Mac OS X separates the menu from application

Problem

Note: This post is part of a serie about top Mac OS X usability issues.

Everyone who comes from the world of Windows to Mac will notice one big different: the menu bar is always separated from the application! So there is no menu bar at the top of the application GUI. The menu bar always appears at the top of the screen with the rest of the OS-specific icons and menus. Here are some images to show you what it looks like:

Firefox and its menu in Mac OS X

Finder and its menu in Mac OS X

Spotify and its menu in Mac OS X

User interface separation

This visual separation makes it hard to for the user to associate the application with the menu actions. Think about it this way: you have your car with the driver seat and everything but the steering wheel, gearbox shift, gas and brakes are separate from the car and installed on the road side! I made a little sketch to show how ridiculous this is:

This is how an Apple car may look like: driver controls are separate from the body

It would be interesting to mention that the menu at the top of the screen is not solely for this application. It also contains some menus from the operating system itself as well as general system icons!

How the OS X menu bar is shared between application and the operating system

To make the situation even worse, not all the controls are put on the menu bar. In fact there are some controls and menus in the main GUI which makes it every harder for the user to identify where the commands are hiding. Here is a pop up menu from Finder together with its menu at the top of the screen:

Besides the top screen menu bar, apps have their own menu too

One may argue that this is a popup menu and it is supposed to appear in the main interface. “yes, exactly” I would reply and with the same argument, I want to see the application-specific menu in its main interface as well!

Where does the menu belong?

Another issue is that you may have an app on your screen, but the menu is from another app! For example you may have two instances of TextEdit open. TextEdit is the Mac OS X equivalent of Windows Notepad. You are working in one document and you want to copy the selected part from another document. Something like this:

Two TextEdit windows open in Mac OS X

When you natively click on the Edit menu, you are actually clicking the edit menu from the current window. It takes an extra click on the other Window for the menu to change context. You will not see any indicator of change in the menu, you should just listen to your heart and feel the change (it’s a feedback issue). In Windows every application has its own menu inside its GUI. This simple perception mistake can be avoided in Windows:

Two Notepad windows opened in Windows 7

Extra monitor/projector is headache

This one is probably the worst side effect of having the menu separated from the GUI: when you have an extra monitor or a projector, the main menu is shown only in one of them! Yes, that’s right: it means if you have an app on one screen, you may need to move the mouse all the way to the other screen every single time you want to use the menu! “Unbelievable” for those of you who are not an Apple customer and think Apple is all about usability, “daily headache” for those of us who paid to buy an Apple Mac OS X product!

For example, lets say you have Finder open in one monitor and Opera in another monitor. While working with Finder, you decide to change some preferences in Finder, you have to bring the mouse all the way to the other monitor to access the menu from Finder:

If you have two monitors in Mac OS X, the main menu always appears on one of them.

And this is even harder when you have connected a projector because dragging the mouse to your screen has always this weird “teleport effect” where the mouse travels a few meters from the projector to your laptop screen when it reaches the edge of the screen. It is confusing, misleading, hard to use and just an embarrassing way to present your Mac at a meeting!

It is of course possible to move the menubar from one screen to another in the Mac OS X Display settings but then for the applications in the other screen you have to drag the monitor all the way to the projector.

Solutions

All the problems mentioned in this post can be simply solved by having the menubar together with the main application window. Microsoft is not exactly known as the maker of the best user interfaces but it got at least one thing right: all the pieces of the GUI are together.

Apple has always has the main menu bar like that. So the users get used to this. It is so well established that there are apps created to solve this issue (e.g. SecondBar). Given their complicated political conflicts, it would be extremely hard for Apple to behave like Microsoft. However, I don’t think Apple can have any strong argument for not putting the menubar together with the main application GUI. If they want it, they make it happen and then they can brag about adding a cool new feature to the next version of Mac OS!

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