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When Down is Up and Up is Down

As a user interface and usability professional, I’m always excited when major shifts in software applications and operating systems happen. I always jump in as an early adopter just to experience the differences. Yesterday, I upgraded to Apple Lion and I must admit that my mind has been bent into a pretzel over the change they made in how scrolling works. It’s now “backwards”. I mean that literally. I know it’s hard to believe, but I know literally have to scroll down to go up and up to go down.

If you have a Mac, upgrade to Lion and get your mind blown just for the expansionary effects of it. Here’s a great commentary on the scrolling change. It’s from OS X Lion: New Scrolling Behavior:

For those who do not know yet, Apple, in the latest version of Mac OS X (Lion), in order to more closely align with iOS, switched the handling of two-finger scrolling behavior. In iOS, dragging your fingers from bottom to top scrolls down. In previous versions of OS X, two finger dragging on the track pad from bottom to top would scroll up. This behavior is now switched, so that bottom to top scrolls down. The same holds true for right/left. I’m going to give it the time to get used to it, but so far not so good.

I’m not sure the new method makes entire sense though. On iOS and touch-based devices, it completely makes sense as you are literally dragging the screen with your finger. It’s a natural interaction as if you are actually pulling a piece of paper up to further read the document. Before the introduction of multi-touch trackpads, scroll bars were the primary way to perform scrolling. Scroll bars naturally pull down to scroll down. As a result, you are actually dragging from top to bottom. Scroll bars were never meant to interact directly with the viewport, but rather was meant to specify where within the viewport the content should be viewed. It was like a range widget, for example. Both of these cases were extremely natural. Then, multi-touch trackpads came on the scene with two-finger scrolling to be able to ditch the scroll bars. In this scenario, Apple maintained the top to bottom equals scroll down mentality to make it similar to as if you were literally dragging the scroll bar. In essence, two finger scrolling was just a quick and easy way to drag the scroll bar. Now, that logic has been completely flip-flopped and Apple wants you to think in terms of literally dragging the content rather than interacting with a scroll bar. The problem I have with this is that you are not literally dragging and touching the document. You are interacting with a physical touchpad. Further, it is inherent to the brain that you pull down to drag down and pull up to drag up. For example, a mouse with a scroll wheel would still scroll properly as it just makes sense. You want to scroll down, scroll the mouse down. The same should prolly hold true for the touchpad. Otherwise, it is like trying to trick your natural brain impression. It’s like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach…sure it can be done but you have to trick your brain to do so.

Here is a test to perform for yourself. Imagine you have a touch screen macbook. Without thinking try to scroll this article up and down with your finger. You will prolly notice you tried to literally drag it from top to bottom to scroll down or vice-versa. It just makes sense which is why it makes sense on iOS. Now try to do the same experiment from the touchpad and you’ll almost certainly want to do the opposite because you are now thinking in terms of scroll bars, not windows (after all you are interacting with the scroll, not the window). The only question I have is whether that rationale is because we have become used to scrolling in that sense from trackpads or whether it truly is natural. Apple is betting on the former and expecting over time that the natural expectation will change to better align with iOS.



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