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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Ways to make macOS Ventura System Settings better

settings app with big search box

So I joined in the beating on macOS Ventura’s System Settings app this week. It’s an update for an app that desperately needed a rethink… that doesn’t actually rethink things in any substantial way, just rearranges the proverbial deck chairs.

This time, I thought I’d be a bit more positive and provide some suggestions for ways System Settings could get better, assuming that what we’ve got in beta today is going to ship later this fall no matter what.

Embrace the width. Mac screens are in widescreen aspect ratios. There’s no reason for the System Settings app to be almost exactly square. (You can actually stretch it taller! But not wider.) One of the biggest confusion points in the System Settings app is that it’s very hierarchical in spots, so it’s easy to get lost. One way to make that less confusing is to embrace the metaphor from Finder’s Column view (Steve Jobs’s favorite view!) and let the app get wider, displaying multiple levels of hierarchy.

Settings app with extra column
One idea: add a multi-level hierarchical view. (Mock-up.)

Embrace favorites and recents. So many modern apps let you mark items as favorites, and displaying recent items has been a hallmark of Mac apps for decades. Why not use these concepts to improve System Settings? I don’t know about you, but there are certain settings pages I visit all the time, and others I never visit. Displaying favorites or bookmarks of specific settings would speed up my access. Also, how frequently do you adjust a setting and then realize it’s not working for you? Adding a Recents list to the interface would speed things up further.

Break with the past. One of the ugly secrets of System Settings is that in many places, it’s just copying bad organizational decisions of past versions of macOS. In other cases, items have been swept into new weird locations that just don’t make sense anymore. The app has broken with the interface macOS has had for system preferences for two decades; maybe it’s time to completely revisit every single setting and put them in new buckets where they make sense.

Seriously, who benefits from the default web browser selection being located on the second page of the Desktop & Dock settings? (It actually made more sense in General, which is where it’s located in pre-Ventura System Preferences.) The only way you’re ever going to find it is by searching for it. At least the search function works. It’s pretty much the only way to find anything.

Give up on keeping it simple. The top level of System Settings features more than two dozen individual items, arranged in eight unlabeled subgroups, with each item ordered arbitrarily rather than alphabetically. Who are those subgroups helping? Why is Energy Saver in the same group as Screen Saver and Wallpaper but located below them? There are no good answers.

So maybe chuck it all. If the app is free to get wider and embrace the hierarchies that already exist in sections like General, perhaps the best approach is to break down all settings into top-level categories, with another list of items below them. Find a way to make the structure make sense to people browsing it. This structure would also allow items that are currently sharing space in a single awkward screen to spread out. Menu Bar items don’t need to be tucked into Control Center, Siri and Spotlight don’t need to cohabitate anymore, and Quick Actions in the Finder don’t need to be two levels down in Privacy & Security.

Apple needs to try to find a way to organize settings that make sense. Either that, or it should just give up and have the app open to a big search box.

Get consistent. Over the years as the System Preferences app grew, it became a regular Winchester Mystery House of features. Every version of macOS added on more items needing settings, so Apple threw in a tab view here, a scrolling list here, a button bringing up a modal dialog over there. I get it, but this is a new app, and it should lay down some rules and at least attempt to get things consistent, not just for now, but for the future.

So beyond the organizational structure I already mentioned, I’ll point out some other areas for improvement: Every item in the left sidebar has an icon, but the icons aren’t consistent. It’s not like the blue icons or the red icons all live together. What, if anything, do the colors signify? Presumably… something? Most icons are simple monochrome silhouettes on a colored background, but not all of them, for some reason.

Within settings, users shouldn’t have to guess at what they can click on, or what it might do. In the Sharing subsection (hidden within the top-level General setting, for some reason), each sharing item has settings hidden behind the “info” icon. Does the info icon imply settings, or just more information? In other places, this sort of information is hidden behind a button that says Advanced or Options. (Personally, I’d like to see as few click-to-see-more buttons in the app as possible, but I understand that sometimes it’s a good idea to hide items from the general public. But if you’re going to have them, be consistent.)

And yes, when I say “be consistent,” I also mean there should be a style guide that explains how all the text labels in the app should be handled. Right now it’s a melange of Title Case, Initial caps, and lowercase. Some settings are in Mad Libs style, with a sentence that’s completed by the setting you choose. Others have a label with a colon, followed by choices. Pop-up menus have different arrows at the end of them. It goes on. If there are rules for this stuff, I can’t reverse-engineer them.

Be clear. Scroll down to the bottom of the Wi-Fi preference pane and click on Advanced for… something advanced? Turns out it’s the list of Wi-Fi networks you’ve seen before, so you can grab their passwords, set if you want your Mac to automatically join them, or remove them from history. (All of that information is hidden under a More button, so you have to click on each individual item to see or change its status, which seems like another interface mistake.)

But scroll further down in that Advanced modal dialog box, and you’ll find… settings! Namely, the ability to show legacy networks, and whether to require administrator authorization to change settings. Your Wi-Fi MAC address is also there.

When I say “be clear,” I’m specifically talking about labels that say “Advanced” instead of explaining what you’ll see when you click. Perhaps there should be something labeled Show Known Networks, and another something labeled Advanced Settings for the truly advanced settings that are hiding beneath a very long scrolling list?

Consider more than one mode. Are some of the macOS settings just… too nerdy for most people? Almost certainly. So here’s an idea: Why not create a mode that only displays the most important settings that users should have access to? Then let users choose to switch to the more cluttered version of the app that shows everything. Advanced users will just turn the feature on and be done with it. But it could make things easier for regular users who probably don’t need to look up the MAC address of their Wi-Fi.

Multiple selections are good. So many settings in groups are individual and hierarchical. For notifications and privacy settings, for instance, there’s no way to select a big group and apply changes to them all at once. Wouldn’t it be nice to select a dozen apps and turn Notifications off or on for all of them at once? (At least the Privacy & Security sub-sections let you quickly flip an on/off switch; Notifications requires you to click into each individual item, then make choices, then back out.)

It’s… a lot

Look, I know what I’m describing is a big job. But when I first heard rumors that Apple was replacing the System Preferences app, I assumed that this was the job that was being done. Unfortunately, the Ventura beta shows that a lot of this work has not yet been done.

I don’t know what’s behind some of the mystifying features of the System Settings app. I suspect that the team who worked on this app was given some very questionable marching orders from high up. What I do know is this: The idea of making macOS settings work more like iOS and iPadOS isn’t a bad one. That’s not the issue here. In fact, iOS would probably benefit from a lot of the changes I’m suggesting, too.

But first things first.

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