Some of Mac OS X Lion’s animations really miss the mark

Apple has proven over and over again that it can use animations to good effect: the right animations communicate usefully, truly helping the user to understand what is going on. Subtle, well-crafted UI animations are part of the soul of iOS in particular, and one of the main reasons for its huge success.

Unsurprisingly, new animations can go awry. If they are too excessive and ham-handed, then they have real potential to annoy and distract instead of inform and reinforce. Lion has a number of these.

Chief among them and already much-maligned is the way windows zoom in and out of existence, creating an illusion of slowness that helps no one and irritates the shit out of many. Me included. I disabled it as quickly as I could.

One I have not seen mentioned much elsewhere is the Finder’s annoying new habit of animating dragged items to match the view of the window you drag them to. For instance, if you drag desktop items to a window using list view, Lion will rearrange the them into list format, on the fly, as you hover over the destination window. It ain’t subtle. Whatever the intent might have been, the dominant effect is obvious: it makes it seem like something important has happened before it has. At first, I accidentally dropped the icons a few times at that point out of sheer surprise. The effect is particularly unwanted if you happen to drag your icons too slowly across a window that is not your intended target: again, this really makes it seems like something is happening before you wanted it to happen.

This kind of thing is a real drag, yuk yuk. It is exactly the kind of style-over-function bollocks that cranky Apple haters hate: the eye-candy-first design sensibility. Of course, good design is also not shallow, and we don’t complain about or even notice the truly good, useful visual effects, and there are plenty of those too.

One of the best ever examples is the fun and effective “head shake” animation of OS X’s login panel when it gets a wrong password. It perfectly targets something in the human brain, perfectly communicates “cute, emphatic negation,” and actually manages to turn a moment of frustration into something almost charming. That’s an ideal use of animation.

But Lion goes out on a limb with quite a good list of dubious new animations, many of which I do not think are not going to make the cut in the long term.