Natural Scrolling Isn’t

Mac users and other developers such as myself who have no choice but to use a Mac for certain projects will already know what I’m talking about. For everyone else, however, the newest version of OS X includes a most bizarre feature, called “natural scrolling”. Despite its innocuous-sounding name, this feature (which ships enabled by default) breaks the interface to the OS by inverting the direction content scrolls when using the mouse-wheel.

Apple’s explanation (and seemingly, justification) for this atrocity of a feature is that “content should move in the same directions as your finger”. Now that’s all well and good, except for one thing; there is no “finger” when using a mouse. Touch- and mouse-driven are distinct input paradigms.

Apple is correct in that in a touch-driven system content should indeed track in the same direction as the user’s finger moves. If a hypothetical touch-based interface were ever released which scrolled content in the opposite direction of the user’s finger, then people would say that it was broken. And rightly so. Moving content in the same direction as the touch is the intuitive operating mode of a touch interface.

Similarly, moving content in the opposite direction of the scroll (or more accurately, moving the scrollbar in the direction of the scroll) is the intuitive operating mode for a mouse-driven interface. And it follows that Apple’s mouse-driven interface in Lion is just as broken as that hypothetical touch-driven interface would be. By Apple’s logic scrollbars themselves should also be inverted, tracking from the bottom of the scrollbar to the top as the content scrolls from top to bottom. Confused yet? Apple’s blunder here is that they have conflated mouse-driven input with touch-driven input, without bothering to translate properly between the two.

As an interesting aside, a comparable analog to touch-style scrolling does exist in the mouse-driven paradigm; the drag operation. You’ve probably seen it in things like Adobe PDF documents, and it can also be observed on any scrollbar. In the drag operation you choose an anchor-point, and then that anchor point moves in the same direction that you move, and it all intuitively makes sense. The problem with scrolling using a scroll-wheel is that it has no anchor point from the user’s point of view (they have done nothing to nominate one, and the UI does nothing to indicate that one has been chosen). In the mouse-driven paradigm, scrolling is a distinct operation from dragging, and by conflating the two Apple has broken their interface. At least until they start incorporating a touch-screen into every computer they sell.

If Apple’s position is to be taken seriously, then we must accept that the current cursor position must always represent where the user’s “finger” is. There’s one major problem with that, however. With a mouse and cursor, the cursor never leaves the screen. And if the user’s finger is in constant contact with the screen, then why should there be a separate scroll operation at all? It would logically follow (since mouse-driven == touch-driven and cursor == finger in Apple’s world) that since a touch-point exists, and since it is moving, the content (all of it, everywhere) should simply scroll whenever I move the mouse (all the time, everywhere). But of course that is nonsense, and so is Apple’s “natural scrolling” mouse behavior. The mouse cursor is not a finger, it does not represent a finger, and its location is not where your finger is touching. Mouse-driven and touch-driven are different modes of operation, with different intuitive behaviors.

Thankfully, you can turn off “natural” scrolling and rid your OS of its nonsense. I’ll be happy to turn it back on when my mouse is replaced with a touch-screen display, but until that day comes you can forget about it. Apple, please stop trying to convince me that moving my mouse cursor around the screen is supposed to be the same thing as dragging my finger all over a touch screen. It isn’t, and I’m not stupid enough to be convinced that it is.

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3 Responses to Natural Scrolling Isn’t

  1. Johnny says:

    This feature is designed to be used with the macbooks touchpad, and the mighty mouse; both are touch-based interfaces. If you dont like the feature, turn it off. The OS is hardly broken because a few easily changed default settings are not to your liking.

    • aroth says:

      You’re bending the semantics of “touch-based interface”. The inclusion of haptics in a touchpad or mouse does not a touch-based interface make (at best you have a touch-based peripheral). You are still not touching the actual content on the screen. You are touching an external device that is physically decoupled from the screen and its content.

      By your interpretation of the term, we might as well think of any mouse as providing a touch-based interface. You’re touching it, after all, and it responds based upon where and how you touch it. Therefore, “touch-based”. Except not really.

      And yes, because Apple has made “natural scrolling” the default, and because Apple, as a company, is notorious for trying to push its idea of how things should be done on its users, the OS is just as broken as my hypothetical touch-based OS with its inverted scrolling logic. Nobody would want to use such a thing, and thankfully most companies seem to know better than to try to build an OS (touch-based or otherwise) that has inverted scrolling logic.

  2. Dimo says:

    I agree with your points, the problem is that with apple, when they offer you a choice, you can be sure that in one or two revisions of the OS, the choice will be taken away and you will be stuck with the so called “Natural Scrolling”. Personally I don’t understand how people can defend this new reverse scrolling, the abstract connection between a mouse/touchpad/magic thing is not even close to the DIRECT connection you have on a touch screen. A touch pad and touch screen is not the same thing. Unfortunately, all the apple fan boys and girls are adopting this new paradigm and for me, this is the biggest reason to stop using a mac right now. So not only is it a pain in the ass to switch between different macs now, but for me this feels like if cars suddenly required you to turn the wheel left to go right. People who say this is some sort of “innovation”, should think about the fact that at some point, the wheel is just a wheel, there is no next step for a wheel… It’s round, and it’s thus a wheel. Why mess with something that has worked so well and no one has ever complained about? Argh this really bugs me.

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