Of all the changes in Ventura, the most controversial have come in the move from System Preferences to its completely rewritten System Settings. This article considers why this is needed, and whether Ventura is going to achieve what’s required.
Stepping back and looking as objectively as we can, System Preferences as they stand in Monterey are the weakest part of the whole interface to macOS. Even for those of us who spend a lot of time using them, the layout of the System Preferences app is chaotic. If there is any logic for the order, it has long defied me. Why does Notifications & Focus come between Language & Region and Internet Accounts, for example?
Open any pane and, no matter how empty or full it is, its window can’t be resized. Many now consist of long lists of themes at the left, squeezing often busy settings into the reduced area to the right. Take the Security & Privacy pane. It has four tabs:
- General, seldom used except when trying to install kernel extensions, when you watch for it to show a fleeting control that might already have come and gone,
- FileVault, a single control with a whole tab to itself,
- Firewall, another single control that few ever use,
- Privacy, overflowing with all the recent privacy controls squeezed into a complete mess. It desperately needs a deeper window, but as ever can’t be resized at all.
There’s no evidence of design, instead preference settings seem to have been thrown haphazard into panes in the rush to ship new features, then to have been left to grow like weeds.
Even for the experienced user, navigation is difficult, but aids are crude and seldom worth the bother. System Preferences’ View menu merely lists in words the same panes, although at least in alphabetical order, and its Search is of limited help even to the desperate.
Within some of its panes are outstanding examples of human interface design, such as the video clips in the Trackpad pane, but they’re exceptional and hampered by that intransigent window size.
The fundamental problems to be solved in any replacement for System Preferences are:
- how to make the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individual controls accessible,
- the design of individual panes and dialogs within those.
In its current state, I think that System Settings solves the first far better than System Preferences, but the second remains mediocre at best, and in some respects is significantly worse than what we’ve got in Monterey.
System Preferences seems to have been designed for users to learn the contents of each pane, and with that knowledge navigate through to the section required. In the early days, it just about worked, but since then the number of settings has outgrown our capacity to memorise, to the point where you can waste many minutes looking through the contents of the Privacy tab and still not find what you need.
With so many preference settings to include, they could be structured shallow or deep. Do you have dozens of individual panes for each suite of settings, or few panes that nest deeper in the hierarchy? Getting the balance between breadth and depth is extremely difficult, so the only practical way ahead is to rely on navigational aids. Here System Settings does far better than its predecessors.
Its View menu doesn’t reproduce the list of panes, but gives the middle ranks in alphabetical order. Time Machine is a good example, as it’s no longer a pane in its own right, but part of the General pane, where it merits a direct link from the View menu. If you know the name of the subsystem, this is now a good place to come.
Search has been greatly improved too. One control I simply couldn’t see anywhere, and which has to be learned in System Preferences, is that to enable the keyboards and Emoji & Symbols item in the Menu Bar. As one of the few menu bar additions that isn’t controlled in the new Control Centre pane, and not obvious in Keyboard, the best way to find it is to type input as a search term. Each of the hits shown gives the context, and selecting any of those hits at the left takes you to the setting, jumping through deep hierarchies to the dialog you need.
Navigating System Settings also benefits from individual shortcuts provided in domain-specific menu bar controls, already a feature in Monterey. Add Stage Manager to the menu bar and with it you gain immediate access to its settings, buried in Control Centre.
The new Control Centre pane, which replaces Dock & Menu Bar, gives extensive control over the individual subsystems that can be added to the menu bar, and to Control Centre.
Perhaps most revolutionary of all, the System Settings window can be changed in size, albeit in only one axis. When using Ventura intensively, as I have been over the last three weeks, I’ve found myself expanding System Settings to the full height of the display to minimise the scrolling required to traverse its contents. In many situations, that eliminates the scrollbar completely.
Although getting around System Settings has been greatly improved, individual panes and dialogs are not as well-designed as those in System Preferences. Apple only reinstated video clips in Trackpad following widespread protest, and the replacements used are smaller and, to my eye, pale imitations.
I gather that System Settings has been implemented using Apple’s new SwiftUI interface, and that has proved its major design constraint. If that’s the case, it’s a good illustration of how dogmatic choice of tools can affect the human interface. Apple still has a long and painful journey before System Settings can match the quality of the rest of the macOS human interface. At least in Ventura it has made a start by reorganising these vital controls into structures that are accessible and navigable.