What’s wrong with the Mountain Lion interface

Rob Griffiths
17 February, 2013
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For the longest time, I resisted the marketing push to move to Mountain Lion (and Lion before that), happy and content with my rock-solid, stable, and speedy Snow Leopard-based iMac system. It did everything I needed, it would literally run for months without a crash or hiccup of any kind, and honestly, many of the changes in the newer operating system versions didn’t strike me as compelling. (My laptops, which see less use, were upgraded, so that I could see things as many of my company’s customers see them.)

Eventually, though, the pull of newer Mountain Lion-only apps, the need to test some stuff in “high DPI” mode, and a desire to run an App.net client (there are none for Snow Leopard) swayed me to upgrade the iMac. Overall, I’m quite happy with the results — many things are notably faster than before, and so far at least, it’s been quite stable.

However, there are a few user experiences that are much worse than they were under Snow Leopard, and I’m not sure I’ll ever adjust to them. Here are two of the more annoying changes that I’ve found with Mountain Lion.

Scroll bars are the evil empire?

So why does Apple seemingly hate scroll bars? In Mountain Lion, they’re invisible, they move in the wrong direction, and there are no longer scroll arrows at each end of the bar.

Of these changes the invisible scroll is the worst: an invisible scroll bar is a useless scroll bar. Without a visible scroll bar, a user is required to take action to reveal the fact that a dialogue or window contains additional information.

Without taking any action, it’s obvious that the Get Info window in Snow Leopard has more to share with the user. In Mountain Lion’s default setup, I have to scroll-drag in every single window to see if there’s additional content. You can set them to be permanently visible in System Preferences, which I always do, but they’re invisible by default. A user new to the platform, though, would have to discover this fact on their own — and it’s not obvious where to go to change the setting.

The backwards scrolling also drives me crazy; Apple calls this “natural” scrolling, while I call it “insanely stupid scrolling.” The change was made to match the way people scroll iOS devices. However, interaction on an iOS device is directly with the screen, and it makes logical sense that the content moves the direction your finger moves.

With a trackpad or mouse, though, you’re more directly affecting the scrollbars, not the content, and it seems completely backwards. I tried it Apple’s way for more than a day, but was much happier after I disabled natural scrolling.

Finally, and this may seem like a little thing, but Apple removed the scroll bar arrows from scroll bars. These arrows were very useful, especially with the option to have both directional arrows at one end of the bar: I could quickly scroll up or down with nothing more than a trackpad tap and a slight mouse movement.

Now I have to use a scroll motion with my fingers, or drag the scroll bar’s thumb to accomplish the same result, and both of those actions require much more finger movement than did the scroll arrows. Over the course of a day, these little motions add up, so much so that I’m now using my arrow keys for forward/back scrolling more often than I am my trackpad.

Colour out, bland in

First, it was the Apple logo itself, going from multi-colour to clearly more-elegant-but-oh-so-boring solid black. Now it seems the same is happening to OS X. While the removal of colour can be seen in many apps and system widgets, to me it’s most obvious — and most impacting, and not in a good way — in the Finder.

In Snow Leopard, colour in the Finder’s sidebar played a key role in making it easy to visually identify click targets: The Applications folder was the red and yellow A-shaped icon; my home folder was a white house, the Desktop was the purple galaxy, etc.

Now, in Mountain Lion, while the basic icon shapes are unchanged, the colour is completely gone. The Applications folder, home folder, and Desktop are all now just grey blobs. And even though they have distinct shapes, it was the combination of shape and colour that made each easily distinguishable. As a result, I have a much harder time finding my click target in Mountain Lion, and find myself reading the text next to the icon to make sure that I have the right one.

Where do we go from here?

As noted in the introduction, I generally like Mountain Lion a lot. The issues with the sidebar and colour, however, make using it more work than it should be. At least most of the scroll bar issues can be reversed (but really, they shouldn’t have to be), but adding colour back isn’t so simple. I have hope, though, now that Jonathan Ive is in charge of all user interface design — perhaps we’ll see positive changes in 10.9 and beyond. For the sake of my overly-scrolling fingers and colour-deprived eyes, I hope that’s the case.


By Rob Griffiths (@rgriff). Senior Contributor, Macworld.

Former Macworld Senior Editor Rob Griffiths founded Mac OS X Hints. He’s now master of ceremonies at Many Tricks Software.


11 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. john says:

    these blogs published by macworld are so full of whiny babies

  2. Steve says:

    I totally agree with the “natural” scrolling that is oh-so-unnatural. I also absolutely hate the lack of colour in the finder sidebar! I used to have nice little colourful icons and now its grey. just grey. I can’t even add custom icons to folders and see that reflected in the sidebar. its now just a generic folder icon. Which is simply ridiculous.

  3. Kim says:

    I think it is great that you are prepared to give us the full story, even with the negatives.

    I’ve been thinking of upgrading but am not convinced of the benefits.

    PS. My Lion Finder sidebar has no colour for those icons now… HAve no idea what’s going on there. :-(

  4. Joe says:

    If it is just these two issues that’s pretty good going.
    interestingly, all but the icon colours can be easily addressed by a quick stop in the System Preferences pane:

    Scrolling direction: There has always been the ability to change this direction to suit your preference, as some people prefer the “natural” direction, others, like me, agree with you that touch screens and trackpads are different modalities. Go to System Preferences > Trackpad > Scroll and Zoom and sett the direction to your tastes.

    Visible scroll bar: This can also be amended to suit your taste. Go to System Preferences > General > Show scroll bars. You can choose from one of the three:
    - Automatically, based on mouse or trackpad,
    - When Scrolling, or
    - Always.
    Sounds like you prefer the Always setting which is available to you.

    Right next to that, is a setting for moving in that scroll bar.
    You can:
    Click in the scroll bar to
    - Jump to the next “page” or
    - Jump to the spot that’s clicked, which is an interesting option.

    As for the colour icons in the sidebar, I completely agree with you: adding colour cues to shape cues helps people without disabilities shortcut to information.

  5. Charmianne says:

    I also agree with the writers who hate the oddball scrolling, I’m just pleased that I can disable that…must go and find that out!

    The dreary finder menu icons are abysmal, why is the world dumbing down to black and grey everywhere…why is Apple

  6. Jon says:

    I share your concerns about invisible scroll bars and lack of colour. The worst missing scroll bar event I had was when I re-started with the option key down in order to select my startup drive. It wasn’t there! Other drives were there but not the oneI needed. I tried all sorts of things to get the drive to mount. Eventually I accidentally moved my mouse inside the display of drives and saw – guess what? – a little scroll bar appeared to tell me my drive was hiding below the window. Crazy!

    As for lack of colour – boring and unhelpful!

  7. Pat Scott says:

    Bring back the Scroll Arrows! It is impossible to negotiate a long pdf or around a big image without them. Their absence creates enormous frustration and wastes huge chunks of time. I get frustrated just thinking about it.

    I always thought Apple was trying to make the computing experience easier and more enjoyable but it seems I WAS WRONG!

  8. KenD says:

    When I first encountered “natural scrolling” I found it quite un-natural—at odds with the traditional scrolling we had used for eons.
    But I now, using a magic mouse, find it completely natural. Even when I use my daughter’s Mac and her mouse with it’s tinzie mouse ball and traditional scrolling, I find traditional scrolling counter-intuitive. And it’s a pain in the foot to have to use a scroll bar.
    Persevere with “natural scrolling” and you won’t look back.

  9. Sabian says:

    I love the new way of scrolling but I am one of the people that always has to invert the ‘Y’ axis in first person shooters so my brain must be opposite in the first place

  10. Yuri says:

    So, is there a way of bringing colour back? Do we need to enlist Justin Timberlake to write a song about how he’s doing just that?

    Look, my key concern about any OS upgrade is whether all of my apps and my peripherals still work? If I lose Quicken or Filemaker (despite it being only v.10), that’s a deal-breaker. Ditto for my expensive scanner.

    A speed comparison between Snow Leopard (which I’m using) and Mountain Lion on an iMac would have been pretty informative as well.

  11. Johnny Hive says:

    I have never seen an article about absolutely nothing until now. Move on, nothing to see here.

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