Cover Flow, the file picker interface in iTunes, is now a standard view option in Mac OS X Leopard. Some see it as a great leap forward and others want it banished, hidden deep in some preferences pane.
Some users say Cover Flow's view, which presents the first pages of a set of documents, brings the user closer to the document than other views, presenting users with more information than a file name or small icon. A tuaw.com reader named PoorBoy offers a good example of the philosophy:
We can grasp the large-scale visual representation (the real thing, actually) ten times faster than some abstract file name, and with one tenth the effort. That's how we have evolved to function. And we love leverage: small flick of finger, big bang. Makes us happy. It sums up over a day, believe me.
List view is looking old already, like source code, a lowly hardware layer about which I don't want to know, an engine compartment, all dirty and complicated. Just show me my documents, and quick.
Others don't buy into PoorBoy's thesis. I've never cared for this interface wherever it's found, whether it's Windows Vista's Flip3D "graceful three-dimensional view," or Cover Flow in iTunes. Come on!
In spite of that prejudice, I recognize in iTune's music catalog context, that it could be hard to match up an audio experience (music) with a visual finding method. And some people create strong identifications with the cover art of their music and artists. But finding a document on your hard drive is a much different task than finding music in iTunes.
Finding is not so much about recognizing documents as it is in about zeroing in on the correct item among the hundreds of thousands (or soon millions) of possibilities scattered anywhere on your system. Instead of flipping through a catalog that uses an established set of metadata (as in iTunes), finding the right data in the Finder is a process of narrowing choices and then uncovering the correct item.
Apple appears to recognize this necessity. In its overview of Cover Flow, it puts the viewing mode in context of a Spotlight search.
Combine Cover Flow with Spotlight and you’ve got one amazingly powerful search tool. Just type your keywords in Spotlight or specify search criteria, then browse through the search results using Cover Flow.
However, why flip through the images sequentially in Cover Flow? Isn't it faster to present users with many documents at once, letting viewers scan the field of vision on their screen? Apple does this very thing with Tiger's Expose feature to help users maneuver among open windows on the desktop. I admit that I'm an Expose addict. (And please note that I'm not going to mention Cover Flow's counter-intuitive movement with a scroll-wheel mouse, where up and down means back and forth on the screen.)
Leopard's Stacks feature offers a new way to accomplish this task. Depending on the number of items in a folder, Stacks presents a "stack" of icons and file names, or a Quick Look-style view into multiple documents.
What I was happy to see in Stacks were file names. Members of the "visual culture" such as PoorBoy don't believe in them. For many of us, text and names are still relevant.
In a 2000 critique of the then brand-new Mac OS X interface, Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini, once member of the Apple Human Interface Group, pointed out that Apple ignored the use of file names in important places, such as the Dock.
In 1985, after a year of finding that pretty but unlabeled icons confused customers, the Apple human interface group took on the motto "A word is worth a thousand pictures." This still holds true. Unfortunately, the labels for Dock icons don't appear until the mouse passes over them. A user looking for one of six Word documents must scrub the mouse back and forth along the length of the Dock until a particular label appears.
This omission hasn't been fixed in all the generations of Mac OS X. It should be a preference, right Apple?
At the same time, Leopard's interface shows a characteristic of the Mac since its 128K origins: There are always multiple ways to do something/anything on a Mac. It's in the genetics of the platform.
We can all be glad that Apple isn't forcing us to use Cover Flow — for them that wants it, good luck. I will stick with the the traditional title-and-icon list view and Stacks, a useful addition.