The close button doesn’t really close applications in Mac OS X

Problem

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

Having a little “X” button at the top of the application window is a de-facto standard to close an application. Just like Windows and Ubuntu, Mac OS X has these buttons too:

The minimize, maximize and close buttons in Windows 7

The close, minimize and maximize buttons in Ubuntu 12.10

The close, minimize and maximize buttons in Mac OS X Mountain Lion

But in Mac OS X, this button doesn’t actually close the application and it confuses the user. It merely minimizes the application. In some apps this stops the minimized application. In other apps there is not much difference between closing and minimizing.

Story

It’s been a while I want to write about this particular confusion but today something funny happened that made me write it now. Today Apple released Safari 6.0.2 so the App store suggested the update:

App store announces an update for Safari 6.0.2

But I was reading something on Safari so the update procedure suggested me to close the Safari:

It suggests closing Safari to continue the update

I clicked the close button but nothing happened. I remembered that the Mac OS X behaves differently so I guessed the app is not really close. In fact you can see if an app is closed or not by closely looking at the taskbar. There will be a little white light under the apps that are “closed but actually open”. For example in this picture:

How to tell which apps are actually open in Mac OS X

The first and second apps (Chrome and Safari) are open while the third and fourth apps (Firefox and Opera) are closed. You can tell it from that little tiny light under the logo of the application.

So I had to click on Safari to open it again. Then forcefully close the application by pressing CMD+Q (keyboard shortcut) or alternatively I could use the application menu next to the apple logo and choose Safari > Quit Safari.

The update happily continued and finished the job. I’m sure ordinary users who buy Apple products just because they don’t know and don’t want to learn so much about how software works, will end up restarting their computer for this update to take effect. Yes, I’m sure! I’ve seen those users.

Solution

This interaction model is so interwoven into the Mac OS X that probably Apple will never change it. They may have their own reasons for such weird behaviours but whatever it is, the result is confusion, frustration and eventually dissatisfaction from the products.

The solution is simple: close the application when the user clicks the close button! Don’t keep them in RAM.

Like many other usability issues, there are some programs that make it behave the way it is supposed to do for example RedQuits. I wouldn’t install an app to fix this misbehaviour. Why would I buy a car with an uncomfortable chair and then pay extra to switch the chair?

More

Chris Shiflett has put up a list of top 10 usability issues in Mac OS X and this close-button issue comes second in the list!

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2 thoughts on “The close button doesn’t really close applications in Mac OS X

  1. So annoying: you can still switch to this app with cmd+tab – so you switched to panel – VERY useful!!

    Strangest thing is that you dont find much info about this, it is one of the most annoying stuff on mac and noone cares?

    Btw I think there are like 3-4 most annoying stuff in otherwise so nice, smooth and I would say brilliant UX – 1px window border, few unchangable shortcuts and maximize button which actually doesnt maximize (not even with alt+click – since apples MAXimum has wierd (and useless) definition).

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