How to Locate Hidden Features in OS X: The Disclosure Triangle

Ah, yes… The Disclosure Triangle… how many of you out there know what this is? How many of you are just plain-ole typical Mac users who couldn't be bothered with all the technical minutiae that many of the “other” TMO readers thrive on? Alas, I am firmly ensconced in this latter group that thrives on geeky frippery. That goes without saying.

However, with any personal computing device, there are always those tantalizing technical tidbits that turn out to be truly useful to everyone but are often hard to intuit without diving into documentation. Who reads the owner’s manual anyway? Who even gets an owner’s manual to begin with?

I am like the magician who discloses how the tricks are done and then gets shunned by his colleagues. It’s not quite like that for me, but I do like to offer up techie tips and tricks that are in my Apple consultant’s bag-o-tricks. Colleagues may keep these closely guarded, I love sharing them and help simplify other users’ workflow.

One of these tips is knowing how to find hidden features and commands in OS X and within apps themselves. I already introduced you to the elusive help facilities embedded everywhere but often ignored. You can review this article here on TMO: How to Get Technical Help Without Relying on How-To Articles.

A OS X Finder window depicting two Disclosure Triangles.

Two typical Disclosure Triangles

Now it’s time to examine the Disclosure Triangle. It’s very elusive. Many applications use this common method for exposing commands not usually available elsewhere, such as in the application menus. 

The problem is that this triangle  – sometimes an arrowhead  –  is frequently quite minuscule. Additionally, of late, interface elements have been harder and harder to see either because of high resolution settings on physically smaller screens or the lack of sufficient contrast. Also, what the more seasoned Mac users are getting frustrated about is a tendency for developers to place their small medium-gray graphic thingamabobs on dark-gray backgrounds, or light-gray ones on white backgrounds. But, don’t get me started.

So, the Disclosure Triangle, albeit tiny, invites you to click or tap on it to show you  – “disclose”  – a pop-up menu with additional commands available to you, a side-panel or other information.

Details from photo editing toolbars found in Adobe Photoshop Elements

Hovering the cursor over toolbars in Photoshop will reveal the tiniest of Disclosure Triangles. Any smaller and rules of physics are broken, causing destruction of cataclysmic proportions

The figure above shows an extreme and outrageous example, and Adobe continues to do this in it’s photo editing products. Adobe seems to think that we vision acuity is comparable to that of an electron microscope. In this example, many of Photoshop’s editing tools seen in the toolbar have additional tool variations hidden at the same location on the toolbar. However, to view these alternate tools and to switch to them, you need to hold down the option key and click on that particular tool. Here’s the thing: to determine which of the tools have these hidden variations, you need to hover your cursor over the tool bar, at which time microscopic two-molecule by two-molecule sized disclosure triangles pop up.

I frequently tell my students to always look around the interface for little tell-tale symbols: triangles, arrowheads, tiny question marks, little “grab-handles” and other dingbats. The bigger the screen, the more detail there is, the harder it is to locate these controls. Besides, most people tend to concentrate more on the content they are developing rather than touring the interface. But, just as any good photographer will always look all around the image in the viewfinder to find distracting objects, with software, you need to look beyond the content and at all the surrounding controls and symbols. Try them. See what they do, but make sure you’ve saved anything your working on before exploring and experimenting.

Other examples of clickable Disclosure Triangles and arrowheads

Other examples of clickable Disclosure Triangles and arrowheads

Take a look at the example above  – from Photoshop Elements. This is just one detail from a far corner of the main application window. These little Disclosure Triangles  – they could be filled or look like open arrowheads  – can disclose pop-up lists of choices or they could be used to display side panels which may normally be hidden.

Some apps will activate disclosure triangles when you have resized the main application window in such a way that some buttons or other graphic elements become hidden. 

A detail from the Safari Favorites Bar, showing a double-arrowhead that indicates hidden bookmark favorites

This is the right edge of Safari. The double arrowhead indicates more bookmarks are available

Take Safari, for example. If you add website bookmarks to Safari’s Favorites Bar, eventually they drop off the right end no matter how large your Safari window is. When this happens, you can still get to those bookmark entries by clicking on the little double-disclosure arrowhead which appears on the right edge of the Favorites Bar the instant there is no space left for a bookmark to appear there. 

Remember, these triangles and arrows  – of all shapes and sizes  – are not specks of Cheetos on your greasy screen. These are indicators of something hidden, and generally something useful to you. Just click on them, already!

Incidentally, for those of you who like terminology trivia, clicking on Disclosure Triangles to reveal something is called “twisting open” and vice-versa: “twisting closed.” In fact, in many instances, a right-pointing triangle will indicate a closed state, but by clicking on it, it twists open a panel or pop-up menu, and the triangle turns downward-pointing.

In conclusion, I would just like to say: the next time you go on one of those televised trivia game shows, you may just be asked, “What is the official name of those microscopic triangles and arrowheads that lead you to hidden commands in  personal computer programs.” When you answer correctly, and win millions for being so tech-savvy, you’ll remember old Sandro, and show him some love.

Won’t you?