Today’s Apple Feedback: Mission Control Doesn’t Handle its Most Frequent Use Case

Mission Control has vastly improved since 10.7, but it still lacks support for the most frequent use-case that was supported back in the days of 10.6.8 – the case where each desktop (space) was a separate project, whose work involved multiple windows from the same set of apps. The recent updates of macOS have consolidated much of the functionality and handled some of the complaints, such as allowing users to un-group application windows (which probably saved Mission Control from the trash bin). It’s actually very nice to have desktop selection and window selection in the same consolidated screen, but if you have multiple windows open in multiple apps and want to switch between say, a selection of 5 TextEdit windows and you have 5 Terminal windows, a few Preview windows, and image editor, a few browser windows, Messages, Slack, etc., and each of 6 desktops has pretty much the same layout, your options are:

  1. Choose among a sea of 30+ windows from all apps on the current desktop
  2. Choose among a sea of 30+ TextEdit windows from all desktops
  3. Hit command-backtick or shift-command-backtick an unknown number of times

You may deride the habit of working on a desktop with so many windows like this, but in my line of work, I find it quite necessary.  Let me walk you through a few examples.

Text Files: I’m a computational biologist.  I work with lots of sources of data, (usually ascii text), and switch back and forth frequently.  Seeing the format of the data is much faster and easier in terms of quickly identifying it than identifying it by filename, which is usually based off a root filename, thus all look very similar.  Thus efficient switching between data sources is much easier by having them open as separate windows.  Besides, TextEdit doesn’t have a tabbed interface.  Some text editors do, but I’ve tried many of them and they usually don’t support one of the many features of TextEdit I frequently use.  But I’m going off on a tangent here…

Terminal Windows: I’m usually running pipeline analyses, installing tools, testing commands, etc concurrently.  While Terminal does have a tabbed interface, again, it’s more efficient to see in an instant what is done and what’s not, to keep one history of commands in one context short (for reference later), to call up documentation to head/tail/cat huge files without forcing pipeline steps off the window buffer, or to test out commands without littering the history with stuff that errors out. I know colleagues who extol the virtues of screen and other utilities that break up a terminal window, but I don’t like those methods of window management because you cannot search the window buffer with a multi-line search, which I do frequently (I don’t see how other people get along without that ability, honestly).  And other terminal apps don’t support features like option-arrow and multi-line search.

Preview Windows: Since many of my projects involve code development, I’m frequently taking screen-caps and screen-recordings of bugs and using image editors to mockup proposed interfaces.  This inherently leads to multiple windows.

Even with these 3 apps and a smattering of other 1-window apps (Messages, Slack, a browser window or 2 – though I tend to average around 5, and a smattering of finder windows), switching between windows is a task that could be much more efficient if Mission Control’s “Application Windows” feature simply allowed you to limit the array of windows to only those on the current desktop (e.g. 5 windows) instead of dragging all windows from all desktops and also throwing recently open files to boot, resulting in 30+ open and recently opened windows from 6 projects.

Thus, “Application Windows” is pretty much a useless feature to me.  Aggregating all those windows, even those that aren’t even open, is a huge mess.  Thus, I’ve gotten used to switching between windows of the same app by using command-backtick or shift-command-backtick.  Mission Control is usually useless in this regard too, with the app windows being mixed among other app windows.  As such, I usually use Mission Control almost exclusively to change desktops/projects, yet in the most recent version of macOS (Sierra 10.12), the default Mission Control view minimizes the desktop thumbnails.  So the first thing I always have to do is hover to reveal the desktop thumbs, and additional step that was pointlessly added.  At the very least, give us a setting to always show the thumbnails!

Let’s move on to the inconsistencies of app switching.  Safari’s feature to reveal a downloaded file results in a Finder window can only live on 1 desktop.  And revealing a file when that window is not on the current desktop results in a disorienting behavior of switching to the Finder and the downloads folder is nowhere to be seen.

Switching to an app with no window on the current desktop results in different behavior depending on whether another desktop has a window open from that app, despite setting the system preference to not switch desktops when switching apps.  Take Safari for example.  If Safari doesn’t have any windows open anywhere, clicking Safari in the dock opens a new browser window.  Clicking Safari when there is no Safari window on the current desktop (but one exists on another desktop) does not open a new Safari window. Clicking Safari in the dock a second time switches to a random Safari window on another desktop (i.e. project – which I never want to do when clicking the dock).  Even clicking Safari once in the dock when Safari is currently the foremost app changes to a random desktop with a Safari window.  The point here is that Apple has trained us to click the Safari Dock icon to get a new window when none are currently open, and this goes against the desire to separate projects by desktop.  It’s very disruptive to swoop your project away when you accidentally click a dock icon whose app is already in front.  The Finder is the worst at this.  If you want to open a new Finder window when none are currently open, it’s way too easy to accidentally click the Finder icon in the dock when the Finder is already the foremost app and get your desktop pulled out from under you.  It’s gotten so I try to leave a little corner of the desktop visible all the time so I can switch to the Finder by clicking on it and seeing if there are current windows by typing command-backtick.  Command-tab is another workaround, but is less convenient when you have to hit tab 7 times to select the Finder. Besides, clicking the dock icon is the most convenient way to bring all of an app’s windows to the front.  Command-tab doesn’t do that and command-backtick only does it one-by-one.  The only other way to do it is switching apps any other way than the dock and then selecting Window->Bring all to front.

And speaking of switching apps & desktops, is it counter-intuitive to anyone else to change the foremost app when switching desktops via control-arrow? I frequently will get an email relating to a different project and bring up the finder to find a file related to the email, then realize I should switch to that project’s desktop, but when I do and hit command-n to get a new Finder window, I end up with a new sticky, or a new browser window, or whatever random app happened to be foremost the last time I was on that desktop the previous day (I usually work on one or two projects a day).  I would much prefer to not switch apps when I switch desktops.  That interrupts the workflow.

Another thing about using the same apps on multiple desktops is that when you restart your computer, it groups all those windows from the same app and multiple projects all on the same desktop.  If Apple would just restore my desktops the way I had arranged them, I might actually shut my computer down more often.  It’s a hassle to have to layout all the open windows across (on average) 6 active projects, including all the Stickies I keep with project names in a large font to identify project desktops in Mission Control.

Speaking of which… Mission Control doesn’t allow you to name your desktops, which would be a huge convenience.  Sure, you could change the desktop picture to identify them, perhaps include the name in the image, but that’s a clunky workaround that doesn’t work when the image is covered up by windows.  The only trick I have to getting around this limitation is to hide a sticky under the dock with a huge font that names the desktop for the project it represents.

There’s so much here that it’s hard to distill this into a concise piece of Apple Feedback, so I chose the most easy and simple fixes that could really improve the multiple desktop experience in the feedback I sent to Apple today:

Improve Mission Control to better handle the use case where every desktop is a project consisting of windows from the same set of apps

Mission control would be much more efficient & useful to me if it had settings that existed to handle my use case where each desktop is a project that uses the same set of apps (e.g. TextEdit, Safari, Preview…). Here are improvements that would accommodate that case: 1. Allow desktops to be named (i.e. project name) so I don’t have to have a possibly covered-up sticky whose text is large enough to be read in MC. 2. Create a setting to always show the desktops immediately when launching (as switching projects is more frequent an occurrence in MC than switching windows) which you can do readily without MC). 3. Allow “application windows” to only show windows from the current desktop (since I always want to pick 1 of 5 windows, as opposed to 1 of 30 that are open in all 6 open projects).

I know that my style of work (using windows instead of tabs and using the same apps on multiple desktops) isn’t how other people might choose to work, but isn’t the Mac experience supposed to be personal? I feel like ever since Steve Jobs died, Apple has been slowly eroding and streamlining features to gear it toward the lowest common denominator of user and is leaving the professional Mac user out in the cold.  This is just one category of complaints in a long litany of dropped features and support that demonstrates how Apple’s focus abandons the professionals that utilize their products. Ever since 10.6, I’ve noted so many dropped features, I started keeping a list. The rate of growth of that list has been slowing down in the latest major updates, but still, the features that keep going by the wayside tend to be from those that power users use to achieve high productivity.