iO6’s fake wood, leather, and felt are dead.
Instead, they have been replaced with flatter, simple, minimal and colorful visuals that aim to strip each element to its bare functional essence. Apple fanboys are cheering for this ‘revolutionary’ design overhaul, but as expected only to be met with the other fragment of the mob claiming that Apple has ‘copied’ what Google & Windows already have on the market and calling it completely non-innovative. There is a lot of ambiguity surrounding Skeuomorphic & Flat design (seriously though, since when has this become a matter of interest to end users?!), there is also a lot of bashing coming in from Android (and Windows) fanboys, and simply put, there is way more than meets the eye. My aim here is to break down these points and highlight my objective UX position on iOS 7.
Innovation does not come out of thin air. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a talk on innovation by Eric Reiss last year, in which he argues that innovation comes at a later stage than invention and that it is always a planned activity and never accidental. I can not but agree. If genius is, as Edison said, 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, then perhaps innovation is 1% invention and 99% iteration.
Yes Windows has already rolled out a flat design to the market, yes Google is doing an impressive job with its new and consistent cross-platform, ‘almost-flat’ design language, and yes Apple followed suit.
Flat is nothing new, but it certainly was Apple’s only logical next step.
Skeuomorphism, which is simply a design made to resemble another material or technique, has lately become the cool thing to hate. As a minimalist myself, I am no fan of Skeuomorphism when it comes to aesthetics, but scientifically speaking I do understand and appreciate its purpose: In order to teach people what a new device can do, one has to teach by analogy. Steve Jobs knew this and communicated it through Apple’s first GUI (think windows on a screen, a trashcan icon for deleting files, and so on). Likewise, Apple later used Skeuomorphism in iOS to make touch screens friendly and intuitive back when the mass market wasn’t familiar with such devices. This has proved correct as evidenced by the success of the iPhone and its famed simplicity, and by the rise of popularity of touch screen mobile devices into becoming the industry standard. Today however, Apple no longer has to worry about teaching users about touch screens. Even toddlers get them. Apple needs to stop designing for first-time users, and instead mature with its technologically mature user base today.
Design-wise, Apple is supposedly undergoing a massive end-to-end design overhaul - or is it only giving iOS a very superficial visual treatment? How does this reflect on OS X? Apple’s always been consistent across its platforms, but it seems OS X is barely getting any visual updates. It’s a long and weary process of course, and I’m pretty sure Apple designers will rethink some bad decisions they’ve maybe made before officially launching the OS. Aesthetically speaking, I’ve always been a fan of simple, minimal and clean design. I can not but love the visuals on iOS 7 in general. To make one thing clear though, Apple’s new design is not completely flat: it still sports certain visual features such as gradients and shadows that are not considered characteristics of flat design. However they do function as affordances to highlight the functionality of each UI element that has them, such as the difference between a static image and a clickable button. This could be called ‘almost flat’ design, which I find to be a perfect middle ground between the two extremes that is actually both clean and comprehensible, and it is exactly what Google’s new design language is all about. Nevertheless I still found a few issues to be not completely satisfying with iOS 7.
The new icon styles visibly vary from app to app, but they’re mostly quite too colorful and childish for my taste. The settings icon looks more like an oven burner than a set of gears, while the Camera icon looks primitive and generic. It even looks different in other contexts, such as on the lockscreen. Moreover, Apple again seems to ignore the utility and practicality of glanceable information: The Calendar icon displays the current date (as it always has), and apparently so does the Clock icon now. The Weather one however is still static. In all, the whole faded neon color scheme makes Ive look more like an aging hipster than a bold designer.
The typography is beautiful, leaning heavily into Helvetica Neue and exposing bigger, more readable type as expected in Flat design. I am still concerned about the thin type being illegible in certain scenarios where the background image or color might interfere and be problematic.
Another thing Apple has added to iOS 7 is more transition and animation effects, such as when closing and opening a folder or app. While they’re visually soothing and appealing, they simply take too long. Since one of the reasons Apple got rid of Skeuomorphic elements was saving screen estate, it should also consider the time its users waste during such transitions.
However, an interface is not pure art. It’s not only the visuals that matter, but also the features:
An interesting thing is the integration of Bing into the platform, as it will definitely have a major impact on SEO and its practitioners. Another cool feature, which in my opinion did not get the ‘glory’ it deserves, is taking iOS into cars. This is a major leap in automation and the Internet of Things, and it’s definitely going to be a very interesting space to watch (and hopefully explore).
iOS 7 also makes multi-tasking easier, with faster (and more visual) toggling between open apps and closing them. The concept is nevertheless a carbon copy of the webOS card methodology. Heck, I even have the same thing on my HTC phone. One nifty little feature I’m particularly fond of is the new ‘back’ bezel-swipe gesture within apps, which has already been introduced by certain 3rd party apps. Instead of pressing the back button to navigate to the previous screen, users can now simply swipe from the left edge of the screen and go back.
The Control Center, which can be accessed by a quick swipe up from the bottom of the screen is actually a great idea, but its design and the organization of its content is quite odd. It consists of an incoherent collection of functions: Toggle buttons for frequently used controls, a brightness bar, a music player, AirDrop accessibility, a flashlight app, the clock, a calculator and the camera. It looks very cluttered, and from a cognitive point of view the nature of its contents are irrelevant. The idea is solid, but not much the execution.
One feature iOS is still missing, whose importance I can never stress enough, is cross-app sharing as on Android. The system definitely needs to open up a tad bit more and provide further technical functionalities, at least for advanced users. I wonder whether Apple’s over-exposure of Airdrop in iOS 7 has anything to do with this.
iOS 7 is a clear recognition that Apple’s previous design languages couldn’t scale to the growth of the phone as a computing powerhouse. Apple did end up going down the same Flat path as Microsoft and Google, but that is completely expected and sensible when considering how the users are maturing, and what impact Interaction Design has on the market and vice-versa. The trade-off has always been Apple’s great UX vs Google’s more open system, but now Google’s UX is almost on par with Apple’s and its services are way better in most cases. The remarkable thing now is how Apple has recently given itself the image of struggling for good design & UX and anticipating the market’s feedback to and approval of its redesigned iOS. It’s as if Apple thinks the market now believes it’s lost its touch. Call it an insecurity? Possibly, but what’s certain is that Apple no longer has absolute superiority in design.
I’m glad that Apple has finally taken this step and revamped the design on iOS - it’s high time that happened actually. I’ve only spent a very short period of time testing iOS 7, and this is what I’ve found so far. I’m sure with time and experience, more issues (and pros) will stand out. Though I might have some concerns with the design, what troubles me more is the functionality of the OS. There’s too much power that’s just locked away on iOS, and as an advanced user I can’t afford to be technically held back or limited. That’s bad UX. Keeping that in mind, and considering the beauty of Google & Android’s new design language, I’m sticking to my Android for now but I’m sure that watching the competition is going to be very exciting.
The remaining question is where do the Skeuomorphic Apple fanboys go now?
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