When news broke last year that Jony Ive would be taking over Scott Forstall’s Human Interface role and taking over software design direction at Apple, I was excited. I believed in the future of iOS and couldn’t wait for updates to the platform. While iOS 6 had introduced some small UI changes that I loved, I assumed that iOS 7 would be even better.
I was wrong.
Above: Subtle, yet welcome changes in iOS 6.
Instead, we were shown an operating system at WWDC that only resembles an Apple product in name, an unworthy successor of 6 years of excellence in mobile software design. I’m not here to complain about iOS 7 bugs, or that it doesn’t work the way it should. In fact, I was genuinely impressed by how stable the operating system is for a beta. What I am here to discuss is Apple’s treatment of iOS, and their lack of respect towards a heritage of great software. I’m not disappointed at the software, I’m disappointed at the execution.
Shortly after Steve Jobs resigned in 2011, an inspiring story came out of a time when Steve called Google’s Vic Gundotra on a Sunday morning to express his distaste for a specific yellow gradient that was being used in an iOS icon. When I first took a look at the iOS 7 home screen, one of my first thoughts was, “how did we get here from there?” Using iOS 7, it’s hard for me to find any resemblance of what made iOS, and Apple, so great. There are glaring inconsistencies. Some details, like the system’s animations and parallaxing, seem so thought out and carefully crafted that only Apple could do it. On a much more broader scale, however, the majority of iOS 7 feels, sloppy, thoughtless, and boring. After the keynote, I was paging through Apple’s website, trying to put my finger on exactly the feeling I got when looking at iOS 7. Several words came to mind- tacky, uninspired, devoid of character- but I couldn’t shake the notion that iOS 7 looked like a bad ripoff of great software. You know those little plastic iPhone knockoffs with a sticker slapped on them as a screen in the checkout isles of Walmart? That’s what I thought of.
When creating a product, it’s important to consider every possible facet of how the product will work. When updating an existing product, however, the challenge becomes twice as important. Apple knows this, and that’s why they created iOS to leave behind the baggage and metaphors of desktop computing. They set the standard for the foreseeable future. This is precisely why Apple didn’t create a tweaked version of OS X to run on the iPhone. They started over. In the same sense, Apple is now tied to certain metaphors and paradigms within iOS that they can’t just leave behind. Features as simple as sliding to unlock are core characteristics of the operating system whose foundations were built back in 2007. Yet Apple thinks that somehow they can suddenly ditch these characteristics in favor of something totally different. That’s not how it works. As history has shown over and over again, either you iterate or you reinvent. With iOS 7, Apple has attempted to fuse these ideas together, and reinvent while simply iterating on existing functionality. When you try to make old ideas adapt to a new way of doing things, the end product suffers. Look at Windows 8’s jarring Metro and classic interfaces. Similarly, customers appreciate iteration. Whether or not investors agree, Apple’s slow but relentless iteration has (until now) proven successful to them. Customers appreciate the familiarity of the iOS interface and the ideas it represents. With iOS 7, Apple is throwing away 6 years of user familiarity and comfortability. Millions of iOS users will find themselves lost this fall, forced to relearn an entirely new interface.
Aside from the questionable choices Apple made while deciding the future direction of iOS, there are some seriously concerning conclusions that can be drawn from the introduction of iOS 7. Why is Apple now content to tailor their software to trends and fads? It doesn’t sound much like skating to where the puck is going to be. In past years, Apple has deftly ignored trends, with the firm belief that customers don’t know what they want until they see it. That is clearly not the case with iOS 7. Perhaps Jony Ive was so eager to distance himself from Scott Forstall’s design aesthetic that he felt the only way to start fresh was to abandon what people love about iOS. Maybe it’s the fact that Jony Ive is a hardware designer and doesn’t quite fully grasp that software can’t made with the same thought process in mind as hardware.
Looking beyond the choices that influenced how iOS 7 looks, it’s also important to analyze why Apple’s design department made the choices they did when creating iOS 7’s new look. I’m a firm believer that design is just as important- if not more- than the functionality of a product. If you think about design as part of how a product functions, it takes on a whole new meaning. What was wrong with iOS 6? Why did Apple feel the need to gut the operating system and start over? Why did they think it was a good choice to destroy over half a decade of visual familiarity and brand recognition? There’s something to be said for modernization. iOS definitely could have been benefited from a facelift. What we got instead was a bad remodel.
Above: The architectural equivalent of iOS 7
The old Apple cherished attention to detail, precision in design, and software metaphors that made the hardware more enjoyable to use. The new Apple favors sparse user interfaces, a lack of details, a sense of unfamiliarity and sterility. The redesign of iOS 7 has been compared to “the training wheels coming off.” The argument that user interface details and metaphors are simply aids to get comfortable with software is a flawed one, however. Ornamentation isn’t a training wheel, it’s an added sense of reality to make using software more of an interactive experience. Metaphors is exist in real life as well. We embrace them because they make life interesting. If everything that surrounds us was plain, abstract, and undifferentiated, life would be boring. The same goes for software. Steve Jobs embraced real-world inspired interfaces not because they are based around the heavy textures he adored, but because they provide a sense of context and make the software easier to use. iOS 7 is the most difficult version of iOS to use ever, because of just how subtle and featureless it appears. It’s too sleek. We don’t need to create an entirely new sense of reality to live in a digital world. Technology is meant to complement our lives, not rethink it.
Perhaps the best way to sum up my thoughts regarding iOS 7 is to look at Dieter Rams’s legendary 10 Principles Of Good Design. A few of the principles stood out to me.
3. Good design is aesthetic
iOS 7 shows few aesthetic qualities. Is it simple? Yes. Beautiful? No.
4. Good design makes a product understandable
The entire time I tested iOS 7 I was confused. The lack of user interface contrast coupled with the dearth of navigational elements made it take quite a bit of thinking to get around parts of the operating system.
7. Good design is long-lasting
This one struck me the hardest. The visual design of iOS 7 is so heavily stylized towards thin typography and a distinctive, electric color scheme that I fear it will age very poorly. Instead of looking like an “old Leica camera” as Steve Jobs compared the iPhone 4 to, iOS 7 will probably age more like a 1970s wardrobe. Gaudy and unattractive.
8. Good design is thorough down to the last detail.
Open any default app in iOS 7, and you’ll see just how little time was put into crafting the user interface. Details have been scrapped, character has been thrown out, all for the sake of some simplistic goal. This will likely improve only marginally by the time iOS 7 is released.
Apple opened their WWDC 2013 keynote with a touching video about how seriously they take design and how much the quality stamp of “Designed by Apple in California” means to them. By the end of the keynote, the video meant a lot less to me. This really is the new Apple.