When Did Progress Bars Become Extinct?

I recently wanted to play around with some relatively obscure and specialized software that was sadly only available for Windows. (No, it wasn’t a game.) Having been abstinent from Microsoft operating systems for well over a decade, I resorted to using PlayOnMac, a convenient port of WINE. As I was waiting for the installation to finish, I realized that it had been quite a while since I was exposed to user interface design made in Redmond.

The Ugly but Functional Windows Installer

The Ugly But Functional Windows Installer

Despite its obvious aesthetic shortcomings, it immediately struck me that you not only see how much of the task has been completed but that there is also feedback on what is currently happening under the hood. Normally, though, you couldn’t care less about the files that are being moved into various directories. All of this may not look overly fancy, but at least you are not being kept in the dark.

I agree that Microsoft’s solution is unsightly, but at least you are not considered a complete moron. On the other hand, user interfaces in competing operating systems, and especially on the Internet, have become so incredibly dumbed down that there is hardly any useful feedback at all anymore. Instead you merely see some animated circles, so-called “pre-loaders.” But those can’t tell you anything since they are just animated GIF or PNG files.

If you have a modicum of technical understanding and are aware that you are actually looking at an image, you may even feel slightly insulted. At least I can’t help but think that the people who implemented this were fully aware that they are not telling you anything about the progress of the actual task. Instead, they merely put an animated graphic in front of you to give you something to look at that moves, a bit like this:

The Healthy Alternative to Watching TV

The Healthy Alternative to Watching TV (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0PgHS8QLVs)

Yes, applications and websites are prettier nowadays, but I can’t help but think that the loss of information presented to the user is an example of the old saying of, “two steps forward, one step back.” The underlying assumption seems to be that unlike in the old days, hardware and software is much more reliable so the user can do without proper feedback. However, I have found myself in situations where it was not clear at all whether the process would just take a long time to complete or whether it had crashed. In this regard, it was rather ironic that PlayOnMac presented me with the following screen when I was later on trying to uninstall some other application.

...and it kept spinning and spinning.

…and it kept spinning and spinning.

PlayOnMac was unfortunately unable to complete the deinstallation. This is just an assumption, however, since I was given no useful feedback and eventually forced the program to quit. There is nothing edifying about looking at the equivalent of the dreaded “spinning beach ball of death” Mac users are all-too familiar with. I’d much rather have the information density of an old-fashioned progress bar back.

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