Creating Status Bar Apps on macOS in Swift

Updated on October 6th, 2020

⏱ Reading Time: 3 mins

Hello readers! I’d like to start today by saying that this is a macOS programming tutorial that I wanted to write for a long time now. Not only because it’s extremely interesting, but also because we are going to meet a different kind of applications that one can build for the macOS operating system.

However, most of the previous tutorials about macOS programming had to come first because some prior knowledge is required, but eventually here we are! We are just about to learn how to create status bar apps, or in other words, apps that live on the macOS top bar right next to the clock and other system or third-party applications that we all use and interact with on a daily basis.

The first and most important element that differentiates status bar apps from normal apps is the fact that they show an icon or a title to the status bar, so users can have quick access to the app features by just clicking on it. Actually, such an app displays a special object called status itemwhich contains a button, and that button contains either the title or the icon.

When a status item is clicked, two things usually happen:

  1. A list of options is presented as a dropdown menu so users can choose what to do. The displayed options are always app-specific and depend exclusively on the app features. It’s possible to also have custom views among the menu items; that way users can find what they’re looking for instantly just by clicking on the app’s status item.
  2. A popover window is being displayed with an arrow pointing to the app’s item in the status bar. This popover contains one or more view controllers and it’s suitable for dealing with user input while still being in the status bar app mode and without having presented an actual window.

A more rare scenario is just to present the app’s main window when clicking on the status item, just like it would be presented on a normal launch. Even though that’s not such a common case, it consist of an option to let users have the app’s window appear right in front of them just by clicking on an icon in the top bar.

Most of the times status bar app features and functionalities are accessible without presenting a window by default. Actually, this is what makes status bar apps meaningful and usually this is what users expect to find; to use app features fast without dealing with windows. However, this doesn’t mean that windows and view controllers cannot or should not be displayed at all! On the contrary, any window necessary can be presented to provide additional options, actions, comfort and flexibility to users. But always keep in mind that users expect to find key features or important information right when clicking on a status bar app’s item. For example, in a status bar app that shows weather information is perfectly fine to let users configure preferences in a separate window, but the temperature or other vital weather information cannot be “hidden” behind a menu option that will bring up another window which in turn will contain the weather details; it has to be there right when the app icon (or title) gets clicked.

In this tutorial we’ll focus on the first two cases by going through two different demo applicationsand you’ll learn how to create status bar apps that work in one or the other way; by showing up menu options with a custom view or by presenting a popover. We will discuss about the necessary configuration that turns a casual app into a status bar app, we’ll see best practices and how-to, and generally almost everything you will need to know when you’ll start making your own status bar macOS apps.

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