iCal 3 – Bubbles and bewilderment

Posted on Feb 17, 2008 in Opinions, UI Design

Picture 1.pngiCal has been my calendar application of choice for over 3 years now. I consider myself a casual calendar user: I don’t have that many entries, but I use iCal to keep track of exams, upcoming concerts, events, birthdays etc.

I think calendar apps have 2 common usage scenarios:

Users want a simple visual overview of the months events to remind them of upcoming appointments.

Information required for new events includes:
– event name
– date (& time, depending on the amount of events you have on a single day)

Users want a way to keep track of a busy schedule with multiple event on a single day with detailed information such as location, participants etc.

Information required for new events includes:

– Event name
– date & time
– one or more additional information elements (notes, participants, location etc.)

iCal 2 in Tiger was simple, uncluttered and intuitive and provided for both of those scenarios:
In the month view the casual user could add events that would satisfy both requirements above. Advanced users could choose to display the drawer and could easily enter as little or much information as they desired. Events could be added by double clicking on a day (month view) or time (week / day view), which would in turn open the drawer and allow you to edit the event’s details.

It might not have been pretty, but it got the job done.

In Tiger Apple began their drawer-dropping ways and removed the drawer from Mail.app. It soon became clear that drawers would be joining brushed metal in the OS X UI museum. And sure enough Leopard’s iCal axed the drawer:

Picture 3.png

The obvious changes to iCal:

iCal still lacks an obvious way to add new events. At first glance the most likely UI element appears to be the large “+” button in the lower left corner. But that’s just there to trick you – that button will add an entire new calendar – something that the average user will likely only do the first time they run iCal.

Instead you still have to double-click an empty space within the calendar itself. But even that is not without peril: Clicking the area immediately to the left of the date will take you into day-view. Users will need to work out (probably by trial and error)that they need to click the empty space just below the date. You can then add a name for the event (but not a time) and you’re done.

Congratulations! You can now start wondering whether iCal will let you go really crazy and add, oh let’s say a starting time for an event.

Behind the pretty face:

Although the most elementary UI element for a calendar app is still missing, Apple has taken the time to shuffle around the rest of the UI elements. Nothing revolutionary, just a bit of spring cleaning to spruce up iCal to match Leopard’s new plastic look and justify the upgrade price.

But observant readers will notice the “info” button from the bottom right corner of the window is MIA. How do you toggle the edit / more info drawer? Answer: You can’t – drawers are for losers!

Instead, you now double-click an existing event which displays a new UI element that I’m going to call “the speech bubble”. This Microsoftian UI element lets you see any additional information for the event in question.

It hides the info fields that are empty, so in most cases it will look like this:
Picture 4.png

To edit the information you click the “edit” button and thanks to Core-Animation the bubble expands to shows additional fields that can be edited. The OK button below the edit view can be clicked to dismiss the bubble, but the changes are also stored just by clicking outside of the bubble.
That’s 2 clicks to display the bubble and another click to see the editing options and a further to “confirm” the changes. If you want to edit a few different events you’ll need to repeat the entire procedure for each one.

Picture 5.png

The entire solution feels very awkward and shoehorned in. You have to double click within the event’s 12px bar, not above or below it – otherwise you’ll switch to day view or add a new event respectively. Then iCal will show you what you already know: the UI for adding events sucks and the time of your event is wrong. So click edit to fix that.

For casual users who usually only have one event a day and just want a visual cue to remind them of that, the UI works just fine: You can add an event with 2 clicks and no fuss. But why is editing event details so hard? I think Apple hasn’t really found a replacement UI element for the drawer, but since someone has decided that was ugly, developers are left to come up with weird, non-standard solutions instead.

Either that, or someone at Apple really likes Google Calendar…
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