On March 24, 2001, after years of intense development, Apple publicly released the first version of OS X. OS X, based on the NeXTstep OS Apple acquired from Steve Jobs, marked a radical departure from the UI Mac users had grown accustomed to. There was the dock, the aqua interface, and of course, those red, yellow, and green window buttons that Jobs famously said looked good enough to lick.
Cult of Mac recently took a look back at the development behind OS X’s distinctive user interface. At first, the goal behind OS X development was to simply overlay the familiar Mac OS interface over the NeXTstep OS. But designer Cordell Ratzlaff wanted Apple’s new interface to showcase the OS’s cool underlying technologies and he therefore came up with a number of interface design mockups that made use of OS X’s graphic and animation capabilities.
After several months of work, Apple held an off-site for all the engineering groups working on OS X to gather a status report. Ratzlaff was asked to show his mockups, mostly just for kicks. His talk would be some light relief at the end of a long, hard week. He was scheduled as the last speaker on the last day. But he secretly hoped there’d be support for the new designs and they’d be implemented, although he didn’t rate his chances. As the two-day event wore on, it became clearer and clearer what an enormous project OS X was. Everyone was wondering how it was ever going to get done. “And then here at the end, here’s me saying, ‘Oh, and here’s a new user interface. It’s translucent, there’s real-time animation, and a full alpha channel,’” Ratzlaff recalled. “There was literally laughter in the room because there was no way we were going to redo the user interface. I was pretty depressed afterwards.”
Flash forward two weeks and Ratzlaff finds himself sitting with Jobs who is tearing the old version of Mac OS to pieces. Indeed, many of Jobs complaints proved to be influential in how OS X ultimately came out of the oven.
One of the things he hated most were all the different mechanisms for opening windows and folders. There were at least eight different ways of accessing folders—from dropdown menus to pop-up menus, the DragStrip, the Launcher, and the Finder. “The trouble was, you had too many windows,” said Ratzlaff. “Steve wanted to simplify window management.”
Following that, Ratzlaff and his team had a powwow with Jobs where they discussed ways in which the OS X might be completely retooled. Jobs asked Ratzlaff to come up with a few interface prototypes and the UI that would eventually become OS X had been born. Upon seeing Ratzlaff’s designs three weeks later, Jobs was impressed.
“This is the first evidence of three-digit intelligence at Apple I’ve seen yet,” Jobs reportedly quipped.
For the next eighteen months, Ratzlaff’s team had a weekly meeting with Jobs during which they’d show him their latest mockups. For each element of the new interface—the menus, the dialogs, the radio buttons—Jobs requested several variations so that he could select the best ones. As we’ll see in more detail later, Jobs always asks for multiple versions of products in development—both hardware and software. During the meetings with Ratzlaff, Jobs gave lots of feedback for refining the designs, and only when he was satisfied could features be ticked off.
Jobs attention to detail is legendary, which is why it’s not too surprising that Apple’s work on the scrollbars in OS X took 6 months of work before they sufficiently met Jobs’ notoriously high standards.
For the entire story behind the UI design of OS X, including Jobs aversion to having multiple windows open and how Jobs came to the decision that the three buttons at the top of every window should be colored like traffic lights, check out COM’s entire OS X Cheetah retrospective over here. It’s an incredible read that really gives us insight into the design process at Apple and just how integral Jobs was to the finished product.