Thursday
Dec082011

Annoying Alfred usability issue

At the risk of my blog further becoming a place for me to do nothing but complain, I want to mention an annoying usability issue with Alfred, the application quick launcher for Mac OS X.

For starters, the idea behind any application launcher is you press a key combination to trigger the launcher, then type the name of the application you want to launch. Some launchers will search files as well, and some let you set up short names for applications you launch frequently, but the heart of all of them comes down to typing the first few characters of the name of the application and hitting enter to launch. The other key feature of application launchers is speed - streamlining the process of identifying and selecting the application you wish to launch.

Once you start typing, Alfred displays a list of matching applications. As you continue typing, you narrow down the list of potential apps to launch until Alfred displays the one you want to launch in the first spot, and you hit enter. Except that it’s not as simple as that - often it will take a split second or two before you realize that Alfred has identified the app that you want. In that time, you have entered several additional characters of the name of the application.

Unfortunately, Alfred has the annoying habit (at least for me) of changing its mind about which app it wants to feature as the first choice:

Note how I typed an additional character in the name of “Transmission” but Alfred switched the top result to “Transmit” instead? By the time my brain had processed the fact that Transmission was the top result after “tran”, my hands had already typed the next letter or two, which caused the result to change. And by the time my brain realized that it had changed, my pinky had already hit the enter button, launching the app. I then had to quit Transmit, relaunch Alfred, and try again. The second time around I didn’t want to take any chances, so I typed the entire name of the application slowly and deliberately as to avoid making any further mistakes, all the while cursing Alfred for pulling a bait-and-switch on me.

This is very nearly enough for me to quit using the app out of frustration. I say “very nearly” because the only real free alternative is Quicksilver, and I’m not optimistic about it being maintained. There’s LaunchBar, which is promising but costs money, and the built-in Spotlight search isn’t cutting it anymore. In any case, Alfred is otherwise fine, and I’m hoping that the developers will recognize this flaw and correct it in a future version.

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