Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Adapting to Mac OS X Lion 1: Reasons why 'natural' two-finger scrolling may be inferior

I just completed the switch to Mac OS X Lion. In this and the next few posts, I will give some of my experiences and some tips.

One of the biggest UI changes in Lion is that the two-finger scrolling gesture on the track pad now defaults to a mode that Apple calls the 'natural' direction. It operates as if you are physically touching the screen; pushing in a given direction makes the media move in that direction. People report that it takes a day or so to adapt to this from the 'traditional' mode, which is the inverse. I gave up after half a day and turned off the 'natural' mode in the Trackpad section of System Preferences.

Here are the reasons that I think 'natural' is not the best mode for the two-finger swipe gesture, and why I prefer the traditional scrolling mode.

1. The traditional mode matches cursor movement: Using the text cursor, one still uses the 'down' key to move down the document, which results in the document 'scrolling up'. I often go from keyboard to touch-gesture, and find it actually more natural to maintain the same sense of movement in both modalities (i.e. down gestures push the media up so you can see more of what is actually 'down'). Similarly, when one moves the arrow cursor down to the bottom of many panes while dragging something from one place to another, it causes the panes to start to scroll up (and vice versa).. This occurs, for example, when trying to drop an item into a list, where the destination point of the drop is further 'down' in the document than what is visible.

2. The traditional mode meshes with the use of scrollbars. Using the scrollbar, one still drags the scrollbar down to move the contents of the document up. Again, doing the same thing with the two-finger trackpad gesture seems easier. Mac-OS Lion has tried to banish scrollbars too, but they are essential for very large documents. I opted to keep them visible at all times.

3. The trackpad is abstract: I would agree that 'natural' would be truly natural if you were physically touching something on the screen and the movement of the finger actually matched the movement of the object under the finger. But the trackpad is an abstract entity; distance on the trackpad doesn't match distance on the screen for example. The trackpad is just as abstract as a mouse, a scrollbar or a joystick.

4. Ergonomics: When perusing many long documents, one has to scroll a lot. Pulling fingers inward, in  a two-finger 'beckoning' gesture, which is the 'traditional' mode, seems much easier on the muscles than the 'natural mode'. This is true even on touch screen phones, where the natural mode is the only one available. This is why I much prefer 'tilt scrolling' for reading.

5. Clearly easy to learn: People have for years had no trouble adapting to what Lion considers unnatural. It can't therefore be that unnatural.

I am fine with people adopting the scrolling mode that Apple has decided should be the default, but I think many, if not most, users should seriously consider reverting to the traditional direction.

I will have other posts on Lion in the near future.

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