Mac users, meet your menu bar

Can you recognize the signs of SMBB? Selective Menu Bar Blindness affects millions of Mac users, but has yet to be widely recognized as a chronic and debilitating condition.

Patient X — let’s call her “Shmalexandra” — was treated for a classic presentation of the disorder. SMBB typically presents as occlusion of the left peripheral vision, causing the user to perceive the menu bar at the top of the screen as something like the following:

Default icon set in mac menu bar

In this example, the user perceives the menu bar as comprising a limited selection of icons, largely corresponding to default functionality such as Bluetooth, wireless, volume, battery charge, time, account and search (this user is additionally able to recognize the presence of Tunnelblick, a utility that connects to VPNs).

Upon examination, the user’s menu bar was found to include a much larger set of icons:

Complete menu bar with full set of icons including user-installed utilities

As you can see, the user’s SMBB had obscured perception of a large set of icons, even though the majority of these icons represented utilities that the user had specifically chosen to install:

Close up of icons appearing towards the middle of the menu bar

Interestingly, when the user was directed towards the red “M” envelope in the middle of the menu bar, she was able to both see the icon and identify its likely relationship to the Gmail account, suggesting that SMBB is a cognitive limitation and not an actual gap in the visual field. Once the user perceived and identified the icon, she proceeded to click on it, noting the value that this menu bar dropdown — part of the Mailplane browser for Gmail — would likely provide to her future e-mail processing:

Mailplane dropdown from menu bar shows list of recent messages

Observations and recommended treatment: Once the user has clicked on a single unviewed menu bar icon she is likely to notice additional icons and click on them to, identifying opportunities for improved usability and workflow. In most cases, SMBB can be cured by a single treatment, in which the user is encouraged to look at the damn menu bar already,

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