The release of the new MacBook Pro computers with the Touch Bar feature has not gone smoothly for Apple. Chief amongst the problems with this latest iteration of Apple’s flagship portable computer is poor and inconsistent battery life, the primary reason why Consumer Reports for the first time initially did not recommend the laptops. Consumer Reports has since changed their recommendation after Apple released a fix. But even with this problem apparently corrected via a software update, there are other serious usability problems, as well as a user base that is largely underwhelmed with the lack of innovative improvements that could actually improve the user experience.
The reduction of ports down to just two or four Thunderbolt 3 ports on the 13” and 15” models respectively seriously hampers how professionals use the MacBook Pro. There are still too many hard drives and other peripherals and input devices that use USB and FireWire to be thrown away and replaced. Users can purchase expensive adapters for all their externals, but forcing users to buy and use a pile of dongles is clunky, terrible UX.
The Touch Bar was the most vaunted new feature on the revamped MacBook Pro. It’s essentially a second small touchscreen display that replaces the function keys, allowing for customization of the UI for different software applications. Apple calls this “A revolutionary new way to use your Mac.” However cool this may look, it seems to create more usability problems than it fixes. First is that using the Touch Bar for executing certain tasks is slower than using keyboard shortcuts because as a flat touchscreen it has no tactile feel. The user must take her hands off the keyboard and her eyes off the screen to look at and use the Touch Bar, thus disrupting their workflow both physically and psychologically. Ten of my students currently have MacBook Pros with the Touch Bar, and all of them report that they thought the feature was cool at first, but stopped using it because it was slow and not very useful.
Contributing to this degradation in speed and efficiency is the fact that the Touch Bar changes functionality when you switch software applications. While customization might seem like a powerful feature, it’s long been a well known fact in the HCI field that one of the most common causes of user error is what’s called ‘modality changes’, i.e. when the functionality of an interface element with the same look and/or location changes it’s functionality depending on what mode the software is currently in. One of the ways that professional or power users achieve greater speed and proficiency is by committing commonly used functions to subconscious muscle memory, so that for instance a user doesn’t have to think too hard or look at the keyboard to hit ‘Command-S’ to save a document, they just do it automatically. If, however, ‘Command-S’ functioned as ‘Save’ in Pages but in Keynote created a shape then users would be prone to making errors by accidentally hitting ‘Command-S’ in Keynote when they intended to just save their document. Further, users would have to work more slowly and think about what modality the software is currently in. I have observed this with my students: they stop, look at the Touch Bar, and have to think about how to use it every time. A quick ‘Command-Tab’ switches applications, and therefore modalities. That’s why they quickly stopped using the Touch Bar: it’s bad UX, especially for power users.
Some other lower-level annoyances about the MacBook Pro:
- Standard RAM and hard drive storage is too small for pro users
- Lost the HDMI port for HD displays and projectors
- Lost the SD memory card slot used by most professional DSLR cameras
- No touchscreen display
Collectively, these all add up to the MacBook Pro creating more problems than it solves. So below I’ve outlined features and functionalities the MacBook Pro could have to make it a really innovative, powerful, and most importantly user-friendly portable computer.
But first we need to look at…
Who is the user?
The MacBook Pro, as it’s name implies, is for professional users. This is a pretty broad category, but for this exercise I’m going to focus on a core professional user group that Apple has long catered to: Creative Professionals. This includes designers of all disciplines (graphic designers, illustrators, interaction designers, architects, 3D artists, etc) and media makers (photographers, videographers, film/tv editors, special effects artists, etc). Some commonalities shared between creative professionals include:
- Use of memory- and processor-intensive software such as the Adobe Creative Suite, Final Cut Pro, Maya and AutoCAD
- Need for large, fast and local storage capacity (cloud-based storage is too slow for working on very large files)
- Need to work quickly through complex tasks
- Often need for tactile input, i.e. via a tablet input device
- Need to connect external devices for input (graphics table, track ball, video controller), hard drive arrays with fast connections, multiple external monitors for working, external HD displays and projectors for presentations, small memory storage devices such as USB thumb drives for quick file transfers and SD cards for professional digital cameras
- Need for durability as they are sometimes working in different environments (working remotely in Starbucks, on movie sets, visiting clients, etc.)
And let’s also keep in mind one more important thing: not one single professional user has ever told me that they really need their MacBook Pro to be thinner and lighter. Apple seems to be obsessed with this. Pro users are not.
So now that we have a few insights into the needs of professional users, let’s look at some features that would help solve these user needs:
Eight Ways to Save the MacBook Pro
- First of all let’s ditch the Touch Bar. It doesn’t seem to serve any of these user needs, and creates usability problems rather than solving them.
- Next let’s focus on memory. Pro users need lots of memory to run applications and store large files, and although Apple wants people to pay for their cloud services, this doesn’t work for how pro users actually work. Let’s make the standard base-level memory 16GB of RAM (upgradable to 32GB or 64GB) and hard drive storage starting at 1TB (upgradable to 2TB or 3TB).
- Pro users have evolving storage needs. Let’s make both RAM and HD memory user upgradable.
- To help pro users work more quickly and efficiently, Apple should design add-ons for their pro software such as Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. These can include keyboard overlays that teach keyboard shortcuts (proven efficiency boosters) and different types of mouse-like input devices specific to these softwares.
- Many pros use tablets for a more tactile input device experience. Apple should follow the route of Microsoft and others by giving the MacBook Pro a touchscreen display with stylus. They already have something like this with the iPad Pro, but iOS doesn’t run most of the professional software. Let’s bring that iPad Pro functionality to the MacBook Pro.
- Speaking of the iPad Pro, let’s make it interoperable with the MacBook Pro by making the iPad Pro a portable dual display option. Let’s allow users to connect an iPad to the MacBook Pro and use the iPad as a second touchscreen display. The Microsoft Surface Pro can’t do that…yet.
- Pro users already may have to connect multiple external devices to their MacBook Pro. Let’s not make that even clunkier than it already is by forcing them to stick a bunch of dongles between the computer and the externals. Let’s create a customizable, modular port bay on one side so the user can choose between these two options: three Thunderbolt 3 ports + 1 USB-C port —OR— two Thunderbolt 3 ports + one USB-C port + one FireWire 800 port. And let’s add back the SD card slot for pro photographers and videographers.
- Durability is something that is not usually a priority with the industrial design of computers, but so-called ‘Tough PC’s’ have been around for a long time. So let’s really set the MacBook Pro apart from the competition by making it waterproof (to one meter…let’s be reasonable), dustproof and shockproof.
To design great products that are usable AND innovative, Apple needs to use the UX process to understand it’s users, design to their needs, and test extensively. Ultra-thin laptops with Touch Bars are neat, but they don’t solve any usability issues and don’t serve the needs of professional users. Beautiful aesthetics can deceptively mask poor usability as explained in this excellent article on The Aesthetic-Usability Effect by Kate Meyer. A beautiful, ultra-thin laptop with a not-very-useful Touch Bar and a bunch of dongles hanging off of it isn’t innovative, and it’s not good design.