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Search Field Usability

A while ago, the developer of a Java-based application asked me to help make their user interface more Mac-like. They had spent a lot of effort on their UI, that much was obvious, so interestingly a lot of the issue were just small things:

Turn a combo box into a regular popup menu, turn an oval Aqua pushbutton into one of the rectangular bevel button styles, turn animated cursors into progress spinner controls in the window, that sort of thing. One part that surprised me, was the search field.

You see, they have a big file list, so they were helpful and added a search field. The search field generally matches against the start of a file's name, but you can add an asterisk at the start to indicate you want to match the middle.

That's all very standard stuff, but interestingly, it's not how it's usually done on the Mac. A Mac search field usually just matches anywhere in the filename. There's usually no way to tell it to match at the start. Is that a deficiency? One of those cases where the Mac supposedly drops functionality to make it easier to understand?

Not quite. You see, the functionality to match against the start of a list item has been available for ages, even before the rounded search field appearance was introduced: As Type-Ahead-selection. It's not quite an obvious feature, but its available pretty much in every application:

Whenever you have keyboard focus on a list on the Mac, type the start of a list item's name, and it will select that list item, or the closest match it came up with if there's no list item with that exact name. So, you don't even need to use the search field to quickly get to the section of files where each one starts with a particular string, you just type, and the first one gets selected. And if you sort by name, the next few are the rest of the results.

It's a flexible, clever design. Does it have less features than a full regexp-enabled search field? Yes, but have you ever noticed how much time it takes to compose a working regexp that does what you want? Generally, I never bother, unless it is for text search-and-replace. But the above? It's great for navigating a large list. Filter, drill down, reduce the amount of choices until you can spot the right item yourself with your eyes. More is often not needed.

Reader Comments: (RSS Feed)
harvey writes:
Yeah, Finder has done that forever. For Leopard NSTableView made this much easier.
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Created: 2008-08-17 @975 Last change: 2024-07-16 @557 | Home | Admin | Edit
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