Small snapshot of DesktopThe way we use computers has changed over the years. Today we use a lot more removable media – MP3 players, cameras, portable firewire drives, USB key drives, disk images, iDisk, network drives. Yet, after all this time, the desktop has hardly changed in the way it works.

On the Mac, much of the desktop functions today as it did back in the 1980s. As new removable media appear, the icon for that media is added to the desktop, by default vertically down the desktop – right to left.

We also download a lot more these days, and with ease. With web browsers, downloaded files are also added to the desktop in a similar way to removable media.

Unfortunately the Desktop is beginning to look a little like a junkyard. After an hour of browsing on the web, or working on your machine, you can end up with a pile of files sitting on your desk.

The bigger mess is with removable devices. Icons are rarely in a fixed place. I attach my iPod, it appears where ever it can find a space. And if I look for it on the desktop, I have to search around to find it.

I just plugged in my iPod. Where is the little bugger?

Now, by default, downloads appear on the desktop – and this can be changed to a folder (for example). However, I, and others, find it convenient to use the desktop as the download area. That doesn’t mean though that the desktop should just be a temporary storage location. It should provide the user with more power than just a temporary folder.

Finder Top LeftThe Desktop is also at odds with the new Finder. With Finder windows, removable media appear on the left. On the desktop, they appear (somewhere) on the right (depending on how many files you have on the Desktop).

Flow based on type
People really don’t like change. I never expected the reaction I’d get from the following suggestion. But I’ll make the suggestion anyway – there should be an option to follow the sidebar trend in the new Finder (and this should be the default).

With this option, the top part of the sidebar would be duplicated on the desktop to the left. As removable media are added to or removed from the computer, they would appear/disappear vertically, flowing left to right. Other files added to the desktop (downloads for example) would continue to appear flowing right to left. This separates the removable media from the downloads – unless your downloads fill your desktop in which case you need to clean up your desk!

Clean Desk
A mock-up of a Desktop that has flowed removable media on the left

An alternative would be to have removable media on the right (people seem really keen to have their hard drive appear where it always has) and flow downloads left to right. Fine – the only issue I have is that Finder windows have it the other way. I’d prefer consistency – so make it an option.

I’m a firm believer that the desktop can be used for more than just temporary files. We should be able to store things we are working on on that desktop, rather than hiding them in our home folders, and accessing everything via the Hard drive icon. I believe the suggestion above would result in a more usable, and more consistent desktop.

Having removable media appear in a consistent location will also encourage users to use their desktop in a more ordered fashion.

Better Flow Desktop

A functional clean desktop, with removable media flowed from the left, temporary files flowed from the right, active folders in use on the desktop

Apple applied for a trademark on the name “Junkyard” in 2002. Let’s hope that isn’t the new name for the Finder in Leopard. :-)

Improving Mac OS X: #2 – The Desktop

3 thoughts on “Improving Mac OS X: #2 – The Desktop

  • November 14, 2006 at 4:16 am

    Ever heard of Spotlight? It was invented so we make any mess we like :) Perhaps it doesn’t work with removable drives yet, but it will in Leopard. So wait a while :S

  • November 14, 2006 at 5:44 am

    Spotlight isn’t the solution here. If people want a mess, and access everything by typing in to spotlight, that is great for them. For those who want more structure, the desktop is a junkyard and anything that can clean it up is a great idea.

  • September 12, 2007 at 12:59 am

    People seem to be forgetting that a computer desktop is a direct analogy of the top of your literal desk. Your office desk doesn’t automatically keep your phone, pda, rolodex, etc. on one side and all your other junk on the other. The desktop must be used just like a real one. People who want a clean desktop use the cabinets under their desks to put things somewhere they can find them. Same for computers…put stuff in folders so you can find it. The only stuff that should be left sitting on the desktop are the drives (even those can be made to disappear) and anything you’re actively working on–just like in real life. If it’s on the top of my desk, I’m working on it. When I’m done, I file it away.

    Just my two cents. You might be looking for change back.

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