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Why Ventura System Settings is bad, Part 2

June 8 2022 by Jeff Johnson
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I have some additional thoughts after Part 1. First, I've seen some people vehemently defend the System Settings redesign who haven't yet installed macOS 13 Ventura or used the new System Settings. I find this ridiculous. Why are people like this? It's like they revel in ignorance. Anyway, they're missing the fundamental maxim I quoted in Part 1, "Design is how it works."

General Disarray

Monterey System Preferences has 33 built-in preference panes (or 34 if you've installed a beta profile and thus have a Profiles pane). System Settings has 30 items in the sidebar (not including the Search field and the "Start Using iCloud" advertisement that I can't dismiss with "Not Now"). Some people say they prefer the System Settings sidebar list to the "Show All Preferences" view in System Preferences, but my response is that the sidebar list is artificially short. There are 12 items in the "General" category of System Settings. Apple might as well have named it "Junk Drawer". General includes 7 items that are actually full preference panes in System Preferences. I'm not sure what's supposed to make these general and the other items not general. If the General items were included in the sidebar, it would be even more of a mess. As it is, the sidebar can only show 18 items on my screen at minimum window height, 27 at maximum window height (with bottom Dock). So the sidebar will never show all of the items, unlike in System Preferences. Moreover, System Settings has no way to alphabetize the list, or customize the list to remove unwanted items, unlike in System Preferences. (By the way, I should mention that Show All Preferences has the keyboard shortcut ⌘L in System Preferences, a shortcut that does nothing in System Settings.)

The Desktop & Dock section in System Settings is also absurdly long. It combines preferences from multiple panes on Monterey: Dock & Menu Bar, General (now named Appearance in System Settings), and Mission Control. It's unclear why these preferences are all stuffed together on Ventura, except to save space in the already crowded sidebar.

Think Different

I understand that people are confused by the arbitrary groupings of preference panes into categories in System Preferences — but this problem still exists in System Settings! The settings are still arranged into arbitrary categories with no apparent logic. The irony of System Settings is that Apple took the time to redesign it without taking the time to rethink it! System Settings doesn't really solve the problems that exist in System Preferences. Why can't you customize the settings more in System Settings than in System Preferences, for example, by manually reordering them? This is a lost opportunity to redesign the app and make it better instead of just different. Why not remove some settings from System Settings entirely, making it less crowded and confusing? Why are there Siri settings when there's Siri app? Why are there Time Machine settings when there's Time Machine app? Why are there Passwords settings when there's Keychain Access app? Why are there Startup Disk settings when there's Disk Utility? Why can't you restart with another disk from the  menu? Why isn't Software Update a standalone app? Why isn't Screen Time a standalone app? It's like Apple isn't even trying here.

Switches vs. Checkboxes

I want to talk about what's wrong with switches. In my view, the switch in iOS and macOS is an unintuitive user interface item. The analogue is supposed to be a physical switch. (Set aside the fact that the majority of physical switches are vertical, like light switches, rather than horizontal.) With a physical switch, you have to grab the knob and pull it. You can do this with a graphical switch, but it's slower than checking a checkbox, which requires only a single click or tap. Also, in my experience, pulling a switch is unreliable on touch screens, especially when you try to quickly swipe horizontally.

The odd thing about the graphical switch is that it also behaves like a checkbox. If you simply click or tap the switch, it will toggle. This is more efficient than grab and pull. However, unlike a checkbox, the switch visually suggests to the user that they ought to pull it rather than simply click it! The most efficient way of using a switch is the opposite of what it shows, which is why it's unintuitive.

Now you might claim that if you know the "trick" to using a switch, then it's superior to a checkbox, because it provides a larger hit target. But you would be wrong! Because the checkbox also has its own trick: the checkbox label is clickable and causes the checkbox to toggle. Thus, the checkbox has an even larger hit target than the switch. The checkbox is always more efficient, both for unsophisticated users and for sophisticated users. The unsophisticated user has to rely on appearance and intuition, which suggests sliding the switch, an inefficient action. And the sophisticated user can enjoy the full width of the checkbox text.

I'd also mention that a checkbox is a standard <input> type on the web, so users tend to be very familiar with checkboxes, while a switch has to be custom hacked together on the web.

A slider is a similar element to a switch, but there are crucial differences that make the switch unintuitive, unlike the slider. Typical examples of a slider are volume and brightness. You can adjust a slider the "old fashioned" way by dragging the knob, just like with a switch. You can also single click in the slider, which may give the impression that it's similar to a switch. When you click inside a slider, though, the knob automatically moves to exactly where you clicked. Whereas a click inside a switch is just a toggle, so the knob doesn't move to where you clicked. In fact the knob could move in the exact the opposite direction, depending on where inside the switch you clicked. So I would say that the unintuitive switch behaves quite differently from the intuitive slider.

Quibbles

The Wi-Fi section in System Settings shows of full list of the available wi-fi networks. For me, this list contains more than 30 networks in my area. Even worse, you have to scroll down to the bottom of the section, below the network list to see a couple more preferences. In contrast, the Monterey Network preference pane lists the available wi-fi networks in a popup menu, not in the main view.

Spotlight Privacy has the opposite problem in System Settings. You have to click a "Spotlight Privacy…" button to show the list of folders excluded from Spotlight. In System Preferences, the list is in a tab in the Spotlight preference pane. Ventura System Settings seems to be allergic to tabs. (Sadly, the Siri Suggestions & Privacy… list is hidden behind a button even on Monterey. This was a bad precedent that expanded to several places in Ventura System Settings.)

The "Enter password" field steals the focus when you arrow down to the Passwords section in the System Settings sidebar.

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