Three OS X quirks that confuse the hell out of switchers

Posted on Apr 13, 2008 in Mac, UI Design

OS X is a great OS for “newcomers” and “power users” alike. Almost inevitably it’s OS X’s user-friendliness that (deservedly) gets most the attention – printers just work, BSOD-style crashes are (almost) unheard of and drivers are such a non-issue, they’re practically invisible (they either just work, or they don’t).

But instead of focusing on the good, today we’ll be taking a look at the bad and (shock!) ugly areas of OS X that confuse far too many switchers…


1. DMG files and installing apps
DMG files are a semi-elegant solution to the problem of installing apps. The problem is they confuse every new switcher I’ve ever met. The problem is usually described to me like this:

Why does that white thingy keep showing up on my desktop when I launch insert appname?

OS X apps are usually distributed as disk image files: Once you double-click the .dmg, it opens the image, which in turns is “mounted” on your desktop. Normally a window is then opened displaying the application with an arrow pointing to an alias of your Applications folder. Simply drag the application onto the alias and it’s “installed” in the users apps folder.

Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong! What usually happens is the eager n00b launches the application from the disk image. Things are made worse by the fact that it’s usually perfectly fine to do so, the application will run as expected. But when the user restarts their Mac, the application has disappeared (the disk image is unmounted at shutdown). I usually end up using metaphors to explain them as “virtual USB thumbdrives” to explain the need to copy the application to the Application folder and once the concept is understood it’s a non-issue.

But you really shouldn’t need crappy metaphors to explain how to install an app…

–> Solution: Distribute applications as Zip files.

They are unpacked automatically by Safari and developers can add a check to see where the user has launched the application from and offer to copy it to the apps folder if required (Misu already does this). The advantage here is most users are familiar with zip files, plus there’s no need to explain disk images, mounting and unmounting of drives etc.


2. There’s no right-click!

Apple still ship all of their desktop and notebook Macs with just the left-click button enabled: That’s right – the Mighty mouse may be able to right-click, but it won’t do so until you dig around in the System Preferences and enable it. Notebook users are even worse off: They’re left to discover the Ctrl-click trick on their own by accident, or by asking around…

What’s worse: Apple does enable a different mouse button: Inexplicably the default setting for the scroll ball is for it to launch the Dashboard when depressed – usually causing confusion and bewilderment on the part of the user.

–> Solution: Apple ships a 2-button mouse with the iMac and Mac Pro – just enable it already!

(and maybe add a Macbook Air-style System Preferences video to clue in the mobile users…)


3. Where’s my Home folder?

There’s no obvious way to immediately open a user’s Home folder. The most obvious way is to click the harddrive icon that is normally visible in the top right corner of the desktop. But clicking that only gets you to the root of the harddrive – it takes an additional click to get to the home folder. 

Clicking the Finder icon at the bottom left corner of the Dock will reveal the Home folder, but only if no other Finder windows are open. Otherwise it reveals one of those instead.

(I believe the same problem also applies to the Applications folder – the most “direct” way to get there is by opening another folder first)

Leopard alleviates this problem somewhat by adding a Home folder stack to the right side of the Dock, but that probably confuses the issue more than it helps.

–> Solution: Add an Home folder alias to the Desktop.

Most computer users treat the desktop as their main file storage location anyway, so adding a Home alias seems like a fairly simple solution.


  1. Apple + Shift + H will launch your Home Directory. Apple + Shift + A for your Application. Assuming you click on your desktop or the active view is on your desktop.

  2. @Paradrakus: Yeah, that’s true, but not really that easy for new users to discover either.
    My point is more that these things are easy once you get them, but not that easy to discover… unlike the rest of OS X.

  3. While in the Finder, at the top of the screen is a menu titled “Go”. Under that menu is “Home”. Direct connection to the Home folder.

  4. Two More ‘Quirks’:

    Delete button does not Delete-Forward:

    This drives hardcore Winblows users insane! Their anti-Mac resentment surfaces with each mangled word or sentence mis-edited while trying to use the Delete key. Using the fn + Delete key to Delete-Forward is unacceptable to them. One should be able to delete-forward, hitting ONE key. Unfortunately, this is a religious OS matter, as hardcore Mac users would say that the Delete key existentially means deleting backwards. Their collective iResponse: Get over it.

    Solution: Apple should give the user the ability to remap the Delete key. And, no, not some combo keys. To my knowledge, the Delete key can’t be remapped itself to do Delete-Forward. It should be; with fn + Delete then doing Delete-Backwards.

    Closing last application window does not quit the application:

    This causes confusion from the converts, when they seek to relaunch an app, expecting the main window appear, and….nothing happens. That’s because the application is already running, with all of the expected windows closed. I don’t know if this is a Finder/OS X limitation, or a Steve Jobs Ego Thing. Someone more in the know should flush this out and call Apple on it.

    Solution: There should be a System Preference or a Finder Preference that allows an application to close upon the close of the last window of the application. If someone knows of a haxie that does this, please post.

  5. Open Home folder: Command-N (Open New Window). That’s it. What’s so hard about that?
    Or open the hard drive icon and click on your User (Home) folder in the Sidebar.

    Placing aliases on the Desktop starts you on the downward spiral of Desktop clutter.

  6. If you prefer the Windows way, then stick to Windows. Don’t ruin my Mac. :D

  7. Ok, I’ve been using Macs for, oh heck a bunch of years, I didn’t even know/care about those key shortcuts. On the delete forward thing, on a whindex box it drove me nuts. You can place a apps aliases on the dock. No clutter problem.

  8. Usually — that would be, for as long as I can remember — forward delete was accomplished be pressing the ‘forward delete’ key [delete x>], which has been traditionally next to the ‘end [end] key on my Mac desktop keyboards.

    Also, even with the last window of an app closed — there’s an indicator in the Dock that shows that the app is still running. And the menubar will also change, to the currently foremost app — the one you thought you just restarted.

    The solution is much simpler. Start using you Apple Mac computer as an Apple Mac computer, and stop using it as a non-Microsoft almost-Mac computer.

    Pancakes are not flat waffles.

  9. Adrian, have you got your Sidebar disabled somehow? You should be seeing a wide variety of volumes and folders on the left side of every open window. You can select what is displayed in the Finder Preferences/Sidebar.
    Keep the number of items in the Dock to a minimum. It’s easy to overload it with too much rubbish. I launch applications (in Leopard) by just keying Command/Spacebar to activate Spotlight then the first 2-3 characters of the app followed by [return]. It saves having to use my trackpad or mouse.
    On the right-click problem, it’s easily corrected with the Mouse preferences, but this does raise the problem that the mouse is a major cause of OOS or RSI. Movement of fingers involves muscle activity right up into the shoulder and holding fingers hovering over mouse buttons, not quite activating them, causes incredible strain on the right arm. I have reprogrammed my mouse to perform a left-click with the right button and vice-versa and most of the time my index finger rests off the edge of the right button, only flicking slightly up for a ‘left-click’, or more rarely reaching over briefly for a ‘right-click’. Even so I prefer to use keyboard equivalents where I can.

  10. Thanks for all your comments!

    Don’t get me wrong – I love OS X and have no trouble finding my way around things..

    But I do work customer relations for a Mac-software company and notice these points often confuse new users.

  11. Thanks Adrian. I’ve been using Macs so long I need hear the frustration from switchers.

    I would differ on one of your recommended corrective actions: Apps going dormant isn’t the problem but, rather, clicking on a dormant app does not have a noticeable effect. I suggest Apple is aware of that because Safari will launch a new browser window if 1) you click on the dormant app and 2) it does not already have a window open. It looks like we are left with the impossible task of changing how developers code their apps.

    If you “quit” each time you close a window the perceived launch time of your most often used apps will sky rocket.

  12. I always thought it an oversight that Apple do not install, by default, in the Dock the three most necessary icons for the beginning user: 1) Home Folder 2) Documents Folder (slightly redundant with “Home” but user psychology is what it is and 3) Applications
    I end up having to do this manually when I set up computers for non-computer oriented friends and relatives.


  13. Telling Windows users to “stop trying to use a Mac like a Windows machine” isn’t helpful. It doesn’t alleviate frustration with what should be the least frustrating platform out there.

    Another thing I find people having trouble with is that Mac apps stay running until you quit them, regardless of whether or not you have any open documents. This usually results in switchers having a dozen apps running without them being aware of it, and they wonder why their system is getting bogged down.

    I’ve been a diehard Mac user for twenty-two years, but I have to support a number of longtime PC users who are having to adapt to our Mac-based shop, and I can sympathize with the difficulty they have.

  14. I am a long time Mac user (since OS8) and Touche! adrian you hit the nail on the head…

    however, many of the people who have added their comments here just add more to the confusion! If there is so much clouded confusion here, imagine the situation out in the wild…

    Dont believe it? check these out…

    1. keying Command/Spacebar to activate Spotlight then the first 2-3 characters of the app followed by [return]

    2. forward delete was accomplished be pressing the ‘forward delete’ key [delete x>], which has been traditionally next to the ‘end [end] key on my Mac desktop keyboards.

    3. While in the Finder, at the top of the screen is a menu titled “Go”. Under that menu is “Home”. Direct connection to the Home folder.

    4. Apple + Shift + H will launch your Home Directory. Apple + Shift + A for your Application. Assuming you click on your desktop or the active view is on your desktop.


    Steve Sucks

  15. I am always pleased when someone switches from a PC to a Mac. But, I don’t want my experience to change to just because someone else switched. I wish that every last command and function in OS X was so idiot proof that everyone would get it the first time…but it is not. In my opinion, OS X is the best OS and my OS of choice for professional work.

    Regarding an app automatically closing after the last window closes. I think your request is not well thought out. I often open graphic file in Photoshop…do some work on it…close that file and open another one. I really don’t want to wait for Photoshop to relaunch each time I work on a new file.

  16. Adrian,

    There are certain ways that an operating system works, and there are however many books and other training materials out there for helping people to learn about the operating system. The functions that you describe are things that can and likely do confuse people, but to have Apple change them simply because someone is confused would be like saying we should ban standard transmissions because people are confused about how to clutch. Either you learn it or you learn how to work around it.

    The DMG format for sending files is more elegant than a ZIP file, it allows for more than just having a compressed file to transfer files. To toss this “because Windows does ZIP files” is staying put in technology rather than advancing.

    The single button mouse is better for BEGINNERS to learn how to use the mouse, but does limit functionality of a multi-button mouse. It has historically been the mouse used by Apple, and most any 3rd party mouse with however many buttons simply plugs in and works on a Mac. The Apple mouse DOES follow the standard Apple single button mouse protocol because it is better to keep that standard and allow others to change it as they see fit, which your picture shows quite clearly.

    The HOME folder has changed in the Apple world, from nothing being there prior to OS 7.x and then being a DOCUMENTS folder on the root of the hard drive sometime in OS7.x’s history up to OS9.x and then being buried in folders under the USERS directory under OSX. However, the same has been true for Windows, from there being nothing set to MY DOCUMENTS to changing to just DOCUMENTS to whatever it is now.

    Microsoft changes too, so should Apple change each time Microsoft changes? If you want Apple to change each time Microsoft does, then Apple is not in control of its operating system, Microsoft is.

    Apple has and will change things over time, slight changes to make things work better, or as newer technology is developed (or sometimes purchased from others) and implemented into the OS.

    I don’t want to have learn new ways of doing things each release of the OS because it changed its default behaviour. I have owned Mac OS from version 1.0 (and using pre-release finders like the Turkey Day Finder from US Thanksgiving 1983 that I came across after the Mac was released) up to Tiger, (didn’t implement 10.0/10.1 and haven’t gone to Leopard yet, but have used 10.5). In everything up to 9.x, Apple improved the OS, adding features, improving features but it very seldom changed features so radically from what was existing before, IMHO.

    Apple in the HIG (Human Interface Guidelines) has done research, testing people on how things get done, and has found the (usually) better way of doing things. They have worked this out so that it is simple, easy and works together with the rest of their interface. Some things of course almost defy having a workable interface and things are bolted on that are most weird to get used to initially.

    Most of the functionality of Windows is similar to the Mac OS, having been “borrowed/stolen” from Apple. Microsoft deliberately changed things so they were not a duplicate of what Apple did. This was the same behaviour that DOS did from CP/M, changing the from-to or to-from direction of commands.

    Apple has borrowed some things from Windows as well (command-TAB application switching for example) so Apple is not the only one who creates interface designs that are usable.

    Your arguments seem to be that a majority of people are used to it this way, so Apple should change to the majority. But if that is the argument, then why not stick with Windows and eliminate the Mac since Windows is the majority?

    So, as to Apple changing to make it easier for people switching from Windows, my vote is NO! This is the way it is done here and anyone who wants to do it a different way needs to research the way to get it done the way they want, either through using the configuration settings/preferences, installing third party software (ie. Default Folder) or just getting used to the differences. OSX is ***NOT*** Windows, get used to it now.

    Sorry if it makes your life in support a bit difficult explaining things to people new to the Mac, but then, create a cheat sheet, or write a book listing the differences and give/sell it to the people to explain the differences to the newbies. Put this in a help file included with your software that you sell and educate people about how it works. Put it up on your website. Your choice.

    BTW, I provided technical support from 1984 up to the early 2000’s on Apple II’s, ///’s, Mac’s, DOS and Windows. I’ve used most Apple products including Newtons, PC/MS-DOS from 1.0 through 6, Windows from 3.x to XP (haven’t gotten into Vista as I am no longer doing tech support and no one I know uses Vista). I’ve gotten one brother and my sister onto Macs from Windows as well as a number of other people I know. The ones who do switch DO get confused about a number of things, but once they are shown how it works, they learn it and get on with it. This has been the case since anyone changed from one OS to another, and I had to learn the differences between my Apple II+ (bought in 1979) to when I got my Mac in 1984.

    The problem is not learning the Macintosh way, it is forgetting the Windows way (or however it was done before on whatever equipment).

    Sorry if it makes your job harder or monotonous going over the same thing, but it is not Apple’s job to make your job easier. It is to make their OS work for them, to make all the pieces work together in a logical and efficient manner and to allow for future expansion in whatever direction they go as new technology gets developed.

  17. Orange juice ≠ lemonade. Yet, both are beverages.
    Car ≠ truck. Yet, both are vehicles.
    Japanese ≠ English. Yet, both are languages.
    MacOS ≠ Windows. Yet, both are OSes.

    Your friends are cheap and lazy. But then, so are mine.

    While I personally consider myself an intermediate/upper intermediate Mac user — many of my friends call me a ‘Mac Genius’. But, I’m skeptical of flattery.

    I keep saying, ‘Buy a good Mac OS book. (The Missing Manual, for instance) Use the Help menu’. But, I continue to be ignored. Too many people want you to learn it for them. (Which is tantamount to, taking a pee for someone else)

    Everything I know about the Mac, today — began buy learning Sys7.1. But, I had to start — Journey of a thousand miles…

    Anyway, as of 2005, my time is no longer available to those who, ‘won’t help me help them’! ;-)

    To paraphrase ‘Reginald W’ from above, ‘The problem is not learning the Macintosh way, it is setting aside the Windows way’.

    Uh. Think DIFFERENT.

  18. Well, I learned something today that definitely demotes me to intermediate.

    So, I was correct all along. The ‘Genius’ bit was transparent flattery.

    I’m deeply hurt.

    No free tech support, for one year! LOL

  19. I speak as a recent switcher so have experience in this in a way perhaps that some of you lifetime Macers haven’t.

    1. Installing Apps. Yes, I agree that it is a problem but I would have got used to it if they were consistent – perhaps the HI guidelines need to be more specific. And I still haven’t figured out how to un-install something. Just dragging the App to the waste is not always sufficient.

    2. The mouse didn’t take me long to figure, but I had anticipated the problem.

    3. Home folder. Not a problem, but I still find it clumsy going to finder each time.

    4. @lefty. Delete button – I hadn’t even noticed, my keyboard has a backspace key, not delete.

    5. @lefty. Closing applications – initially a problem but I soon got used to it. Mind you, I have a Mac Pro so can cope with the overload.

    6. @me. The biggest gripe I have with OS-X is the huge distance I have to move the mouse to get to the menu bar when I was used to it being right on the top of the window I was using. This is exaggerated by having two large screens.

    7. @me. This blog, it’s covered in mangled smart quotes – at least I think that is what they are.

  20. This blog, it’s covered in mangled smart quotes – at least I think that is what they are.

    Thanks Rick, it seems when I upgraded my database some characters became a bit mangled. I’ll fix that right away.

  21. @Rick

    The Apple interface people tested times taken for people to reach a menu bar attached to the window of the app, and attached to the top of the screen.

    People reach OS X’s bar much quicker. This is because there is an interface rule which states the Time taken to reach the Target is a function of the Target Area and the Distance from the Target. Now whilst OS X’s bar is slightly further away, the target area is infinite in one direction, namely “above the screen”, as the very last pixel of the menu bar is clickable. This means, unlike Windows, you do not need to decelerate your mouse of you approach the Target. And you could always increase tracking speed.


    An app being left open is in no way a limitation of OS X, nor an “ego thing” of Steve Jobs. It manifests itself due to the way OS X handles documents. In Windows, an instance of a process is created *every time* a document is opened, i.e. if you open 5 .txt files, you will have five Notepad.exe in the Task Manager.
    OS X on the other hand is rather clever – it merely opens one process which handles multiple documents, i.e. 5 .txt files, and only one instance of TextEdit in Activity Monitor. This means when you close a window, you close a *document* in OS X, rather than a *process*. So, logically, when you close the last document, i.e. window, the app waits to either be ceased itself, or for you to open the next document. In fact, I find the fact that apps stay open after their window has closed fantastic! It basically eliminates the need for Windows’s stupid Notification Area. iTunes plays regardless of its window being closed, Safari continues downloading silently when you close all the windows and the download box.

    In summmary, windows in Windows = apps. Close it, close the app. Windows in OS X = documents. Close it, close the document.


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