The Apple Goes Mushy, Part III: iOS's
Interface Peters Out

August 23, 2016

You are reading Part III of the series The Apple Goes Mushy. If you have not already done so, I suggest you read the first two installments, Part I and Part II, before you continue.

Note...

As of the time I write this article, iOS 9 remains the current public release version of the iPhone and iPad operating system. Apple has since previewed iOS 10, but as that version continues to endure its beta stage, anything you read below pertains only to iOS 9 and prior.

Apple's OS X (or macOS), which went to the podium in the first two installments of this series, has suffered an interface design decline. But it does not stand alone. Its nine-year-old sibling, iOS, which graces the screens of Apple’s iPhone and iPad, has also mutated from an eminently artful, easy-to-use, and thoughtfully designed operating system into a white slab of low-effort, non-navigable tedium.

Let me reiterate, for the third time, these abandoned hallmarks of Apple’s greatest interfaces:

  1. 1.
    Analogies to familiar real-world objects, such as folders, buttons, a desktop, or a trash can, so that you feel comfortable and can easily use these clues to infer any of the computer’s functions.
  2. 2.
    Style and grace, so that you want to use the computer.
  3. 3.
    Judicious use of hierarchy and color (though technological limitations prohibited color displays until later in computer history), to draw your eye to the proper places and differentiate design elements from each other.
  4. 4.
    Sufficiently readable fonts and bold iconography, so that you can see what you are doing.
  5. 5.
    Feedback (for instance, the way an icon goes dark while being clicked). Providing feedback reassures you that you are accomplishing what you think you are, and it communicates the state of the computer.
  6. 6.
    You need only glance at the interface to know what you can do and how to do it. According to this principle, the design should not include “hidden” elements (buttons, menus, and other choices should always stay visible) and should clearly communicate, using visual clues, what will happen when you interact with an element of the interface.

“Computer,” in this case, refers to that pervasive pair of pocket computers: iPhone and iPad. Although desktop and mobile interface implementations may differ, the ideas that underlie a great interface design for the desktop also underlie a great interface design for the mobile device. A person should always be able to stroll into a store, pick up the device in question, and near-immediately understand “where” in the system she is, what to press and how to press it, and how to do what she wants to do, all while having a grand time. The device should be presented with charm. It should possess a friendly personality. It should be a piece of art. I do not exaggerate or jest when I claim it should have most of the qualities one seeks in a good human being.

Apple’s recent bounty of distinctly less “human” alterations to iOS have indicated that the company no longer cares to practice design in this way. Aided by examples, this article will illustrate how iOS’s once-careful makers have forgotten the value of the first three principles I provide in my above list: analogies, style and grace, and hierarchy and color.

1. Banishing Analogy to the Metaphorical Trash Bin

I call attention once again to the Photos icon shift, this time for iOS, because it represents an important change in the thinking of Apple's leaders. Say what you will about the old icon on the left (I happen to believe it works); at least it has meaning. The new icon, on the right, means nothing to people who never saw the old one.

iOS 7 was the genesis of the metaphor-bereft design language that has since scoured all Apple software.

Skeuomorphs, the word for which sounds like an onomatopoeia for a sneeze and the meaning of which is “digital analogies to the real world,” met with almost-universal designer disapproval starting around 2013. The design of computer interfaces, a throng of designers insists, should not mimic real world objects. This ideology demands the following: no calculator apps that imitate real calculators, no virtual paper shredders, no emulations of bookshelves, and no swimming, playing, gallivanting, whistling, moving too quickly, or fun of any kind. (I kid.) I broach this rejection of metaphor in Part I of this series. Dmitry Fadeyev takes the megaphone for the topic when he describes (and endorses?) “authentic” digital design:

We do not have to mimic textures such as metal, wood and leather on a computer display. They are not what a digital interface is made of, so pretending that it is makes no sense.

I believe this popular philosophy has fundamental flaws. I intend to refute it in a future article. For now, however, I will grapple with it as it pertains to iOS.

iBooks in iOS 6 (and prior) vs. iBooks now. Ironically, both designs use “skeuomorphic” metaphor—a wooden bookshelf on the left and pseudo-frosted-glass on the right—and Apple replaced a useful metaphor (real books sit on a real bookshelf) with a weak one (frosted glass has nothing to do with books).

Physical-world metaphors, when carefully chosen, can aid understanding: I see that my iPhone has become a calculator; it looks and works just like one. Now it has become a bookshelf; it looks and works just like one. I already know how to use these functions, because I am familiar with real calculators and bookshelves.

In a spirit of support, I would like to quote an astute observation from the comments section of this Cult of Mac article, by user JohnDoey, on the value of metaphor in software:

Computer scientists see the iOS 6 calculator app as a new thing—an app—that is dressed up as an old thing: a pocket calculator. But to the rest of us, we don't care it is an app, or even know it is an app—to us, the iOS 6 calculator app *is* a calculator. The fact that it is an app is an implementation detail that is irrelevant to users—that is “backstage.” The fact that it is a calculator is the only interesting thing about it — that is “onstage.” So the calculator app should look like a calculator (very obvious raised and rounded buttons, very prominent display, styled like jewelry) not an app (gradients, blue underline links, lots of square space.)

...

That is to say: all of the tools and instruments you use will now represent computer/techie culture (underlined blue links, flat icons, techie symbols everywhere) instead of representing music culture, art culture, writing culture, business culture, and all other human endeavors. Forget about how calculators and metronomes have typically been a kind of beautiful jewelry—henceforth, they will be flat, bland computer apps. Forget about how buttons have typically been carefully designed to be inviting to the touch—henceforth they will be underlined words.

I have long felt that “techies” would do well to take a (web) page from other areas in life besides their own. One detractor of “The Apple Goes Mushy, Part I,” for instance, called my blog “garishly designed.” That person had plainly never seen enough art to know what genuine garishness looks like. This inability or unwillingness to look beyond one’s own garden, so to speak, saddens me.

A vital distinction: more metaphor or less.

I do not assert that one should always design with heavy metaphor. In some cases, an app has no appropriate physical analogues: the web browser, for instance, was invented for and is specific to electronic devices. There is no physical equivalent to the web browser. Therefore, a sensible web browser design would not likely rely on an analogy to a real object or process.

My view holds that one can, not that one necessarily should, harness visual metaphors to help people understand software. In eradicating these metaphors, such as the calculator and the bookshelf, Apple has willfully discarded a crucial monkey wrench from its design toolbox. Why limit oneself so? If you want to create software for human beings, you serve those human beings by any tool necessary.

The current Apple, however, throws tools to the junk heap in its rush to serve the snobbish, ideologically limiting, “academically correct” desires of designers, neglecting the needs of those who use the software. If this claim were false, Apple would not deny itself the tool of metaphor.

2. The Looks Department Takes a Permanent Lunch

Left: the late iCloud icon. Right: the current Metal icon.

In my estimation, the above image can sketch one of two stories: (A) that in a mere three-year span Apple forgot how to illustrate metal, or (B) that, under a newly restrictive ideology, they forced themselves to shun realism, which butted against the idea of drawing an icon to represent “Metal” and birthed the alarmingly lazy and ugly rendering on the right.

Story A has scant supporting evidence. Apple does, after all, still execute a beautiful and artistic icon on a rare basis. The company also employs tens of thousands of people, including a host of specialized visual designers; this fact makes “lack of artistic ability” an unlikely culprit behind artless/heartless icons in the mould of the Metal icon I criticize above. Story B—reductive ideology—explains Apple’s transformation more convincingly.

Camera, a previously flawless icon ruined by a low-quality replacement it did not need.

iOS has withdrawn even further into this ideological prison cell than OS X has. Apple has scrubbed away “ornamentation” (apparently Sir Jonathan Ive’s code word for “every trace of charm”) from its mobile operating system’s icons, reducing those of Calendar, Safari, Reminders, Voice Memos, Health, Game Center, Music, and Photos to hospital-like white canvases emblazoned with abstract glyphs.

The incredible details of the old iOS.

Look for a moment, carefully, at the above compilation of iOS’s greatest fruits. These images represent a real standard.

A row of icons from SIRI SUGGESTIONS.

Now, please scrutinize the icon row above, a product of more recent times. Apple did not bother to furnish this screen with a high-quality version of the Calendar icon. (Note: this icon differs from the standard home screen Calendar icon, appearing only on this screen and the multitasking screen.) The entire icon, from its rounded corners, to its red patches, to its pin-dots that represent dates, is blurry and pixelated. This slop would not pass the first review at a company that actually treasures the details as much as Apple claims it does.

If one is... excuse me—if many are—to present a stylish product to the world, they must offer thoughtful visuals that people cannot get anywhere else. Apple once offered a recognizable and unique “house style” of this kind. Wheeling backward on this approach, however, the modern-day Apple has redesigned its operating systems for more visual conformity. The years since 2013 have clearly demonstrated Apple’s willingness to forsake the design treatments that once set it apart. Mobile operating systems have never looked more alike.

The home screens of late 2012. From left to right: Android, iOS, Windows. Notice how greatly their appearances differed.

The home screens of late 2015. Again, from left to right: Android, iOS, Windows. This time, notice their increasing similarity. iOS's visual style has metamorphosed the most, and in a direction more akin to its competitors than before.

Although I would contend iOS does not (yet?) completely mirror its main competitors, Android and Windows, it has taken much more than a footstep toward the generic.

3. Vampiric Phone & Tablet Screens

In the right hands, color can work wonders. Evidently, though, the right hands left Apple years ago.

Boot into a new iPhone or iPad. Black text on the white plane says, “Hello.”

You might expect the visual personality to follow on the heels of “Hello.” A successful setup yields, “Welcome to iPhone [or iPad],” then, at your prompting, the white gateway gives way to the home screen. The icons sense pressing matters and hurry to their places. But they do not bring visual personality with them.

Earlier in this article, I noted Apple's bleaching of the Calendar, Safari, Reminders, Voice Memos, Health, Game Center, Music, and Photos icons. Apart from its yellow top, Notes, too, shines white. Laboratory examples in purely functional glyphery, these icons, one might assume, would elicit the applause of only the most trend-chasing designers. But when the icons first crossed the public retina at iOS 7's release event in 2013, even the trend-chasing designers rejected them... for not going far enough. iOS 7 redesigns clogged the web.

Even in Apple’s designs, the whiteness delves much deeper than the icons. Open almost any application and your eyes turn to steaming egg yolks.

White.

Some call this nothingness “clean.” I say that in order to justify sparseness of this kind, the designer must include some visual element worth calling attention to. And the common answer to that visual element question, “content,” does not cut it. (I aim to write on this subject, too, in a future article.)

A white tundra, the present-day iOS interface design makes the ever-feebler Finder sidebar seem like a chip on one’s fingernail by comparison. Most parts of the system blend together, camouflaged by monochrome. Color can guide the eye and the finger. iOS deserves a more intelligent and empathetic design treatment that utilizes that wisdom.

The original design of iOS achieved this standard; for instance, on iPhone, every app’s interface had a colored title bar. Occasionally, different apps had different-colored title bars. Home screen icons varied more in color and appeared gentler than they do now. But we must not have any more of that sensible stuff, Apple puffed.

To the detriment of Apple’s users, the company now follows the Dogma Star. In the minds that now steer Apple, it makes sense to remove helpful metaphors that never stopped helping, beauty that never ceased to be beautiful, and color that never failed to show the way. But the principles I put forward in this series have no expiry date. As long as humans have eyes, these ideas will apply, in spite of the tragic mushiness of a certain formerly great company.

Soon, expect “The Apple Goes Mushy, Part IV.” That article will present the three declining facets of iOS I have not detailed here: decreased legibility, diminished or absent feedback, and a proliferation of hidden functions and interface elements. Until then, thank you for joining me on this cognitive adventure, and may your day treat you well.



N.

Article Edit, 1/10/2017...

As a stylistic tweak, I have added a comma to this article's title.

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