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Why Ventura System Settings is bad

June 7 2022 by Jeff Johnson
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"Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it's this veneer, that the designers are handed this box and told, "Make it look good!" That's not what we think design is. It's not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works." - Steve Jobs

The venerable System Preferences app has been completely redesigned in macOS 13 "The Body" Ventura. Indeed it's even been renamed to System Settings. The new design of Mac System Settings appears to be based on iPad Settings, and quite frankly, it's bad. You can say "Ventura is only a beta", but the problem isn't some bugs that can be fixed, the problem is the fundamental design that can't be fixed. I assume if I filed a Feedback asking for the old System Preferences design back, Apple would close my request with the reason "works as designed". Yet it works badly as designed. To explain why, I'm going to compare Monterey System Preferences with Ventura System Settings.

System Preferences
System Settings

Notice first that on Monterey, the keyboard focus starts in the Search field, whereas it doesn't on Ventura. I'll talk more about keyboard focus later, but also notice the bizarre popup buttons on Ventura. The button doesn't even appear until you hover over it!

Ventura popup buttons

Compare with Monterey:

Monterey popup buttons

On Monterey, you could customize the preference panes, hiding the ones you don't want to see.

Monterey View menu
Customize System Preferences

You could also sort them alphabetically rather than by categories. (Almost alphabetically, anyway, except the top row.)

Alphabetically sorted System Preferences

On Ventura, no such options exist.

Ventura View menu

Keyboard navigation on macOS is vastly improved if you enable one system preference. Err, system setting. On Mac OS X, this preference used to be called "Full Keyboard Access", but now that name has been repurposed for something similar but not quite the same in Accessibility preferences. The new name for the old Full Keyboard Access is now "Use keyboard navigation to move focus between controls". When enabled, not only can you use the tab key to move focus between controls, you can also use the space key to trigger a focused button.

Monterey, Use keyboard navigation to move focus between controls

On Ventura, this setting is more difficult to find, because it's buried behind another button.

Ventura Keyboard Settings
Ventura, Use keyboard navigation to move focus between controls

By the way, you can already see that System Settings has replaced many checkboxes with horizontal switches. I honestly don't get the appeal of switches at all, not even on touch screens. The only "point" of switches appears to be pointless animation. But otherwise, simple click or touch checkboxes are easier and quicker to toggle.

Navigation in System Settings is usually less convenient and requires more clicks than in System Preferences. Keyboard navigation in particular is much worse, as might be expected for a design inspired by iPad rather than Mac. For example, consider Notifications. On Monterey, the list of apps can be navigated with the up and down arrow keys, and each app's preferences are also navigable by keyboard. And when you want to switch to a different app, you can just select it in the list, because the list and the preferences are adjacent.

Monterey Notifications

On Ventura, the list of apps cannot be navigated by keyboard at all, and neither can the settings for each app.

Ventura Notifications

The only control that can be focused is the back button. (There's also a keyboard shortcut ⌘[ to go back, but I've never found that very convenient.) Every time you want to switch to a different app in the list, there's an extra step on Ventura, and gaps in keyboard navigability.

Ventura Notifications keyboard navigation

Now let's talk about the "General" section of System Settings.

Ventura General Settings

It's too general. There's way too much stuff in this section, which makes navigation inconvenient and adds extra steps. Many of these settings were top level preference panes in System Preferences that for some reason got buried in System Settings. Probably because it would make the sidebar list too long, but that just shows the design was bad, and the abuse of "General" is a workaround for the bad design.

Finally I want to talk about window sizing. On iPad and iPhone, windows are typically (though not always) full screen, whereas on the Mac, windows can take almost any size. The System Preferences window is not user-resizable, but it does size-to-fit the contents somewhat. If you install a third-party preference pane, as I did, you can see that the window becomes taller to fit another row. And if you pay close attention, you can see the window resize as you select different individual preference panes. In contrast, the System Settings window has a fixed width. This is unfortunate, because the settings are competing with the sidebar for that width (approximately the width of an iPad, you might say). On Monterey there's no competition, because the preference panes and the individual preferences are in separate views.

At first I thought the System Settings window wasn't vertically resizable either, but it turns out that I was just confused. My confusion was the result of an unfortunate user interface feature introduced in macOS Big Sur: heavily rounded rects on windows. Long years of Mac habit made me try to resize the window from the bottom right corner. This didn't work. If you place the mouse pointer at the visible "tip" of the window, the cursor doesn't change to indicate that sizing is available.

Mouse pointer at corner

If you move the pointer a little to the left, it's obviously still over the window. But it's not obviously over the window on the right edge, because of the rounding.

Mouse pointer hovering over window

Curiously and unintuitively, the cursor changes to a resize widget if you move the pointer down a little farther from the visible tip of the window.

Mouse resize widget

Another problem is that if you resize the System Settings window all the way down to the Dock, it's extremely difficult to get it to show the resize widget again. The mouse is either over the Dock or over the window, and it never shows the resize widget. (In contrast, the resize widget does appear easily at the top of the window if it's up against the menu bar.)

This is my initial impression from using System Settings for 24 hours. I've noticed other problems with System Settings too (some of them quite bad), but those are just beta bugs that are fixable. In this blog post I've tried to highlight the design flaws that would be difficult to fix without redesigning the app. Or "undesigning" the app, to go back to the old System Preferences design. Last year we got Apple to backtrack on the new terrible Safari tabs, so maybe we can do it again this year?

Addendum

It's been brought to my attention that the new System Settings violates Apple's Human Interface Guidelines, which were just updated. "Avoid using a switch to control a single detail or a minor setting." "In general, don't replace a checkbox with a switch." "Use a checkbox instead of a switch if you need to present a hierarchy of settings."

Part 2

See Part 2 of this blog post, with additional thoughts.

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