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.
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”.
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.
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.
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…