Smart App Additions: The Little Features Matter

What is it that grabs you about your favorite Mac app? Is it the extensive feature list, or the attractive user interface, perhaps? Our favorite Mac applications make use of a variety of things that make them great, but relatively little can impact the usability of an app more than the inclusion of seemingly insignificant integration features.

I’m talking about those little features that you almost never notice, until you use an app that doesn’t have them—features like an automatic move-to-applications-folder on download, or in-app updating.

These features can make or break the integration of an app into your daily workflow, so it’s important for developers to understand the necessity for them.

The Bare Minimum

Move To Applications Folder

The move-to-applications-folder feature is absolutely crucial for Mac software. When you first run a downloaded program, you wouldn’t normally notice if you weren’t prompted to move the .app file to the Applications folder.

However, what happens without it is that a user deep in the zone of their work routine will download a piece of software, and absent-mindedly run the application from their Downloads folder for the rest of eternity—or at least until they get around to cleaning out the Downloads folder, and then it becomes an issue that they have to deal with then.

In-App Updating

There’s nothing that takes me out of my workflow more (except, perhaps, Facebook and Twitter!) than having to visit a developer website to manually download the next build of a particular app that I use.

When my application greets me with a new version upon startup, I’m more than happy to “Install and Relaunch,” because the process could not be simpler.

Native Interface Uniformity

As a Mac user, I’ve become accustomed to all of my core applications behaving in a similar fashion. This is no different when considering apps that I download or purchase via the Internet.

I expect that system functions, common menu items, and standard application features will be accessed and utilized the same ways as I’m used to in standard OS X applications like Mail or iTunes.

Above And Beyond

Core OS X App (And Mobile) Integration

This is a subset of features that is particularly important in productivity apps (a favorite genre of software for me, if you haven’t gathered yet). For example, I look especially favorably upon to-do list applications that can sync with iCal, so when I think of something I need to do, I don’t have to remember to enter it into both applications (assuming the item is time-sensitive).

An added bonus, provided an application has a mobile counterpart, is seamless syncing between the desktop and mobile versions. This is becoming ever-more important with devices such as the iPad, and the way in which a piece of software approaches the idea of syncing is crucial. It should be simple, easy to set up, and “just work”.

Core App Integration

Core App Integration

Keyboard Shortcuts

I realize that keyboard shortcuts are more important to some than others, but depending on the app, no one can deny their utility.

Cultured Code’s GTD application Things, for example, has a mappable global keyboard shortcut for a quick-entry window. If you’re struck with a task that you don’t want to forget, but don’t want to interrupt your workflow, you can just hit the shortcut, enter some text, and revisit it later to add details.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Keyboard Shortcuts

Additional Workflow Features

I suppose this is kind of my catch-all category for those especially useful features that truly demonstrate an ‘above and beyond’ commitment to the user, by the developer. I am reticent to bring up The Hit List again, after my criticism of Andy Kim’s communication practices, but I do love the application so much, and it is such a perfect example of so many things.

Below, you can see the beautiful built-in task timer in The Hit List that I’m using as I write this article. But it doesn’t have to be a timer. These features can include anything from Growl notifications to an app’s ability to sit quietly in the menu bar until it needs your attention.

Workflow Features

Workflow Features


Let’s face it: there is a lot of Mac software out there that is designed for power users. Those power users have a daily workflow. The fact is that the little features matter, and they can make or break an application’s integration into your workflow . Ultimately, they define the usability, and therefore popularity (and profitability) of a particular application.

I have a supreme respect for app developers, as software development is not a skill that I possess. However, if it were, I know that I wouldn’t let my opus out of beta without at least including the “Bare Minimum.”

I would do my best, even after that, to go above and beyond for users, ensuring that my work integrates as seamlessly as possible with their daily workflow.

And let’s not forget that a sexy dock icon can go a long, long way…


Add Yours
  • Fun read Scott, I just think that you should remember that users have different needs!

  • I’m surprised you still
    Mention Cultured Codes Things, it’s become abysmal due to the fact that their updates are slow, and most requested features (even little things), are left unattended to for months/years. I don’t think it’s fair to include it in an article like this.

    • Updates? I would not call what they are doing as updates. Pathetic what they have wasted over the last couple of years. I really want to use their product, but it just is so dated.

  • I, too, am a big fan of using Mac software for productivity.

    The over the air syncing feature is a big one for me. I simply cannot remember to manually sync over wifi every time I make change in one place or another.

    You are so right when you say that the little things matter – I am so appreciative when things work as they should without a lot of technical knowledge or work on my end.

    Now, when they come out with an app that will actually tap me on the shoulder and remind me to check my calendar – let me know!

  • I think, we will not see over the air syncing in Things until Things 2.0 paid upgrade comes out… And if I’m right, that will be the point when Things disappeares from my computer and one ugly e-mail will be send to Cultured Code…

    • The myth that is 2.0. CC is long on promises, but short on skills. Really my fiery is born of my love for Things, but the developers either don’t have the skills or they don’ care.

      It is sad that people still pay for new software from them. It should be donation-ware at this point

  • As long as apps I use can be moved in a sub-folder in Applications that’s cool. But I despise it when they install right into applications folder and break if moved or not install correctly if installed in a sub folder.

  • Nice read Scott.

    One other thing is that every Mac app must support drag-and-drop (Like you can drag an image from Safari straight into Mail as an attachment). It is a core principle of Mac OS.