The Non-Maximizing Maximize Button

One of my great frustrations with the Mac is the way the maximize button on each window fails to maximize the window. In a comment, Alex Chamberlain explained why this isn't broken, it's by design:

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

I can’t say I’ve ever used a mac so I’ve never run into that, but I can say I much prefer full maximization. When I’m working with a window it’s something I tend to be very focused on, and so if I have multiple windows visible I get distracted by the other open windows, again reducing the amount of work on the task at hand that I can get done in a set amount of time. That, and I use Alt+Tab incessantly, and having multiple windows visible really doesn’t make that any more efficient. In fact, I’d argue that it makes it less efficient because it’s less easy to tell what exactly I just switched to since it’s not immediately apparent.

I am still yearning for the day when I see multiple-desktop support from Microsoft and better tiling support or something of the sort from ANYONE. As a programmer with a huge screen, I do often have multiple documents open side-by-side–but it is a truly painful experience to constantly be resizing, moving, minimizing and un-minimizing each of a dozen or more various documents I have open simultaneously. I have at times appreciated Windows’ tiling/cascading features, but they simply are not flexible or extensive enough. I yearn for the day when I can see in ANY operating system a flexible multiple-window system which allows for the simple tiling and resizing of any and all visible documents simultaneously.

As for one popular program as you mention, Adobe Photoshop. Admittedly, however, I would imagine it is more a relationship of necessity than of desire.

Please stop calling it ‘the maximize button’. There is no such thing.

You’re also indirectly stating one of windows primary interface flaws here, you can hardly tell what window is front-most and which are behind which others. That’s because of the terrible gui.

Having maximized windows is the sort of thing my grandma does because she likes to just ‘hit the mouse to the top’ to close things instead of clicking on the bloody X.

You can’t concentrate on more than 1 window a time so you think that we should continue to perpetuate microsofts screwup in ui design? You’re suggesting we cater to the lowest form of human that can’t drive and talk at the same time? Can’t watch tv and take a sip of a beer at the same time? Can’t walk and check their watch? Come on. I have an rss reader behind this firefox window… So? I can’t be expected to understand the concept of multiple things on my… what do they call it… oh yea, DESKTOP. Hey look, I have more than 1 piece of paper on my desk, and I can… GASP… read what’s on both of them without moving the top one first! Gimme a break.

Apple is designing for the designers, perhaps you are right about that. Maybe it’s just because designers tend to be the least retarded when it comes to obvious interface design decisions.

Nathan: Try using a mac, you’ll see. You don’t need alt-tab because expose shows you all of your windows in a nice spread, or just the windows of the current app. If you need concentration there’s tons of cool tools that help keep your front-most work prominent and the rest dulled - this will save you from having massive hideous windows taking up your entire widescreen monitor.

I die a little inside everytime I see a 1680 pixel wide IE window with like 13 toolbars on a co-workers monitor… Ughhh…

The Mac has more of a Drag Drop tradition between applications, that’s the emphasis on having multiple windows visible at the same time. If drag drop isn’t robust it doesn’t make much sense.

Try dragging a photo from Outlook to MSN Messenger, Windows doesn’t like it (as I discovered myself after being trying to send candid photos to my friends as I do on my Mac).

Drag and drop is the most utterly broken UI concept in the world. Jeff should do a write up on that sometime.

Maybe it’s just because designers tend to be the least retarded

I totally disagree. Designers are so retarded, we’ve invented the term ‘designtard’. Anyone who thinks having entire sites in Flash or using Javascript for positioning is clearly brain damaged.

You don’t need alt-tab because expose shows you all of your windows in a nice spread

I laugh every time I watch a Mac-savvy friend of mine use Expose with more than a handful of windows. Pretty much every time, you can read the expression on his face: “hm, where’d that window go?”.

You claim that dealing with multiple windows is too difficult, and yet it’s the entire thrust behind Apple’s wildly popular and oft-imitated Expose window management feature.

It’s not that multiple windows is too difficult – though I imagine it’s annoying if all you’ve ever used are taskbar-based interfaces. It’s just that Windows optimizes for switching between maximized windows via the taskbar, and OS X optimizes between switching between window sets via Expose and the Dock’s click-the-app-icon-to-raise-all-app-windows behavior.

Sigh. Yet another “the way I am used to is better” argument.

IMHO, maximize was a great concept when monitors were 800x600. Today, on my Mac, I never, ever, make windows the “full screen”. On Windows, when I make something “full screen”, what I really am after is a “no distractions” mode, like the “full screen” mode of Scrivener (the interface doesn’t fill the screen; everything not of the app gets faded out to a dark dark gray or black). In the end, though, the Windows maximized windows usually either hurt my eyes (all white, everywhere!) or make the app unusable (the buttons of the interface get flung to the far corners of the desktop, because I said I wanted the window that big and obviously the buttons must be anchored to their nearest corners).

In a “well-behaving app”, that mythical creature of yore, “zoom” (the OS X term for it) is highly useful. I don’t spend time “arranging” my windows; that’s precisely what the zoom button saves me from!

“Dealing with multiple windows is far too difficult, even for sophisticated computer users.”

As Nielson said in the quote directly above this: that is very true (for novice users) when most windows are maximized. However, I haven’t ever seen a user get confused about the existence of a window when they can see a statistically significant portion of it peeking out from behind their front window. Then again, I also don’t see users trying to tile their windows together like you appear to feel is necessary when multiple windows are on the screen either.

“Can you name one application with a multiple window interface that’s even popular?”

I’m not sure what you’re asking. Are you looking for MDI applications? I can’t think of any, but MDI was an abortion of an idea from day one; I don’t see what point that might begin to prove. Are you talking about applications that support having multiple windows open at once? Well, since you just mentioned Office, I’m pretty sure Word opens multiple windows, one per document. Are you talking about applications that are designed and work well in an overlapping-window mode? For that, I’d start looking away from Windows apps, as “Hit the maximize button” has far too long been Step 3 in the boilerplate Quick Start guides. Windows apps, by and large, tend to behave like they own the entire system, including all the user’s attention. On the Mac, though, apps which work great with overlapping windows abound.

All that having been said, the #1 most important thing with overlapping windows is that the “front” one needs to be immediately and clearly identified. OS X has tended to be movin in the wrong direction here for the last several years (brushed metal windows are incredibly similar between the focussed window and a background window), although even so the window shadows give at least a good subtle indication. Leopard’s window style seems to be a step back in the right direction there, thankfully. Vista has also made some significant improvements (especially over the Win 9x style window adornments in your screenshot!)

“Designers should be coming up with alternative user interfaces that minimize windowing, instead of forcing enforcing arbitrary window size limits on the user for their own good.”

I’m not sure who is being limited here. You suggested that fixed-layout windows should not be resizable above (an edict with which I completely agree). If you really want a window to be as big as your screen, you can drag the corner to be that big (or download a script to do that for you). I don’t even think Windows is imposing size limits here; they just aren’t giving the user a quick and easy way to “pack” the window to the minimal size the application wants. Still, the user can do that themselves; it just takes a whole lot more effort than the maximizing gesture takes on OS X.

“Excessively long lines are hard to read,”

While I agree that columns make the text a bit easier to read, I find that this is only in the case that there is surrounding text to filter out. That is, columns make themselves easier to read. I can’t stand being forced to read a tiny column of text that’s surrounded by whitespace. I even went as far as to make a CSS hack in Google Reader with Stylish to force it to use the entire width of the area designated for articles.

The thing that bothers me the most is when the text is confined to a column that doesn’t grow in width when you increase the font size. Sometimes I like to sit far back and just increase the font size in Firefox, only to have it confined to 5cm on my screen, making it less readable.

I have a monitor with a 1920 pixel width and I STILL maximize most of my windows. It’s just too much of a pain to drag all the various windows around. It’s ridiculous, I know.

I find that it is easier to hit the ‘bloody X’ when it’s on the top right corner of the screen. There’s a name for that, but I can’t remember what it is, but with my trackball it’s very easy to zoom into any corner of my monitor and manipulate it that way.

As for better tiling systems, I probably would do more Mac style maximizing if I had one set up. When I use Emacs I split the frame into 2-4 windows more often than not.

It seems to me the current thing in interface seems to be to give everything ‘tabbed browsing.’ We now multi-task enough it’s not enough for the operating system to have the panel, now all of our apps have to have one too.

Apple doesn’t prevent maximization with that button. The way the window resizes is completely up to the designer. If they want a single window app that maximizes to the screen size when the button’s pressed - no problem. I don’t see what the button has to do with it. The thing that bothers me about that button is the fact that before I get to know an application I’m never sure what’s going to happen when I press it – feels like a risky move to make. But again, it has nothing to do with designing your interfaces badly.

“Can you name one application with a multiple window interface that’s even popular?”


Photoshop still has an MDI

Gee I miss

“Can you name one application with a multiple window interface that’s even popular?”

Um, isn’t the whole concept of tabbed browsing the exact definition of Multiple Document Interface? In addition, Visual Studio certainly maintains the concept of multiple documents via tabs. Yes these user interfaces are different than the traditional MDI from the early 90’s, but they are the natural progression of that interface.

As for software which still uses true old school MDI interface I would point to both MS Access, and SQL Server 2000 Enterprise Manager both of which are in use extensively.

Now that I think about it, the real problem with that button is the icon. It shouldn’t be a plus sign. Sometimes when you press it, the window gets smaller. The icon should be something more to do with resizing in general rather than adding.

Neither is really wrong, it would be nice to have both…

I use Macs primarily at home and develop full time in Visual Studio at work. Every time I use a PC, I maximize a lot of windows: Visual Studio is practically impossible to use at anything less than the full 1280x1024, and apps like Word and Photoshop have too many buttons everywhere to squish them down smaller than the maximum.

But at home in OS X, I never touch that green button. Ever. It’s not a maximize button, nor can I remember a time in recent history when I’ve actually wanted a maximize button – you just don’t need it. (Now that I think of it, I never minimize in OS X, either. That’s what “Hide” is for when something needs to disappear.)

I think the reason for that is the docked menu bar and toolbars in OS X.

OS X keeps your menu bar stretched across the top of the screen at all times no matter what. And the really complex apps like Photoshop and Word stretch out their tool strips across the top as well so you always know where all your buttons are. What you’d normally need to maximize is already there. The rest of the screen is filled up with more simple windows, usually just simple document windows with scrollbars.

And as a matter of fact, I find maximizing windows in Windows disorienting. If I have several maximized applications, navigating between them is a nightmare because you can’t see anything in the background. I have no concept of where anything is until it pops up and takes over the whole screen, then I don’t know where anything behind it went.

I almost always run multiple instances of VS2005 and VS2003, and getting between them is a process of maximizing and minimizing in order to find what I want. When you open one up, everything else completely disappears. What’s more, there’s no functionality (in XP) to effectively show you all of what’s there (a la Expose). Adding to the confusion is the XP taskbar item grouping feature, which changes the interface dynamic on the fly so I never know what I’m looking for at the bottom of the screen.

What it probably comes down to in the end is preference, and it’s silly to go back and forth about the differences between OS X and Windows. But I really can’t see how OS X’s distaste for maximization is a disadvantage by any means.

I prefer the Windows style of “maximization”, possibly just because that’s what I’m used to. The OS X style may be more useful, but I’ve found that it just doesn’t work in a consistent manner, and that’s more important than anything else. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve viewed a PDF and clicked “maximize” in preview, just to see the window get smaller, then to click it again and for it to get even smaller.