Thursday, August 08, 2013

Mediocrity Creeps Back: A Review of iPhoto '11

iPhoto, You've Changed...

I led the original team that built iPhoto 1.0 (I have the custom-printed T-shirt and scars to prove it). I still use iPhoto and I still love it, 12 years later.  But I also have some criticisms.  For the record, I was responsible for iPhoto 1.0 through (I think) iPhoto 4.0, but I have not worked at Apple since the end of 2003.

I just now started using iPhoto '11 because I have resisted updating to Lion and Mountain Lion (I still like Snow Leopard better). But I bought a new laptop, so I'm using all the new stuff, like it or not. I mention this only because my perspective on iPhoto '11 is fresh, having just started using it.

Overall, my impression of iPhoto '11 is that it has some interesting new features that I won't use, and some old ones that I wish would go away (Face Recognition), but worse, the user interface has gradually degraded. It is pretty, and it is "easy to use", but it does not strike the right balance between power and ease of use.  It just isn't as good as previous versions, for the same level of functionality.

The mantra for iPhoto 1.0 was essentially that the user interface should disappear — photos are something you look at, so you want a very visual interface, with more photo, less UI.  This is the balance that is largely missing in iPhoto '11.  There is much more UI, and a lot less Photo.

The biggest problem is that the tools in iPhoto '11 are inside the area used for the photo itself, so if you click on Info or Edit, the photo gets [dramatically] smaller to make room for the tools.  This is maybe good for "ease of use", but bad for "usability".  The buttons in the Edit panel are way wider than they need to be, because the Info/Edit space is fixed size — but what a waste of space for labeled buttons that say things like "Crop" and "Adjust".

In the screen shots here, you can see the photo before and after the Info button is clicked, and how much the photo is reduced in size.

The whole point of iPhoto is the photos -- they should be as large as possible.  Calculating the area in pixels, I see that the photo occupies only 42.9% of the pixels within the window.  Less than half of the area of the screen is devoted to the photo!  It's much worse when a photo is in Portrait orientation — only 30% of the available pixels are used for the photograph!

A couple of versions back, the Adjust user interface was a floating panel, and the other features (like Crop and Enhance) were along the bottom bar, using far less screen real estate. The functionality of this new vertical strip of space is the same, but its use of space is dramatically worse. This is a step in the wrong direction. I know how decisions like this are made: in the name of "consistency".  Put all the features in the same piece of real estate, because they are similar.  But this is a programmer's point of view, not necessarily a user's point of view, and if it has consequences like reducing the amount of space to display the photo (and also changing the view when you Edit, so it changes size up and down as you're viewing) then it is a bad decision.  To quote the late Steve Jobs, "consistency is overrated."

Next topic: Manage Keywords:

Where did these keywords come from? I certainly didn't create them, and I don't want to look through them, much less use them.  What the heck is this?!  It's surprising, confusing, and useless. The keywords bear a vague resemblance to some of my photos, including words such as "barrel" and "cloud", leading me to believe that there is some kind of feature recognition going on — like face recognition but for barrels and clouds — that suggests these keywords for me to use.


And if the features are all now in the window as Edit and Create and Add To (which I don't like, obviously) why are Keywords in their own floating panel?  Why not put Adjust back in a floating panel, which is better than where it is now, since I can see my photo better?  There isn't much cohesive thought going into these features, or their arrangement.  I suspect Design By Committee.

I could find fault with many more features, as everything I look at has gotten slightly more cluttered, less good, or otherwise muddled, but I will stop there on the laundy list, and consider the more philosophical underpinnings of these choices...


Software design is about making tradeoffs: space vs. accessibility, speed vs. fidelity, ease of use vs. power. We thought a lot about these issues 10-12 years ago, and struck a good balance where you mostly saw your photos, and didn't have a bunch of useless features.  I think that balance has gradually eroded since then, each release being slightly less good than the one that came before it. It is amusing, and saddening, to see some of the tradeoffs that we made so long ago being reversed — with the outcome that was predicted those long years ago:

Maybe it's slightly easier to find the Adjust controls (which you only need to do once ever), and it's more consistent now (which doesn't matter that much), but the photo is now a lot smaller when you're editing it — and that's not worth it!  Bad tradeoff.

Sort Photos...

One of the few anecdotes I tell about Steve Jobs is from iPhoto 1.0, when we were just about to ship it. And I mean just about to ship it!  It was December, and we were in Golden Master Candidate 3 or something close to that.  No more changes, other than very high-priority bug fixes, and those only cautiously.  We had a Sort Photos submenu, just exactly as it appears in iPhoto '11

Steve was going through the menus one final time before we shipped it, and he stopped on this submenu.  The conversation went something like this:

Steve: "What is this menu for?"
Glenn: "So you can sort your photos by different things."
Steve [looking through them]: "They are sorted by Date by default, right?"
Glenn: "Yes."
Steve: "Get rid of that menu item" [Sort By Date]
Glenn: "Okay."
Steve: "Why would you want to Sort By Caption?"
Glenn: "I can't think of any good reason to sort by caption"
Steve: "Get rid of it."
Glenn: "Okay."
Steve: "Why would you want to sort by any of these other things?"
Glenn: [some lame possibilities provided]
Steve: "Get rid of the whole menu."
Glenn: "I can do that easily, as you know, in Interface Builder — but the documentation, particularly the localized documentation, will need to be changed, too, and we don't have enough time for that."
Steve: [after a few moments thought]: "Fuck the French and German documentation."

So of course we made the change, and of course Cheryl Thomas' team managed to update the French and German documentation on time anyway, by working late hours, and we shipped it without the Sort Photos submenu.  I realized that Steve was right, that you really didn't need to sort your photos by this and that, when there were already so many other ways to organize and view your photos, and probably few people would ever use the Sort Photos menu, and all it did was clutter up the application.

So it seems odd to me that the Sort Photos menu is now back, and Steve is gone. It makes me sad, considering both of those points.  Will mediocrity start to take over, now that he is gone? It is as though Sort Photos won out, in the end.