Natural Scrolling is Natural

For the first 24 hours using Lion, I was beyond frustrated with the fact that scrolling was now “backwards”. Every time I’d move my mouse to a window and scroll, I’d have a jarring moment where my brain would cringe in confusion. I like to relate the feeling to the one I get when driving a car, and don’t quite depress the clutch far enough before shifting gears. Suddenly, an otherwise automatic combination of muscle memory is interrupted by a jarring lack of functionality

Having trouble efficiently getting even the simplest of tasks done, I set off to figure out how I could convince my brain that this new behavior wasn’t just WRONG. The world of twitter seemed to be on the fence. Ranging from folks calling “natural scrolling” an abomination that only makes sense for touch interfaces, to the apple evangelist types suggesting that Apple knows best, and to just “give it time”.

The Revelation

I have come to the following conclusion: This make sense for scroll wheels and trackpads alike, and there is one single mindset shift that is required for the new scrolling to make complete sense and it is, admittedly, a tough one to make.

Pre Lion,  scrolling with a wheel or gesture, was interacting with the scroll bars.
Post Lion, scrolling with a wheel or gesture, is interacting with the content.

(This is  why it’s pretty easy to come to the conclusion that this kind of scrolling [only] makes sense on a touch device. In very concrete terms – on a touch device, the thing you are directly in contact with is almost always the thing you are manipulating.)

Scrolling has always been contrived

That’s right, I said it – scrolling with a mouse wheel has always been an artificial concept. The first response I got to that statement was: “the same can be said of anything on a computer, it’s all a metaphor.” While this is obviously true, I don’t think many would disagree that some metaphors are more tightly coupled to their real world counterparts than others. The mouse and the cursor, for example, are inextricably linked. For all intents and purposes, the cursor is the mouse – or at least the virtual representation of it. Clicking, Right Clicking, Double Clicking, Clicking and dragging; all of them always result in some action being applied to the thing under the tip of the cursor.

At least this was true until 1996 when Microsoft came along with the IntelliMouse, with it’s fancy new convenience: the scroll wheel; and with that, the metaphor was suddenly broken. I loved the scroll wheel as much as the next guy, but the truth is, for the first time, doing something with the mouse wasn’t necessarily applied to the thing under the cursor. Sure, the scroll wheel almost always scrolled the content of the window immediately beneath the cursor, but it’s effect was the equivalent of clicking on a scroll bar (one potentially far off on the other side of the screen) and moving it around. Contrived as it may have been, I remember this new manner of interacting with a window to be pretty damn convenient, so who was I to argue!?*

For years, we all just learned and accepted that scrolling the wheel down meant we wanted to move the scroll bar down, and vice versa. As the laptop world adopted trackpads, and multitouch became a reality, it didn’t take a genius to see the value in adopting gestures that would allow a user to mimic the various input types available on a mouse. Continuing with the broken metaphor, we all adopted the “two finger scroll” gesture.

Touch Interfaces are Hard

Having been developing iOS applications since long before ‘iOS’ was even a thing, I’ve come to learn that the hardest parts of touch driven interface are driven by two key points: Fingers are fatter than cursors, and breaking the rules of physics tends to confuse the hell out of people. These two facts make one part of a touch interface significantly harder to create than others – care to guess which it is?

Scroll Views.

Given that Apple’s foray into touch interfaces started with the iPhone, I feel like it’s worth pointing out another truism: Touch interfaces are hard, and touch interfaces on tiny little screens is harder. The lack of screen real estate on an iPhone means it’s necessary to consider UI elements the way one might consider weight in a sinking boat – if it’s not needed, throw it out. With how large the scroll bar would need to be to accurately interact with it, it’s not much of a shock that Apple designers figured out a way to cut out this screen gobbling UI element in lieu of a more intuitive way to scroll. To support this shift, Apple turned the scroll bar into a scroll “indicator” that gets out of the way when it’s no longer of use.

Full Circle

Few will argue that there is a fair amount of iOS-ification going on in Lion – and this new scrolling is the most in-your-face example of them all. With the iPhone, Apple has clearly learned real life lessons about the importance of “maintaining the metaphor” within an interface. And using the platform’s success, it’s not difficult to make the case things should be done the same as they’ve always been done.

It’s no coincidence that the new scroll bars in Lion are smaller, subdued, and out of the way – just like they are in iOS. Consider the cursor as a finger, and this new scrolling really doesn’t seem so crazy after all. Remember that you are moving the content – the big thing taking up all the space – and not that obscure little thing over on the side, and I’m confident scrolling (eventually) will indeed feel natural.

* In 1996 I was 14 and I’m pretty sure I was still using AOL, my parents were just about the only people I was arguing with.

About Jerry Jones

Co-Founder of Spaceman Labs, Inc. Formerly of Mellmo, Inc. iOS Developer since 2007. You can find me on LinkedIn, Twitter, and doing backflips on jet skis.
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