Building software for humans is hard. One might think the increasing importance of computing in an average persons life would make the job easier on UX designers and engineers. In fact, the opposite is true. New software's success rests on its builders creating it to be easy to understand. One of the most important ways to accomplish this is illustrated by one of my favorite design hacks: the always open Mac Finder.
The time when people used one or two apps a day is a distant memory. I remember walking into my principle's office in High School and seeing her plugging away on a green screen. Today, the front desk lady at my toddler's school has multiple applications and sites open at one time. Software today can not rely on training and documentation to be successful. There just isn't enough time.
The black hole of product is the question "what happens when..."
Which is why the decision to keep the Mac Finder always open is interesting. When you command+tab, the finder will always be there smiling back at you. Having an always open default app is sneakily smart because it circumvents the entire conversation around "what happens when there is not anything to show".
The black hole of product is the question "what happens when...?" The intentions behind the question are good, product owners do not want products filled with sharp edges. Yet often the answers to this question often dull one large edge only to create a few more, albeit smaller, sharp edges.
Changing the expected behavior of an application forces the user to understand and figure out one more thing. The costs extend to engineering, since the developers will have one more code path to build and QA will have extra to test. Coming up with the right solution to an edge case is critical to making a good product, but there is another way.
Resources are limited, but none more so than your customers' time.
Instead of dulling the sharp edge, look instead to preventing the user form getting there. This might mean intentionally limiting the product, often a trade-off that results in inconveniencing a few users for the benefit of the vast majority. This might mean making default decisions for the user, at the expense of a non-standard usage of the system. This almost never means adding helper text and moving on, since the users are in your application to accomplish something, not read a novel.
The product team has to decide if the tradeoffs are worth it. Resources are limited, none more so than your users' time. Having a better experience can help your product and company stand out.
The Mac teams' focus on consistency, of which the Finder is one small example, have earned them millions of users and helped propel the company to being one of the most profitable in the world. Something to think about if you are trying to succeed in today's crowded software market.
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