Leave My Scrollbars—and Scrub Bars—Alone

I’ve been complaining to anyone who would listen about Lion’s iOS-like disappearing scrollbars since the day they were announced. I need now to take a moment to gloat. In his incredible-as-always review of the new version of the Mac OS, ArsTechnica’s John Siracusa takes my side, explaining why it’s jarring and terrible—my words—to have disappearing scrollbars on the Mac (even as it makes perfect sense on the iPhone, e.g.). (The whole 19-page review is worth reading, but if you don’t think so, then at least give the section on scrollbars a go.) Siracusa notes:

Scroll bars do more than just let us scroll. First, their state tells us whether there’s anything more to see. A window with “inactive” (usually shown as dimmed) scroll bars indicates that there is no content beyond what is currently visible in the window. Second, when a document has more content than can fit in a window, the scroll bars tell us our current position within that document. Finally, the size of the scroll thumb itself—or the amount of room the scroll thumb has to move within the scroll bar, if you want to look at it that way—gives some hint about the total size of the content.

Thankfully, as Siracusa points out, non-hiding scrollbar behavior can be restored in System Preferences. The issue persists elsewhere in the OS, however, and in fact, has been around since years before Lion’s release today. In particular, in watching video using either of Apple’s applications for doing so (QuickTime and DVD Player), you have to deal with the same kind of pretty-but-less-informative chrome-hiding that I’ve been griping about. Let’s take a moment to review the most influential video player in computing probably ever, YouTube:

YouTube’s standard player.

Nice. I get lots of good information out of YouTube’s standard, non-full-screen player, including:

  • how far along I am in the video (indicated both visually and with temporal data and useful when my patience is being tried by the content, as pictured here)
  • the video’s length (useful in deciding whether to watch now or later)
  • how much of the video has loaded (useful in knowing whether I should walk away for a bit to “manually” increase my buffer)
  • whether I am on play or pause (occasionally useful in troubleshooting)

If all’s going well and I know I’m going to settle in and watch the rest of this video, I may not care about that information anymore. It’s not in the way in the standard player, but it would be in full-screen mode. So YouTube smartly hides it there:

YouTube’s full-screen player. (On cursor activity over the video, the controls come back.)

Great. Well done, YouTube: I see what I want when I want it, and not when I don’t.

Let’s compare this approach to QuickTime’s (both Player and plug-in) and DVD Player’s behaviors. The full-screen versions behave much like YouTube’s, but, frustratingly, so do the standard players, hiding information:

QuickTime Player.
QuickTime Browser Plugin. (Thanks, pyroinnovations.com!)
DVD Player.

Yes, I get that everything’s a little bit prettier this way. But I desperately miss the information more often than I would’ve expected before these changes came about—and I resent the growing influence of this aesthetic in places where I’d rather it not be. (As one otherwise smart and talented designer friend said in designing a video player, “If it’s good enough for Apple…”. It’s not good enough for Apple, I wanted to retort.) After living with these video players, of course, it seemed a no-brainer that disappearing scrollbars in Lion would be maddening. I just don’t get why Apple’s pushing so hard to make the Mac OS more like iOS. As Siracusa notes, the devices these OSes run on present users with totally different models of interaction. Why try to combine them when they serve such different purposes?

13 thoughts on “Leave My Scrollbars—and Scrub Bars—Alone

  1. Lloyd Morgan July 20, 2011 / 11:55 am

    If I could ‘+1’ this to show my appreciation, I would. In lieu of that, I’m commenting purely to say that I absolutely agree with every single sentence, nay, word, in this post.


  2. Mike Grabski July 20, 2011 / 2:17 pm

    I’m a chrome minimalist. The content is what is important, the facets of chrome are interface artifacts. Attempts to minimize are appreciated, but you must always keep them within reach and intuitive to activate. That being said, positional indicators are important. I think scrollbars can be distracting, and would like a fresh approach to them, but I have the same reservations about hiding them entirely.

    On the other hand, I hadn’t given much thought to the fact that scrolling cues are missing in iOS, because I suddenly realize that I never needed them. You could argue that Apple’s UX researchers have done their job and know us better than we’d like to admit, and that the discomfort is simply because of change. I’m glad that it is a setting, though, and I will try it their way and see how it works.


    • devan July 20, 2011 / 2:55 pm

      Thanks for the comment, Mike. I’m intrigued by your thoughts, and they’ve really got me thinking hard. (READ: “Long reply warning!”) I should mention now I haven’t messed around really at all with the iPad, so none of the following can really apply to that side of the iOS universe.

      I. For one thing, you’ve prodded me to think about the video player on the iPhone, which I hadn’t included in my comparison. It displays a scrub bar (etc.) for several seconds but hides it once the video starts playing. It’s sort of like the best of both worlds, where you get some of the information (total length and a general sense of how quickly the video is loading) up front, but quickly and automatically switch to full-screen mode. Great system.

      On the other hand, two important differences between that and, say, the QuickTime browser plug-in on the Mac stem directly from the hardware situation, and they make me think what’s good for the iOS goose doesn’t work as well for the OS X gander. (Sorry.)

      First, if I want to reveal the video controls on the iPhone, I just tap anywhere. The video player is a full-screen interface, so almost no precision is required. And since I’m typically already holding the device, which is compact, my thumb is probably already in position to tap the screen.

      On my laptop, though, I have to use my trackpad to hover over the video itself—which involves moving a hand and a forearm, locating the cursor, and finding a target that’s small relative to the screen space. Much more effort just because of the hardware difference, and works slightly against your “within reach” dictum, with which I couldn’t agree more.

      The second difference also stems from the iPhone video player’s full-screen nature. When video’s loading on the iPhone, I’m probably just sitting there watching, so I may well catch a little flash of interface with some useful information in it.

      On my Mac, on the other hand, my attention may be pulled away from the browser window when the info flashes. I could glance at another window or at the Dock, or I could pop Mail open for a moment to see what’s just come in. It’s too easy to miss those cues because the video player doesn’t have total control over my device. (And of course, the info doesn’t even display in QuickTime Player proper.)

      II. The other thing you’ve got me thinking about is whether I miss scroll bars on the iPhone. I do occasionally, but not often, I have to admit. I think it’s for the same reason I don’t miss the always-on scrub bar on the video player: It’s just so, so easy to get the information I want. I tap the screen more or less anywhere and I see how much of the long article I have left to read, for example.

      Maybe calling up disappearing scroll bars will “feel” that easy in Lion, too. After all, I need only get my cursor anywhere within the browser window (e.g.) and scroll away—much more like the big target provided by the iPhone screen’s video player than the small target provided by the little QuickTime video nestled in the center of a browser window. I guess I’ll have to give it a try, eventually. (I shy away from .1 releases of OS X. [Trauma.])

      Anyway when you do dig in and “try it their way,” as you rightly put it, let me know what you think.


  3. Mike Grabski July 20, 2011 / 4:13 pm

    After I had posted that, I had to scold myself over one detail I ignored in my second paragraph, which you picked up on right away: in iOS, the entire interface is “touchable”. Furthermore, the apps are all fullscreen. So, you’re right; being oblivious to scrolling in iOS is much easier than on OS X.


    • devan July 20, 2011 / 4:20 pm

      Ha. Well, such is life. But still the difference may be negligible given the relatively large target of a browser window, say. Excited to hear how you (and others) find the disappearing scroll bars.


  4. Mike Grabski July 20, 2011 / 4:20 pm

    Also, Lion is worth upgrading to for full volume encryption alone.


    • devan July 20, 2011 / 4:22 pm

      Damn. Didn’t know about that. And you know just how to appeal to the security-minded paranoiac in me.


  5. Elise B. July 24, 2011 / 6:38 pm

    Hey Devan,

    Sort of off topic…sorry

    You seem to be pretty smart when it comes to all this techno crap. I have a question….if you want to/can answer it.

    My husband, Marty, has an HP Laptop with Windows 7 Operating System. His cursor flys all over the place at times…when this happens he has to fight with it to get it to where he wants it… it moves on its own all over the place…it can be very frustrating. Many times it moves to the top of the page and if he is not aware of that, he will accidentally close out what he is working on. Please save our marriage! 😉 I am tired of the expletives that fly when that happens. Thanks


    • devan July 25, 2011 / 6:14 am

      Hi Elise,

      Sorry to say I’ll probably be no help on the trackpad. I’m admittedly a bit of a dolt when it comes to Windows, but I think those kinds of issues tend to require professional help anyway. (I mean tech support, not couples counseling!)

      I can think of two things, though. The first is that maybe he has a stray finger or part of his palm touching the trackpad by accident, which can make the cursor jumpy. The second is that maybe at some point some water or moisture got on or under the trackpad and messed it up, in which case it would need to be replace. But if it’s not something that happens every time, I doubt that’s the issue.

      Good luck!


  6. Elise B. July 25, 2011 / 10:26 am

    thanks Devan…it is brand new so no moisture damage (at least not done by us…) and I know it is the cursor that is “cursed” and not a palm hitting the touch pad (although i know what you are talking about..i have done that )

    we prob. need to take it back to the vendor…..

    have a good day today.


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