Former Apple designers criticize company’s current mobile UI, obsession with simplicity
For more than a decade, Apple’s brand has been associated with certain sleekness and design cachet that PC OEMs and other device vendors have struggled to match. At ExtremeTech, we typically refer to hardware designs rather than software or mobile OS decisions, but whether you agree or disagree with Apple’s methods, there’s no arguing that the company’s products have a reputation. According to a pair of design experts and former Apple employees, however, the company has drifted far from its original guideposts, with significantly negative results.
The authors, Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini, both worked at Apple — Tognazzini was one of the company’s early employees, and Norman worked at Apple from just after Jobs left to just after he returned. Both authors readily acknowledge that they’ve been away from the company for decades, but they make a compelling case that Apple’s iOS design hasn’t evolved for the better in recent years, as expressed below.
Their argument is traced by this document, which shows how various aspects of the UI have evolved over time as different principles rose or fell. So what does iOS lack? According to the authors, “discoverability, feedback, recovery, consistency, and the encouragement of growth.”
Discoverability is whether or not the user can examine the system and intuit all of the possible actions. Feedback tells the user if an action has been completed successfully or not, and what the new state of the system is. Recovery allows the user to gracefully step back if an error is committed — it’s related to the “Undo / Redo” command, which the authors discuss elsewhere. It’s slightly fascinating to hear how Undo was, itself, a novel implementation in the early days of design. As much as we take it for granted today, once upon a time, someone had to write software to create that capability. iOS’s recoverability is limited in part because it lacks a consistently implemented “Back” button. If you click on an in-app link that launches you into a different application, you have to double-press the Home key to return to what you were doing previously.
Consistency is something that Apple does better than Windows or Android in some cases, but the company still has a number of products with their own internal rules. The team writes “The Magic Mouse works differently than the track pad, which is different than gestures on the iPhone or tablet. Why? (Such inconsistencies can usually be traced to designers working away in isolation, never talking with one another. As Conway , the products of a company reflect the organizational structure of the company.)”
Simplicity is not the only virtue
One of the most common responses to this type of criticism is that Apple is simply following the design principles of Dieter Rams, or the well-known quote of Antoine de Saint-Exupery: “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” As the authors’ note, however, Dieter Rams had ten principles of design, not one. They don’t mention Saint-Exupery specifically, but his quote is vague — the question of when the designer should know that there is nothing left to take away is left entirely up to the individual in question.
As a reviewer, I’ve used devices from Microsoft, Apple, and various Android tablets. My current tablets are Android, my phone runs iOS, and my computers all run Windows. While I can’t detail the entire 5000-word story, I can say that I agree significantly with its conclusion — iOS products have gotten more complicated, not less. And while some increase in complication may be warranted by increased capability, I can’t help thinking that Apple’s UI has failed to keep pace with the capabilities of the underlying hardware.
Something as simple as sharing a link, for example, requires that you tap into a the URL box. This promptly deselects the URL. You have to do a long press to pull up the “Select / Select All / Paste” menu, and in some cases the long press is incorrectly identified as an attempt to manually move the cursor. Once you’ve opened the right menu, you have to “Select All,”, then “Copy,” and then navigate back to whatever IM program, email, or other browser window you want to use.
There’s no notification that the URL copy completed successfully (or didn’t), and no option to share the content directly from the browser itself. This is one tiny example, but it illustrates how navigating in IOS really doesn’t seem very smooth. And it’s far from the only criticism of Apple’s design trends these days. Over at at CheerfulSW, the author roundly criticizes Apple’s recent “flat design” trend in iOS 7, 8, and 9. At Marco.org, author Marco Arment memorably calls iTunes a “toxic hellstew.” Having used the recent version of iTunes, I entirely agree.
As Arment writes: “iTunes’ UI design is horrible for similar reasons: not because it has bad designers, but because they’ve been given an impossible task: cramming way too much functionality into a single app while also making it look “clean.” iTunes is designed by the Junk Drawer Method: when enough cruft has built up that somebody tells the team to redesign it, while also adding and heavily promoting these great new features in the UI that are really important to the company’s other interests and are absolutely non-negotiable, the only thing they can really do is hide all of the old complexity in new places.
This thread on Quora is also an interesting critique of Apple’s forays into poor design. None of this criticism is likely to make a dent in Apple’s popularity or its sales, but as a long-time iOS user, I’d agree that the OS has dealt poorly with complexity and its relentlessly flat design make some applications, like its calendar, difficult to use. The chorus of users less-than-thrilled with the way OS X and iOS have evolved continues to grow — but Apple, thus far, hasn’t paid much attention.