Window clicking

A short treatise on the proper behavior of macOS window management.

John Siracusa and Lee Fyock  published little utility app called Front and Center, which brings back classic Mac’s window management behavior in one particular aspect: when you tap one window of particular app, all its windows come to the front.

I immediately felt this fixes something that does not need fixing and started writing some tweets but…those drafts got deleted. It’s not an easy task to argue with John of Windows of Siracusa County1 regarding window management thus I filed it under “Mac nostalgia” and moved on. It’s behavior they were both used to and what they got accustomed to. So much that they still miss it today, decades after they last used it. So they did something about that for their own pleasure, which is great power developers have.

Today though, I read John Gruber’s really nice short piece about it and this reasoning stirred my UX brain (emphasis mine):

When you switch to an app via the Dock, all its windows come forward. When you switch to an app via ⌘-Tab, all its windows come forward. It feels right to me that when you switch to an app by clicking one of its visible background windows, the whole app comes forward.

This is that one thing Front and Center changes in macOS window management. As I said, I feel that from UX point of view it’s the wrong thing to do.

In general: no unexpected content surprises for end user. You get what you chose and macOS does the right thing, by default.

I do agree with Gruber regarding this:

Honestly, the Mac OS X system should have offered all of Front and Center’s functionality for the last 18 years.

There are use-cases where you want the whole app to come forward and there should be a way to do that. So I decided to see if it’s already there. Option (Alt) key is used throughout the macOS as a modifier to offer alternative or additional actions, depending on what you click. So I opened some Finder windows and some iA Writer windows and tried clicking and Alt-clicking. Lô and behold, it’s actually working:

So it seemed it’s there already, in the OS. I couldn’t believe that Siracusa would miss something so obvious that I decided to do some more tests: opened few Safari windows.

It’s then I noticed a strange behavior: Alt+click does not bring all the windows from the parent app but actually hides all the windows from the previously foreground app and brings the one clicked window forward. WTH..? That’s certainly not something I expected to happen.

So yeah…few takeaways:

  1. Doubting Siracusa is dangerous.
  2. Go and buy Front and Center.
  3. Activate Modern behavior inside it and you are all set.

  1. Man, that episode and that discussion. An UX gold mine. ↩︎