macOS 11 Big Sur changed Spotlight to bring it more in line with iPadOS search. These changes are intended to simplify things, but they create inconsistencies that may be confusing both to newcomers and to long-time users.

Ultimately, there are three interconnected changes: hidden previews, disclosure indicators, and suggestions. This post will analyze the changes and provide recommendations to help frustrated users.

Of course, I believe that Lacona is an alternative to Spotlight that is both more usable and more powerful, but I won’t be making comparisons to Lacona in this analysis.

Hidden Previews

Just as before, you call up Spotlight by pressing ⌘+Space, or by clicking the magnifying glass icon in the menu bar. However, things change once you start typing.

In macOS X, Spotlight showed your search results in a list on the left side, with a preview on the right side. In Big Sur, the search results are presented in a single list, with no visible preview.

Spotlight "app" screenshot

These previews—which were originally introduced as a headlining feature of macOS 10.10 Yosemite—are not actually gone, just hidden. Clicking on a result, or pressing Tab will show the preview.

It’s clear that hiding the preview is an attempt to make the interface appear simpler and more iOS-like. Indeed, it frees up space; but the new space isn’t actually used for anything. For most queries, this space is left completely empty. What’s worse, this whitespace visually separates the results from the crucial new interface element on the far right side, the disclosure indicator.

Disclosure Indicators

Some results have a small iOS-style arrow on the far right side. Apple refers to this arrow as a disclosure indicator. It indicates that pressing Return on this result will not open anything, but will instead display the preview on the right side of the window.

Once the preview is displayed, pressing Return again will open the result, even though the disclosure indicator is still present.

Spotlight "apple stock" screenshot

These results can be very useful! However, for the first time in Spotlight’s history, ambiguity is introduced to the Return key. Some may consider this necessary complexity, but it’s not the last inconsistency we’ll see today.


In addition to showing search results, Spotlight now has an additional unlabeled section which I call suggestions. Directly below the unlabeled “top results” section for any given search, there is a section containing a handful of queries that Spotlight believes you may be typing. Some of these queries show the icon of your default web browser, and others show a Spotlight icon and have a disclosure indicator. The number and order of these results varies, but they could take up as much as 83% of the results “above the fold”.

Spotlight "apple" screenshot

These suggestions are based on both “Siri Suggestions” and the files of your Mac. This behavior is interesting, but I can’t say it’s very useful; the files referenced always show up further down on the list.

When selecting one of the results with the web browser icon, Spotlight will search for the query using your default web search engine in your default browser.

When selecting one of the results with the Spotlight icon, your input query will change to the suggestion, and the preview will also be shown.

The Problem with Suggestions

The most important inconsistencies with these suggestions come when using the mouse. Since the inception of OSX, clicking has meant select. Single-click a file in Finder or a track in Music, and it will be selected. This is how Spotlight used to work, and all non-suggestion results in Spotlight still work this way.

However, for suggestion results, clicking will activate them immediately. This, you may notice, is the way things work on iPadOS. Not only is this inconsistent with macOS in general, it is inconsistent with other results on the very same list. Worse still, because the suggestions section is unlabeled, it becomes harder to figure out exactly what clicking on a result will do.

Even with the keyboard, these suggestions behave completely differently from all other results. I originally tried to write out all different cases, but the inconsistencies are too numerous to list with text. I’ve attached an appendix enumerating all the cases.

Overall, the suggestions section is Spotlight’s biggest step backward in usability. Its behavior is inconsistent and confusing, it takes up huge portions of the most important result space, and its utility is situational at best. Worst of all, this is the only section which cannot be fully disabled in the Spotlight preferences. You’re stuck with it.


To make your search experience better, here are some recommendations:

  • Expand the window by dragging from the bottom, so that more results can be displayed.
  • Ignore the “suggestions” section and its inconsistent behavior.
  • Consider disabling “Siri Suggestions” in the Spotlight preferences, which removes many (but not all) of the suggestions.
  • Don’t rely on the mouse for selecting items. Use the ⌘+Down and ⌘+Up shortcuts to quickly move the selection between entire sections with the keyboard.
  • Press Tab whenever you want to see a Preview of the results.
  • Consider using a Spotlight alternative with a more considered design.


Spotlight in macOS 11 Big Sur is torn between two between different worlds.

In one dimension, it introduced iOS ideas like disclosure indicators and single-tap actions for its new features. However, it only went half way, leading to an inconsistent and unpredictable experience.

In another dimension, it is trying to introduce AI-powered suggestions to make Spotlight more proactive and Siri-like. However, these suggestions are too constrained by the existing Spotlight interface to be very useful, and take up valuable space that could be used for the more reliable features.

In future releases, I hope that Apple can push Spotlight fully into simplified iOS paradigm, or retreat to the power of macOS. In macOS 11 Big Sur, it tries to straddle the line and fails at both.

Appendix: Behavior Changes

Spotlight Behavior in macOS 10.15 Catalina (and Prior)

  Return Click Double Click ⌘+Return
File Result Open Select Open Show in Finder
Other Result Open Select Open Open

Spotlight Behavior in macOS 11 Big Sur

  Return Tab Click (Selected) Click (Unselected) Double Click ⌘+Return
File Result Open Show preview Open Select and show preview Open Show in Finder
Web Result Open Show preview Open Select and show preview Open Show preview
Result with disclosure indicator Show preview Show preview Show preview Select and show preview Open None
Previewed result with disclosure indicator Open None Open Select Open None
Spotlight Completion Modify input Select input Modify input Modify input Modify input None
Browser Completion Open Select input Open Open Open None
Other Result Open Show preview Open Select and show preview Open Open

Lacona has an incredible integration with Soulver, allowing you to perform tons of natural-language calculations. This integration got even better with the latest release (2.3.1).

Unlike other integrations, Lacona can use all of Soulver’s powerful functionality even if you don’t have Soulver installed, and it doesn’t require a Lacona Pro subscription.

Of course, Lacona is great at quick calculations, but it goes way beyond that. I wanted to show off some of my coolest real-life calculations from the past few weeks, to demonstrate how powerful and useful this can be.

My wife and were daydreaming about moving farther out from Boston, since we’re both working from home. Mortgage calculations are always a huge pain, but Lacona simplifies them dramatically.

monthly repayment on $312000 over 30 years at 3.75% + 175 hoa fees

I needed to schedule a meeting with a colleague in Zürich near the end of their work day. It’s usually a 6-hour time difference, but I knew the date was near daylight savings, so I double-checked with Lacona.

boston oct 28 11:30am in zurich

I’m planning to travel to China as soon as possible, so I was pricing out flights. I was looking at buying tickets from two separate airlines, which means the return flights were priced in Yuan. This makes the calculating the total price really complicated, but Lacona makes it simple again.

4,692 cny + $820

I recently found a video of someone riding 300 miles on a Onewheel and I wondered how long it must have taken. I found the device’s top speed on another page, but it was listed in km/h. I started doing the math in my head, but then remembered that Lacona could handle it for me.

300mi at 25km/h

This is just a small picture of what’s possible with this great, completely free integration. You can read the full list of what’s possible at the Soulver Docs.

Today is a big day for Lacona! Lacona Pro is now available, including some amazing integrations with Things, Ulysses, Lungo, Yoink, and Twitter.

This coincides with Lacona 2’s launch on Setapp, which has Lacona Pro included. Ulysses, Lungo, and Yoink are also available on Setapp, so Lacona makes the perfect companion!

To promote this, Lacona is up on Product Hunt today. Check it out!

Lacona - Superpowers for your keyboard. Don't just search—Command. | Product Hunt Embed

Interacting with computers requires us to translate our thoughts into concrete actions. Our thought is “I want to remember an appointment,” but our actions may be “open Calendar, find the date, drag the mouse over the time you want, enter the title and other fields, click save.” We’re translating our thoughts into clicks and keystrokes.

Much of user experience research boils down to “how can we make this translation process as simple as possible?”

Graphical User Interfaces are carefully tuned to reduce this translation overhead by making use of common patterns. Natural Language Interfaces (like Siri) seek to reduce this overhead even further by understanding the language that humans already use to communicate. For some cases, this works great and provides an effortless alternative to clicks or taps.

However, we’ve all had that awkward experience of trying to give Siri a long command and blanking halfway through. We seemingly forgetting the syntax of the language we use all day long. Why does this happen?

It turns out that communicating with Siri still involves a translation process which is it is at least as complex as the graphical alternative. Our mind doesn’t process thoughts in perfectly structured sentences. Concepts and ideas float around with loosely defined relationships. Some thoughts we picture as images rather than words. Some people lay thoughts out in an imaginary multi-dimensional space. Our brains need to work hard to map this chaos into a string of words. Doing this for an impatient robot sometimes proves difficult.

The Solution?

So does Lacona solve this problem? Maybe a bit.

Unlike traditional GUIs, Lacona allows for dramatically increased fuzziness. You don’t need to think of your contact’s last name to find them in a sorted list. You can type parts of their first name, or their last name, or their initials, or their relationship to you, and Lacona will do its best to figure it out. The text-based approach requires less hierarchy and precision, but allows access to dramatically more data.

Unlike voice interfaces, Lacona is patient. I don’t need to know exactly what I want to do before I start typing. I can pause and think—or even click away—before continuing my query.

Perhaps even more importantly, Lacona is order-agnostic; I can enter data in the order it comes to mind. Perhaps my spouse reminds me of a doctor visit that may not yet be on my calendar. I type “Doctor” into Lacona. As it returns no upcoming Calendar results, I determine that it must not be on my calendar. From there, I can press return to add “Doctor” to my shelf. Perhaps then I want to add the date before it slips my mind, and add that to the shelf as well. Only then do I decide to use the “create event” command and select the appropriate calendar.

Natural Language alone does not allow for this construct. No voice assistant could handle the string “doctor next tuesday create event personal,” but Lacona’s innovative shelf makes it natural. Perhaps next time I perform this task, I go about it in a different order. Minds are fuzzy like that.

This isn’t anywhere close to a direct brain-to-computer interface, but surely it’s a step in the right direction.