Thoughts on Mac OS X Lion and natural scrolling

Ok, so I was not a super-early adopter: I waited until July 22nd to buy the latest OS X release from the Mac App Store. (Incidentally, a few hours later I received an email from my university’s IT department saying that we will soon be able to get it for free thanks to a licensing deal with Apple… oh well…).

In a nutshell, so far, so good. First of all, I have yet to find a major compatibility issue, which is great–no downtime. Second, the UI tweaks are cool, including the disappearing space bars (which make a lot of sense: when was the last time you actually used a space bar, given that you can scroll with your touchpad?) Third, I had a hard time understanding exactly how Mission Control was supposed to work when Jobs introduced it, and I was a bit worried about leaving the comfort of Spaces and Expose; but, after using it for less than 24 hours, it’s already growing on me. After all, it’s just Spaces and Expose combined, with support for full-screen apps to boot. By the way, I think the new full-screen mode would be great for LaTeX editing on small screens: you maximize the editing and display surfaces, and have a convenient way to switch back and forth.

Now for the main point of this post. Lion introduces what Apple calls “natural” scrolling. In previous OS X releases up to and including Snow Leopard (as well as on Windows and Linux, on laptops with a decent trackpad), to scroll a page down in your Web browser, word processor, etc., you swipe two fingers down. This may seem natural enough: after all, if you use the scroll bar, you pull the bar down to scroll down, right? But think about this: how do you scroll down on a touchscreen phone (iPhone or Android) or tablet? It’s the other way round: to scroll down, you swipe your fingers up. This makes a lot of sense: if you are reading line-by-line down a long sheet of paper, you want to move the sheet up as you read (think of Hermione Granger reading a scroll in the forbidden section of the Hogwarts library…). Well, this scrolling behavior makes just as much sense on a laptop with a touchpad, and OS X Lion makes it the default. I am quickly getting used to it, because, well, I am already familiar with it: that’s exactly how everything on my Captivate scrolls!

The above discussion was about scrolling a document up or down. But how about left and right? Switching desktops, or to different full-screen apps, also works the “natural” way on Lion: you swipe right to get the desktop (or app) to the left of your current desktop (or app). The animation makes it clear that what you are doing by swiping right is, metaphorically, shifting a very wide sheet of paper where your desktops are “drawn” to the right. The Launchpad app, which is essentially the OS X version of the iOS (and Android) home screen, works the same way.

The question is now, which swiping motion is more natural for moving back and forward in a Web browser? I can see a clear argument for also using “natural” scrolling: think of the pages you visit as if they were drawn on a wide sheet of paper; then, you should swipe right to move the entire sheet right, and hence see the page that was on the left of the current one–that is, the last page you visited before the current one. But, Safari (and indeed Chrome, and Firefox, too, I believe) have long supported the opposite convention: to go back, you swipe left. Why does this make sense? True, the back and forward arrows have always pointed to the left and right respectively (at least, in left-to-right locales). So, maybe the swiping motion is supposed to mimic the direction of the arrow. But, if the back arrow points to the left, doesn’t that mean that you really should think of the last page as being to the left of the current one, so that what you want to do is move the current one to the right to make way for the previous one?

Mission Control is weird in that it supports both metaphors. In the Trackpad preferences, I set “Swipe between pages” to use three fingers, and “Swipe between full-screen apps” to use four; the defaults are two and three fingers respectively, but Chrome won’t recognize two-finger swipes to go back/forward (Safari will). As a result, if I swipe with four fingers in Mission Control, then the metaphor is the “natural” one: I swipe right, and get the desktop to the left of the current one. But, if I swipe with three fingers, it’s the other way round. (Using the default setting, three-finger swipes would give you the “natural” behavior, and two-finger swipes would give you the back/forward behavior).

Anyway, if the above was confusing, don’t worry: you can actually disable “natural” vertical scrolling, and any or all swiping motions for that matter. Still, thinking about these issues highlights the extent to which the iPhone first, and other touchscreen devices later, have changed the way we interact with other computing devices, and still do. Which, after all, was the meaning of the slogan Apple used to announce the OS X Lion release: Back to the Mac.


3 responses to “Thoughts on Mac OS X Lion and natural scrolling

  1. Nice article. Another take on scrolling. Most of the time we scroll down, not up (because most people on this world read from top to bottom). OK, now we have our fingers to make things move. Question: Which way do you have finest control of your fingers? Pulling your two fingers down from top to bottom or stretching them outwards? Am quite sure most will choose the first option (sliding fingers down on a trackpad). So, for me the choice is logical, I’m sticking with the old direction (sliding fingers down when reading). Besides, Apple is not making it obvious to provide “Page Up” and “Page Down” anymore! Apart from that, Lion is a great OS (but had to uncheck 32-bit mode for System Preferences).

  2. Marc Farnum Rendino

    > the UI tweaks are cool, including the disappearing space bars (which make a lot of sense: when was the last time you actually used a space bar, given that you can scroll with your touchpad?)

    All the time! 🙂

    I mean both:

    1) The spacebar key on the keyboard – to scroll precisely one page at a time, quickly and with taking almost none of my own focus, away from the document I’m reading.

    2) The scroll bars (vertical and even horizontal sometimes) – to tell where in a document I am; like how far from the end/beginning.

    While it’s clear why scroll bars absent on an iPhone / iPod touch (too costly a use of precious screen real estate), it makes less sense to eliminate them on OS X; the screen real estate cost is much lower and they provide very useful context.

    Luckily, Apple provides a preference for the scroll bars at least; turn them on or off via System Preferences > General. (Or, in a typically cool Apple touch, make then automatic; nice.)

    However there’s a fundamental problem with the behavior of the spacebar in Lion – it’s inconsistent!

    Sometimes it does page / scroll and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes when it doesn’t, clicking within the area you want to page, makes the spacebar work. Sometimes it’s necessary to click in the area to page, for each page attempt.

    Agh – “sometimes” ain’t enough; this is Apple darnit! 🙂

    • Thanks for your comments… first of all, of course I meant “scroll bars,” not “space bars.” But, you figured that one out…

      I have to say that, after a few weeks using Lion, the “missing scroll bars” do irk sometimes. Your item 2 is an example; another instance is when you have a very long document and want to scroll very far up or down relative to where you are. In both cases, you must use the touchpad to scroll, then move the mouse to the scrollbar area and do what you used to do up to Snow Leopard, but with a smaller (visible) target area.

      As usual, Apple must have figured that, in the final analysis, costs were smaller than benefits. On a 13″ laptop, they may be right. On a 15″ or 17″ laptop, it’s a draw, I think. On a 27″ iMac, it’s definitely the other way around…

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