As is always the case after the World Wide Developer's Conference, the internet has been abuzz with talk about Apple and its new goodies. In design spheres most of the talk has been about the radical redesign of the UI of version 7 of Apple's mobile operating system, or iOS7. I have to assume I am not the only one tired of seeing iOS7 articles dominating my feeds, but I think it is important to talk about what we can learn about the art and science of interaction design from iOS7 and the reactions of designers and non-designers (muggles?) to it.
Why You Should Care
Put simply, the set of interface patterns provided by iOS, its bundled applications, and Apple's human interface guidelines, are a cornerstone of modern interaction design. To quote a certain expat Dane colleague of mine:
"[Apple has] singlehandedly brought humane computing to the world at large in ways that most of their competitors have only dreamt of…[a]nd iOS is the summation of their work; an operating system so simple, yet powerful, that babies, the elderly and even cats can use it." -- Michael Heilemann
Apple is also arguably the consumer product design leader of the world right now, and creators should always keep an ear to the ground when their craft is concerned. Plus, since lazy companies and their employees like to mindlessly copy industry leaders, watching top players is a great way to keep a finger on the pulse of the digital interaction design world.
Now, on to lessons learned from iOS7 and the community response to it.
Lesson 1: Understanding "It Sucks" (or, Always Ask Why)
Design is equal parts art and science, so there is a fair amount that is entirely subjective (beauty is in the eye of the beholder and all that). By now we have seen people take a quick look at iOS7 and say "it sucks," or "it's awesome." Gut reactions are important, but not necessarily super useful on the road of continuous improvement. Much of the immediate negative reaction is familiarity bias and loss aversion.
We love what we know and we’re afraid of what we don’t, so we don’t want to see our old friend replaced with this new thing. It’s irrational, but it’s human nature. --Chris Clark
When evaluating a radically different design, we have to let users spend some time with it to avoid the immediate distaste for something unfamiliar and different. That said, we must also consider our design's first impression. Is the gestalt of it turning people off? Has thought been given to the design as a whole in addition to the individual details that make it up? Part of the initial negative reaction to iOS7 lies in how the inconsistency of the new iconography in iOS7 and the disharmony of the colors on the home screen leave something to be desired.
Similarly, if the first response was "it's awesome," we have to make sure that the beauty isn't only skin deep. Is the interface still delightful after continued use? Does it actually help the user meet their goals? The redesigned apps in iOS7 make clever use of layers, transparency, and motion to indicate context, which helps users understand the relationship between different states and views of the interface. I am happy to see designers understanding how motion is the body language of your interface, and can play as important a role as sizing and contrast when showing hierarchy. However, in the move to the new aesthetic, the interface introduces problems that the previous version did not have.
Lesson 2: Separating Style from Substance
On one hand, Apple's radical redesign is messing with what could be considered a "tried and true" formula. Of course, the change is at least partially motivated by market trends and need to draw customers in with something shiny and new. On the other hand, we have to remember the ultimate goal behind pursuing a "flatter" design: to better solve interface design problems. Flat design is not a goal in and of itself; remember the questions we should be asking ourselves. How can we make this friendly and approachable to new users? How can we account for the different skill levels and sensibilities of different kinds of users? How can we make clear all available functions while optimizing for the most common workflows? To quote Apple's own marketing materials:
"[O]ur purpose was to create an experience that was simpler, more useful, and more enjoyable — while building on the things people love about iOS."
Apple succeeded in meeting this goal in some areas and failed in others, but the goal remains the same. A novice designer might recognize a general trend towards less ornamented or three dimensional designs and think, I will just have to make everything flat from now on. That person would be missing the point. Every designer who thinks that way pushes our discipline towards the nasty, trend-mongering, fashion industry end of the spectrum. As my a teacher once told me, "don't do what the experts do. Do what the experts did to become experts".
Lesson 3: We're Still Figuring Out Modern UI Design
Design is about imparting meaning. It is functional story telling and communication, and like story telling, it is about intimate knowledge of your audience. It is applied psychology. And as always, as we venture into the wild and largely uncharted territory of the human mind, things get messy. Frank Chimero makes a good point:
"Interface designers for the iPhone have an unusual problem: the phone is so successful, the designers’ target audience is practically everyone. How do you even begin to design for that?" -- Frank Chimero
Technology is one of the fastest changing industries, and the interaction designers in the industry are still figuring out what works, and what should be improved. As we mature as an industry, and trends become popular and fade away only to resurface again in a different form, our techniques and understanding will improve.
Keep Calm and Carry On
In the end we all have to trust in disciplined process and iteration. I will leave you with a last quotation from Seth Godin:
Great work from a design team means new work, refreshing and remarkable and bit scary.
P.P.S. If you are interested in further (good) reading about iOS7, check out this roundup.