The consistency curse

A weird Apple ID picture, and thoughts on consistency.

Those days my main operating system is Windows 10, I switched from macOS a bit less than 1 year ago out of frustration as I was looking for a new laptop. The shift of paradigm took a bit of time to adapt, but once I accepted that Windows really does and never cared about consistency, things started to go quite well, and I'm now a happy Windows user.

A bit less than a week ago I was working on a release of HabitCat to iOS and so had a need for XCode and the iOS simulator. I went back to my old MacBook and started applying all available macOS updates. I avoided them until now because of all the issues that always come with macOS upgrades, but that's an XCode requirement, so I put my grumpy face, grumbled my annoyance away and started the long upgrade process, then of course spent the next hour or so fixing all the issues caused by the removal of 32 bits support, new app permission restrictions, etc (the usual stuff when upgrading macOS).

I'm finally done installing new software versions and fixing broken stuff around, and ready to start to use my laptop for productive work, running the latest and shiniest macOS ever. And that's when I notice a very small detail in a part of the UI. I opened the Mac App Store, and see this glitchy profile picture:

My profile picture is the correct one, at least it seems to match the one I have on my phone. But why the weird distortion? Is that a temporary issue that can be fixed by just restarting the app, or my machine, or by logging out/in? No idea, I haven't found a way to fix it so far, and to be honest I don't care enough to look longer for a solution.

But because of this I started to check all the other places where the Apple ID picture is being used, just by curiosity.

I found the following uses so far, either in macOS or the iCloud web interface (they seem to be updated kind of at the same time so that their UI look similar):

✅ Messages
❌ Mac App Store
❌ System Preferences
✅ Facetime
✅ iCloud web: Welcome screen
❌ iCloud web: Contacts
✅ Contacts

So only 3 problematic ones, that's not too much and I'm really nitpicking here, still it's 3/7, so roughly 42% of incorrect images. I'm sure I missed some other use of the Apple ID picture.

Let's ignore the fact that one image is distorted, that's clearly a bug that should be caught by Apple's QA, but I'm more interested by the inconsistency, not the bug itself. Obviously it's a detail nobody really cares about, and as I said I'm now using the most inconsistent OS ever, Windows 10, as my daily driver, so really, why should I be bothered by this small issue?

I find this to be an interesting point to start to reflect on why that feels weird and somehow negative when I face that lack of consistency on macOS, but somehow I never had that kind of issues during my years using Linux, or now that I'm using Windows. Somehow the fact that macOS is generally consistent makes it way more visible and painful when something isn't. When using Linux I can identify in a few moments if I'm dealing with Qt or GtK but that never bothered me. On Windows I switch from UWP apps, to Win32, to whatever web thingy is used for VSCode, and that never bothers me. But in macOS if an application doesn't support the basic emacs keybinding for text editing (C-a, C-e, C-k, etc), or in the case discussed here, if a profile image isn't used the same way everywhere, then I notice it and that starts bothering me.

I guess that's based on the fact that Apple is really focused on creating consistent and coherent user experience between their operating systems, and they are really good at it, so the general expectation is that things work the way I expect them to work, and look the way I expect them to look, based on past experiences. My experience with macOS and iOS is that something learned in one context is expected to be similar in another, similar context. Interestingly their focus on consistency is here what creates some (very slight) frustration. And I feel I would have never cared if that would have been another operating system, because I never expected them to actually be consistent. In some ways, a slightly inconsistent macOS experience is a broken one, while an inconsistent Windows experience is completely normal, even expected, and anything slightly consistent becomes a nice suprise.

Anyway, that's already too much rambling, but I thought that was an interesting train of thoughts.

I'm sure someone somewhere already gave a name to this phenomena, if that's the case I don't know it and couldn't find one after searching around. So I will go forward and call it the "consistency curse": when a systems focuses on and offers a consistent user experience 90% of the time, the 10% become highly visible and a point of contention/frustration. But people forgive easily systems that don't offer any such guarantee.


A few things:

  • In this post I willingly exaggerate traits to communicate my thoughts, Apple software aren't as perfect at they would like them to be, and are broken and frustrating in a lot of ways, but this feeling of "common user experience" between their devices and applications is clearly something they are focused on, so I think that the general point stands. I.e: emacs keybindings are available in nearly all macOS text input.
  • I thought about it afterward but didn't find a good way to blend it in the post content: vim is the perfect example of a "consistent curse". As soon as you develop good muscle memory for the keybindings, anything slightly inconsistent becomes REALLY frustrating.