Stage Manager, intuition and changing interfaces

Whenever we discuss the human interface, there’s one word that’s sure to follow, intuitive. Of all the concepts in human interface design, it’s by far the most maligned. In the context of Stage Manager, it’s also dangerous unless we realise that next to nothing about macOS is actually intuitive, in the sense that we can comprehend it immediately and without reasoning or prior learning.

There are good examples of truly intuitive design. Among my favourites is the ring-pull can, where pulling the ring is the only obvious action, and leads the user straight to the solution of how to open the can.

My best test for whether human interface behaviours are truly intuitive is to take someone, like my late father, who has essentially no experience of using computers. When we put an iPad in my father’s hands, he was lost in amazement and incapable of doing anything with it except gazing at it in wonder. Those of us who speak or write about human interfaces have invariably been using them for many years, and what we are judging them on isn’t the intuitive, but what we have learned and our expectation of similar metaphors.

Relying on prior learning and established interface metaphors makes our opinions conservative. This is good in some ways, as it invokes the principle of consistency, one of the overriding concerns in human interface design. I still criticise Apple’s Finder interface to iCloud for breaking the overriding rule that dragging a file within the same volume moves it, while dragging it between different volumes copies it. However much Apple might pretend that iCloud is an integral part of our Home folder, for the majority of users it isn’t, and dragging behaviour to and from iCloud is inconsistent with the established rule.

There are times, though, when interface design cannot be conservative. The original Mac human interface wasn’t, and for anyone coming from a text and keyboard environment it was entirely novel and something of a shock, until we had grasped the metaphors involved.

Those metaphors, what is now the basis of our ‘intuition’, developed in a different era. Last week, I typically had around ten substantial windows open on my iMac’s 27-inch display, and when developing that could easily rise by another half a dozen. I’m sure many of you exceed those, and are driven to spread them on a second or even third display. Although eased by newer features such as the Dock and window minimisation, many of us still spend our days repeatedly rummaging through a forest of windows.

My own layout also ensured ample distraction. At the left edge was Tweetbot, every few minutes delivering the next batch of tweets fresh for my attention. Somewhere in the centre, buried a few windows deep, was Postbox, my mail client, delivering me dozens of messages every day. Then someone would ask me a question in Messages, drawing my attention further away from the writing I was attempting.

We’ve had solutions before, which being ‘intuitive’ were somewhat less than half-baked at best. What we all needed was a fresh approach, something designed from the start to juggle multiple apps and their windows instantly. By definition, that can’t appear ‘intuitive’, as it needs a fresh metaphor, and that’s what Stage Manager attempts.

It took twenty years to progress from the original Mac interface to that of early Mac OS X. Much of that was, admittedly, for the hardware to become capable, and the apps to evolve, but it also required us to change and adapt at the slow pace most of us prefer. Ventura and Stage Manager have so far had less than five months since they were first unleashed on those foolish enough to engage in beta-testing, and less than a week in general use.

Apple hasn’t even had time to develop a terminology, and still refers vaguely to “thumbnails at the side”. I like the stage metaphor, and would rather develop that. Active windows in the centre are surely on the stage, or centrestage, and those thumbnails at the left are the cast, waiting to be brought on stage.


Unlike most previous attempts to develop or extend existing interface metaphors, Stage Manager is dynamic. I don’t just set up members of the cast and switch between them. One of the regulars in my cast is MarsEdit, the blog editor responsible for every article here. While I often use it alone, I also use it alongside Safari, Finder windows, and other apps including BBEdit. I often want to find and refer to other documents while I’m writing, so might grab a Finder or other window from one of the cast, pull it in, and once I’ve finished drop it back into the cast again.

In the right situation, you can even use Stage Manager with a single app centrestage, pulling in windows from the cast as you need them. As with all good interface tools, Stage Manager doesn’t dictate how you use its features, and it’s up to you to see whether the tools it provides are an efficient solution.

Bringing apps onto the stage is another flexible action. Instead of clicking on them in the cast, I often fetch them using the Dock. Stage Manager remembers how I prefer it set up: in the morning when I load its cast, it automatically groups Tweetbot and Safari together, as I like them, so I don’t have to recreate the same layout that I had when I quit apps the previous night.

All the time I have to keep reminding myself that Stage Manager isn’t a week old yet, and we’re comparing it against the rest of the Mac’s human interface, which has had the benefit of nearly forty years of evolution. Please explore it and let Apple know what you’d like to see it do for you.