What is that je ne sais quoi that some app interfaces have?


Continuing the discussion from SuperPlanner - new time blocking app:

There are a few apps that seem like they would be ideal for my needs, but…
There’s just something about them that don’t gel with me somehow. It’s really hard to put into words.
It doesn’t seem to be whether they look like Apple apps, as there are some that work well for me on other platforms.

Here are a few I can think of. I’m not criticizing the apps, just wondering what that je ne sais quoi is that they’re missing (or that I’m missing).

Pagico a seemingly ideal project/task manager that even has a timeline.

Obsidian yes, even the golden child of notes apps.

Amazing Marvin a truly amazing project/task manager whose interactions can morph to your liking, without having to start over.

My completely unbacked theory is that it’s the increasing trend to make opinion-less software. It puts the onus on the consumer to identify how an app could be useful to them instead of crafting a specific experience which is super helpful if you follow it.

There’s pros and cons to both methods and I think the pendulum is swinging quite hard currently towards maximum flexibility


And yet the NotePlan app has plenty of je ne sais quoi but manages to be highly flexible and leave its workflow choices wide-open!

I think Noteplan is another example of an application which can do so much and is so flexible that it leaves new users paralyzed but what and how to use it. So as much undescribable goodness it’s UI and UX may have a user will drop it because they can’t figure out what to use it for.

Compare with a highly specific application which has clear ways of being used, but doesn’t gel with a new user’s mindset.

They’re two different methods with trade offs and I think all apps eventually steer to a center point

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Perhaps you would say that je ne sais quoi is necessary but not sufficient for a successful app? :slightly_smiling_face:

When I first opened the webpage of Superplaner, I thought that I accidentilly called up the webpage of Book Track

Those UI´s (and there are a few more apps with the same UI out there) are just interchangeable, they are from the same toolkit, and for me it results in not using a second (third) app with the similar UI, as I want to have a exclusive “picture” to look at while working with a certain app, to immediately identify the app and their purpose, and not wondering why the app is not reacting at the moment as I expected (because I look at the wrong app, without noticing).

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Discoverability and a respect for but not slavish devotion to convention. Being able to start simple and discover and add complexity step-by-step seems ideal to me. There are powerful apps that throw up barriers to first use (I’m looking at you, TInderbox …) and powerful apps that let you start small with something useful right out of the box so you’ll be encouraged to stick around and probe what it can do.


I agree with this a lot, but I think there is also more to it. Because convention on Apple platforms means design. Apple have long sweated the details on making interfaces easy on the eye and ‘delightful’ to use.

Simple (and short!) animations aren’t just (if you’ll pardon the pun) window dressing. They often impart a sense of what you’re doing, which acts as a visual backup that it’s doing what you expected.

Spacing of UI elements is vital. Some of the worst interfaces I have seen are bad not because they have too many things on screen at once (though that can be paralysing, as others have mentioned) but because they are crammed in, meaning your eye cannot easily scan and come to rest on what you’re looking for. Microsoft have swung this particular pendulum way too far in the other direction. I’m convinced they have white space targets they have to hit, because it is way overused.

Coherence of the interface is important. This is one of the reasons Apple made SF Symbols and provided them all to developers with guidelines on how to make them ‘fit’ in an interface, including harmonising with surrounding text.

Colours are important, too. I dislike Apple’s “one app, one colour” approach but at least the colour is used well. I prefer a little variety, but it can easily be overused.

Finally, things need to be in sensible places. As a user of computers for over 40 years, I have a sense for where I should be able to find things. Not so much canonical locations for specific functions, but relative locations of similar or related functions. Software that flummoxes me is often that which breaks this particular rule.

Illustrating many of these points, one common example that always makes me wince… the Android status bar. Too much crammed in, inconsistent style, and as far as I can tell, as disorganised as a Mac menu bar.


Not throwing up barriers to first use is a good thing for many, if not most, people and apps. On the other hand, there are strong, almost dopamine-like, rewards for pushing through and becoming familiar with, and even mastering, an app.


Another item that helps is well thought defaults. If the user needs to select a date and today is the most common choice, make it the default.

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This being a “Mac Power Users Group” I think that the je ne sais quoi are basically the Apple Human Interface Guidelines or whatever they are called these days. Apple has always been at the forefront of user experience —albeit not so much these days, arguably.

For example, Amazing Marvin is a remarkably powerful task manager, it has everything. Everything! I’d confidently say it beats Omnifocus in terms of power and flexibility. But here’s the catch: all these features, being multi platform (and so web based), would sit perfectly on, say, a Linux desktop but in an Apple device the UI stands out like a sore thumb, imho, making it not very enjoyable. That’s also the reason why the mobile app cannot really cut it in an iPhone. If you are serious about overcoming procrastination, AM is certainly to be considered. But if you value the same experience while using your Mac you would probably look somewhere else.

I do also see the trend that many newish Mac-assed task managers, probably because they are using SwiftUI, look basically like a souped up Reminders. I think this means it’s more and more difficult that we will see another UI breakthrough like Things on its day

Id also add that UX is important but it’s also hard stuff. It’s not like you launch Interface Builder and start throwing widgets and other boxes and it automatically renders a usable interface. Apple provides the building blocks, but true usability requires much more than that.

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You know, I don’t run into much chatter about the good old Apple HIG these days. However there is a current link for them but no obvious way to download a PDF. The guidelines seem to have expanded beyond a single document.

Tog On Interface. I loved that book and the Apple HIG. It encapsulated much that was good about Apple.