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On a number of occasions, I've needed to change something in the settings of my mac, and I cannot see it in the relevant menu. After some googling, in emerges that the reason I cannot see this option is because it's actually hidden. I picked the right "system preferences" category, found the right tab, but naturally didn't realise that the button wouldn't exist until I selected an unrelated item while holding down some modifier key. It's like looking for easter eggs in a video game, only less fun.

Recent examples include detecting an external display, and setting the refresh rate of an external display.

I don't like GUI's to start with, but if they have one advantage, it's that the options are normally clear without reading a manual. Here, the options are not displayed, and there is no clear reference guide. I cannot type man Display_options and get the canonical manual for my version, I have to search third party sites till I find someone who's interface looks like mine. So why would options be hidden like this?


Edit; OK, having read that first answer I feel like this question lacks a degree of empathy and doesn't reflect very well on me. The world is not designed around my use case, and it's a very good thing if a product can be made more accessible. I will wait a little while for any more input before accepting the current answer.


Just last night I installed an update, and now the "detect displays" button doesn't appear at all. Spent 2 hours this morning on the phone to apple support, who confirmed that it's a bug, and there is no workaround and no cli tool for this. Some googling shows that this has happened before. Feeling considerably less charitable towards apple software interfaces in general today.

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    Note that this behavior is generally against Apple's published UX guidelines that state that currently unavailable menu choices should not be hidden, but rather should be 'greyed out' to indicate that these choices do exist, but just are not currently appropriate.
    – Glen Yates
    Feb 28 at 21:43
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    When you figured this out, then maybe you can tell me why I have to hold Shift for "Copy as path" to show up in Windows Explorer.
    – AndreKR
    Mar 1 at 1:04
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    The example you're citing is an extreme (IMHO) and is not related to menus. In menus, you can toggle "alternatives" by holding down the "Alt/Option" key. For example, "Save" may become "Save as…", or "Close Tab" may become "Close Other Tabs". It's a tool we developers can use to make seldom needed functionality not clutter your menus. Ideally, you try to design for the 90% use-case, while making the remaining 10% possible.
    – DarkDust
    Mar 1 at 7:41
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    @GlenYates they aren't unavailable though. I can search for a new external display, and I can change the refresh rate, but only after I have used the secret key combination.
    – Clumsy cat
    Mar 1 at 10:28
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    you should not have to apologise just because apple are making some questionable choices
    – baibo
    Mar 3 at 7:41

2 Answers 2

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This is a huge mistake, period. It assumes internet connection for you to search for the solution, otherwise how would you figure it out?

Some hypothesis as to why it happened:

  1. [From user J...], my emphasis:

Apple also likes to have Apple branded products plug-and-play seamlessly with each other. OP's use case seems to be manually detecting and setting display settings and I'd bet it's likely for a non-Apple branded device. Apple monitors just work, after all. Apple's UX philosophy also tends to bury any settings you may need when using non-Apple hardware in the hopes that the user gives up when it doesn't work right away and returns to the store to get an Apple branded whatever instead... at several times the typical market cost.

  1. That GUI developer may think that users driven away by even a decent amount of choices and that this outweighs easily presenting the option itself.
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    This is the correct answer. There is absolutely no excuse for having zero discoverability. You can have a "minimalistic UI" and still have an "advanced" button. Note that Windows 10 makes this same mistake (try shift+right-clicking in a folder) Mar 1 at 19:38
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft this answer is a community wiki, and you make a good point about the commonly used "advanced" button. Why not add it?
    – Clumsy cat
    Mar 2 at 11:26
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    @BlueRaja-DannyPflughoeft: One of the many reasons I use Ubuntu...
    – Vikki
    Mar 2 at 22:31
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    @Vikki having used only linux based systems up until this point I am actually quite shocked at how poorly MacOS performs. Not only does it not "just work", there are very few workarounds available. I'm used to being able to resolve most problems, and make a linux machine do what I want, albeit sometimes in a hacky manner. With macOS I feel embarrassingly impotent. I guess that's colouring my perception of this issue quite a bit.
    – Clumsy cat
    Mar 2 at 23:08
  • @Clumsycat, it's not here nor there - I have used Windows and Linux machines (mostly Linux servers instead of desktops, though had to work with Linux VMs on Windows hosts for a long time for business reasons out of my control); I'm using MacOS at work since 2019 now, any "base" feature I used did just work, although I have no other Apple devices; and I have heavily extended it with the help of a few little helpers, which allow me to majorly customize everything from keyboard input, automation, automatic window placement etc. etc. -- just like under Linux, and in some areas more (easily) so.
    – AnoE
    Mar 3 at 9:10
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Generally speaking there are a bunch of UX principles and best practices advocating for a minimalistic UI. This makes sense in terms of human cognition (viewing Attention as a finite resource), perception and memory, Fitts' law (advocating for larger target areas, hence less items in a fixed real estate), Hick's law (less choice leads to quicker decisions), a UX technique called Progressive Disclosure, which means that large amounts of information should be split into several steps, Nielsen's aesthetic/minimalist UI heuristic, and many other guidelines.

Taken together, these principles mean that we often aim to reduce the number of items on display for our main personas (target user audiences), deferring more advanced options to more remote locations. Another of Nielsen's Heuristics promotes the use of hidden shortcuts and other "power features" for more advanced users, without using up the real estate seen by all users.

All of these decisions require a fine balance which is ultimately at the discretion of the designer - because displaying all of these actions for you also means providing a more cluttered and difficult interface for all users, including yourself whenever you don't need these options (which is probably 99% of the time). Ideally the exact point of equilibrium will be based on user research, but even then it won't fit all of the users all of the time.

Specifically Apple is sometimes accused of taking this to the extreme, and only supporting the lowest common denominator, or what they view as the main use case, making it difficult to do anything they treat as a non-standard way of doing things (AKA "you're holding it wrong"). Microsoft typically adopts a "wider" approach, supporting more use-cases with more ease, at the price of making the main ones less well-tailored to the persona, because that's the tradeoff you get between a generic and a bespoke UX.

I don't work at Apple, but I believe this is why they hide things in menus :).

*EDIT

As some commentators have pointed out, one of the most important UX principles is Findability / Discoverability, meaning that options need to be discoverable directly via the UI without involving additional means. In your case this principle is sacrificed in favor of others - here it is at odds with the Minimalism idea, because it requires more use of real estate. This is not uncommon, as many UX principles can contradict each other, and the gist of the whole domain is to manage these tradeoffs according to the relevant goals. Since we aren't aware of the business goals behind this decision I personally don't think we can state that this is necessarily "bad UX", and as others have also pointed out, some of Apple's business principles are to discourage the use of other vendors' devices with its OS - so this decision may have been made to serve that purpose.

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    Apple also likes to have Apple branded products plug-and-play seamlessly with each other. OP's use case seems to be manually detecting and setting display settings and I'd bet it's likely for a non-Apple branded device. Apple monitors just work, after all. Apple's UX philosophy also tends to bury any settings you may need when using non-Apple hardware in the hopes that the user gives up when it doesn't work right away and returns to the store to get an Apple branded whatever instead... at several times the typical market cost.
    – J...
    Feb 28 at 21:17
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    The Neilson heuristic is “ Shortcuts — hidden from novice users — may speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the design can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users.”. I think the OP is not talking about a situation where the fast way is hidden, but the slow way is apparent. Rather the OP is talking about a situation where the only way is hidden. Neilson also stresses the importance of discoverability, which is at odds with “hidden”. Tool tips on buttons that announce a keyboard shortcut are one way to have normally hidden, but easily discoverable short cuts. Mar 1 at 2:45
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    @TheodoreNorvell That's correct, I was referring to it as one of the possible reasons that things might be hidden away as opposed to having them in the menu. Mar 1 at 6:32
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    I think this answer would be improved by talking about how Apple does not care about the discoverability of these features, which would in general be seen as bad UX. Plus, I don't think you can argue that a UI that requires interacting with obscure "press and hold this key and then do this" type of actions is a minimalistic UI/UX, all it would be is a good looking UI. Mar 1 at 6:51
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    @Clumsycat I don't think it's unreasonable to consider this bad design. There would have very well been the option to add a button "advanced options" and display everyhing outside the "standard use case" there, instead of hiding it behind cryptic key combinations. So I am not fully convinced that these heuristics are enough of a justification for these decisions.
    – Big_Chair
    Mar 1 at 13:08

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