

Did You Know?

Blueprints For Aqua Human Interfaces

A major goal for graphical human interfaces, aside from being intuitively usable and aesthetically pleasing, is consistency. Applications and system software should play by the same interface rules, whether those rules determine the placement of buttons on a dialog or the behavior of windows. If one or more applications were to do things differently, the resulting disharmony and confusion would degrade the user's experience.

To help developers design their applications' human interfaces to the same, well-considered standards, Apple Technical Publications provides Inside Mac OS X: Aqua Human Interface Guidelines. As a collection of blueprints for designing Aqua interfaces, this book is an indispensable resource. These guidelines will help you design modern, elegant applications that meet users' expectations of Macintosh software: intuitive, attractive, easy to learn, and enjoyable to use.

Inside Mac OS X: Aqua Human Interface Guidelines starts by explaining the principles that influence the design of Aqua human interfaces, including user control, direct manipulation, and forgiveness. Then, using specific examples and annotated figures, the book describes in detail how each part of the Aqua interface should look and behave. Individual chapters cover menus, windows, dialogs, controls and general layout, user input, fonts, icons, drag and drop, help, and terminology.

You can obtain a bound, print-on-demand copy of Inside Mac OS X: Aqua Human Interface Guidelines from at

You can also get PDF versions of the book from the Developer Essentials page of the installed and on-line
( developer documentation.

Upcoming Seminars and Events

For more information on Apple developer events please visit the developer Events page at:

Training and Seminars

R/com Offers Mac OS X Developer Training Online
R/com, also known as MediaSchool, has partnered with Apple Developer Connection to create online training for Mac OS X developers. The first courses to be released in July include "Application Development for Mac OS X," "Carbon Development for Mac OS X," and "Cocoa: The Object-Oriented Application Solution." All classes have been reviewed by Apple engineers for technical accuracy. Check out their site to take a free virtual seminar, to learn more about current and upcoming courses, and to find out about the significant discounts offered to Premier, Select, and Student members of the Apple Developer Connection.

Apple iServices 5-day Cocoa Training
For application developers who want to learn how to develop Mac OS X applications using Cocoa, Apple iServices offers a five-day comprehensive, hands-on Cocoa training course. This course uses real-world examples and is perfect for developers who have a general understanding of Object-oriented concepts and practical experience with the C programming language or a C-derived language (Object-C, Java, or C++). The course costs US $2,495.

Developer-Related Conferences

FileMaker Developer Conference 2001
August 12-August 15, Orlando, FL
More than 50 sessions and a product showcase. Various FileMaker training classes offered concurrently.

Apple Expo 2001
September 26-30
Porte de Versaille, Hall 4
Paris, France

John Geleynse works in Apple's Worldwide Developer Relations Technology Management group and has experience in software development, product management, and product marketing. He promotes good user experience-related technologies within the Macintosh developer community. He can be reached at


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