Essays on Technology and Culture

Apple’s UIs are Flawed, but They’re Not Unusable

It’s no secret that the interface redesigns of iOS 7 and MacOS 10.9 have been divisive among certain groups of computer users. Three years into the transition, people are still complaining. Case in point—a recent piece by Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini in _Fast Company that claims “Apple is Giving Design a Bad Name”. They lay out the argument up front:

The products, especially those built on iOS, Apple’s operating system for mobile devices, no longer follow the well-known, well-established principles of design that Apple developed several decades ago. These principles, based on experimental science as well as common sense, opened up the power of computing to several generations, establishing Apple’s well-deserved reputation for understandability and ease of use. Alas, Apple has abandoned many of these principles.

I don’t agree with this sentiment, at least not completely. I’m particularly amused the historical claims to Apple basing their UI design on “experimental science as well as common sense.” Anyone who remembers dragging a floppy disk icon to the trash can to eject a disk can tell you that it was a UI decision that was far from “common sense.” Especially if you were coming from a PC in the mid 90s. Nearly all computer interfaces are unintuitive from the get go. There’s a quote that floats around, attributed to open source programmer Bruce Ediger, that “[t]he only ‘intuitive’ interface is the nipple. After that it’s all learned.” It’s apocryphal, but Ediger did coin a useful variation:

There is no intuitive interface, not even the nipple. It’s all learned.

And, look, I’ll be the first person to admit that I turned on a bunch of accessibility stuff on my iOS devices: “Button Shapes” and “Reduce Motion” on my iPhone, plus “Reduce Transparency” on my iPad—though that one’s more for performance. There are serious UI issues and quirks, especially in iOS’s Music app. (Insert another plug for Cesium here.) Plenty about the iOS and MacOS designs demand to be fixed, but are they bad enough as to be unusable? I doubt it.

The fundamentals of iOS and MacOS have not changed since their initial releases. If you know how to use the original iPhone and the original Macintosh, you can get up to speed on their modern equivalents pretty quick. The hardest adaptation might be the lack of scrollbars on the Mac—a legitimate usability issue. Take a look at the iOS ecosystem now, compared to how it was in 2012, when iOS 6 came out. There were two sizes of iPads, with the same addressable pixel dimensions, and two sizes of iPhone, one with a taller screen than the other. Both could only display a single app at a time, and scaling an app for the taller iPhone wasn’t much of a resource challenge for graphically rich user interfaces. iOS 7 set the seeds for a more diverse iOS ecosystem. In 2015, we have three sizes of phone screen, and two sizes of iPad screen that can display two different apps at two different sizes. You can’t keep the skeuomorphic design of iOS 6—which had its own usability quirks—and have displays of that many sizes. Something had to give.

When Jony Ive spoke from his magic white room during the iOS 7 WWDC keynote, he mentioned that the typographical navigation was inspired by the web. The idea being that people in 2013 know how to navigate through links, which are usually offset through color on a web page. Carrying that idea into a computer interface doesn’t seem like a bad one. Of course, links on the web are often discerned by underlines, too, which is something iOS doesn’t do—and I can hear Jakob Nielsen screaming from here. The new UIs can be refined, but as long as the fundamentals remain the same, we’re doing okay.

Then there’s Norman and Tognazzini’s complaints against gestural interfaces:

[W]hen Apple moved to gestural-based interfaces with the first iPhone, followed by its tablets, it deliberately and consciously threw out many of the key Apple principles. No more discoverability, no more recoverability, just the barest remnants of feedback. Why? Not because this was to be a gestural interface, but because Apple simultaneously made a radical move toward visual simplicity and elegance at the expense of learnability, usability, and productivity.

Pish. Tosh. What are the important controls iOS hides? The most important things an iOS user can do are launch apps, and quit apps. These are prominent, up front, and obvious to even a toddler. Again, all things are learned. Your average user can navigate iOS just fine for the most part—textual links getting lost aside. Slide to unlock. Tap passcode. Tap app. Hit home button to leave app. For 90% of users, 90% of the time, this is all they’ll need to do. It doesn’t take long for someone new to mobile OSes to grasp the fundamentals, because the interfaces involve direct manipulation of the elements. It’s why kids pick up on tablets faster than their parents. Things behave in a (generally) predictable fashion. If you do something seemingly unpredictable, like, say, sliding down on your iOS home screen and getting a search box, it’s replicable.

And these are for advanced features that most people don’t need to fiddle with. Most people work with computers, whether using a traditional Mouse/Touchpad and Keyboard UI, or a gestural, iOS-style UI, using a task-based approach. They learn the steps to complete a task, and those steps, if they lead to a successful completion, are how they will continue to work. You can show them a faster way, you can show them your preferred way, but the steps they choose make logical sense to them. There shouldn’t be just one way to do anything in an interface—and this is something iOS gets wrong in more than a few places. There should be an intuitive way that a user can figure out on their own, and there should be a faster way a user can discover once they have the basics down. iOS nails this.

There’s ways in which iOS can improve. I’m with Norman and Tognazzini about font weights in iOS, for example. It is possible to get lost, and certain apps (coughMusiccough) are almost inscrutable mazes of UI complexity and confusing menus. The situation is not as dire as they think. Remember that the Macintosh UI did not spring, fully formed, out of the forehead of Steve Jobs like Athena out of the forehead of Zeus. It drew from Xerox’s research, and that drew from Douglas Engelbart’s Mother of All Demos. But gestural interfaces? They’re still new, and we’re still figuring it out. As long as people are able to get the basics down, the rest will come in time. That goes for designers as well as users.

The EFF on Online Harassment

Online harassment is a digital rights issue. At its worst, it causes real and lasting harms to its targets, a fact that must be central to any discussion of harassment. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to craft laws or policies that will address those harms without inviting government or corporate censorship and invasions of privacy—including the privacy and free speech of targets of harassment. But, as we discuss below, there are ways to craft effective responses, rooted in the core ideals upon which the Internet was built, to protect the targets of harassment and their rights.

Nadya Kayyali and Danny O’Brien – “Facing the Challenge of Online Harassment”

Important reading for those of you who still don’t see online harassment as a problem. What good is free speech when speaking up puts your safety at risk? I trust the EFF to find solutions that maximize everyone’s freedoms. I’m particularly a fan of counter-speech. Silence in the face of abuse is consent to it continuing.

A Series Of Lead Tubes

[W]hat if in 2000 years we look back on our current internet, and think of it as a fascinating but heartbreaking tale of hubris. A moment in time where people were consuming a type of technology they knew wasn’t good for them because it conferred status and prestige. And that thing they craved so much was slowly making them lose their minds.

Rose Eveleth – “The Internet Is a Series of Lead Tubes”

Fascinating food for thought. Are we truly able to handle globally scaled, constant connection without going mad? The jury is still out on that, but remember that it only took the Romans two centuries to connect their plumbing with their illness. But if the Internet, as we know it now, is making us sick, can we even fix it?

The iPad of 2015 is the Mac of 1990

The release of the iPad Pro has rekindled the endless debate that has plagued Apple discussion over the last five years. No, not the “Is Apple doomed?” debate. That one is older than five years. It’s the “Can you do real work on an iPad?” debate. We’ve gone around and around in circles on this. One side cites the limits of the iPad hardware, the limits of iOS, and the limits of the App Store against doing “real” work. The other side cites the expansion of “power user” features in iOS, the massive computing power of the latest generation of iPads, and the few standouts who get by with an iPad as their primary computer. And then another major iteration happens, and we all start writing think-pieces again.

Seriously, if I see another tweet about how the iPad is only useful for writing 30,000 word iPad reviews, I will scream.

I have to draw comparisons to the original Macintosh. When it dropped in 1984, the attitude from many tech people was that it was a toy, not something you can do real work on. Macs had limited software support, no PC compatibility, a tiny black and white display, no command line, no multitasking… I’m only a fairly recent Mac convert, switching in 2005, but I recall this “Macs are toys” attitude persisting among PC users until the 2000s, long after many of these issues were resolved. The tide might have turned around OS X 10.3, which came out in 2003. In other words, it took nearly twenty years for attitudes to change around the Macintosh and deem it worthy for doing “real” work.

The iPad as a platform is five years old, iOS is eight years old. They’ve changed a lot in that time span, and not just visually. There are still limitations to both, but a lot fewer than there were even a year ago. There were professionals using Macintoshes to do all their work in the 1990s, but they were a rare breed. We’re approaching the iPad equivalent of the 1990s now, and the iPad Pro is equivalent to the beloved Macintosh II. Will it be enough to turn the tide and make iPads the computer for everyone?

No. At least, not yet.

Ten years from now, iPad and iOS will have another decade of development under its belt. The limitations that make the platform unsuitable for whatever you do that makes you stick to a Mac will almost certainly be gone by then. Likely, they’ll be gone sooner. Ask yourself if you can do all your work on a Macintosh II, or even a Mac 512k. The answer is probably going to be no, but that’s fine—they don’t make those anymore. Now ask yourself if you think you’ll be able to do all your work on the iPad of 2025. The answer to that is almost certainly yes. We just have to wait until then.

Review: Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents

There are certain bands and artists which risk becoming a shibboleth among a certain type of Serious Music Nerd: names like Jandek, The Shaggs, Pere Ubu, and—probably the biggest of them all—The Residents. I’m no fan of cultural shibboleths. The more you love an obscure artist, the more you should preach their name from the mountaintops, in the hopes that others will be compelled to listen. Most might only listen once, but the ones who come back will become fans for live. Though this, those artists gain longevity.

Fortunately, The Residents have that. They’ve been making music for over forty years. In that time they’ve evolved from a group of bizarre San Francisco hippie transplants from Louisiana with no musical ability—but a ton of creativity—to a highly respected artistic enterprise that has created some of the most beautiful and haunting music put to disc, while never losing their idiosyncrasies. And after all this time, nobody knows who they are—except for their handlers and collaborators. They’re not going to give up the secret, even for a documentary crew. Even if you don’t know them and their music, you might know their most iconic look: a giant eyeball mask, worn with a top hat and tuxedo. It looks a little something like this:

A Resident

In the film, Homer Flynn, who is one of the band’s handlers via The Cryptic Corporation, and their graphic designer notes that the band may not have any hit albums, but they do have a hit T-shirt—with the image above.

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents dwells very little on the mystery of the band, to its benefit. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter who the people are behind the eyeballs. What matters is their body of work: musical, visual, and performance. _ It takes the band’s forty year-plus evolution and puts it center stage. Drawing from the band’s extensive archives, going back to their first audio tape experiments from 1969, it explores the development of the band and their impact on art and culture. There’s interviews with figures you expect from the music world: Les Claypool (Primus), Gerald Casale (DEVO), Michael Melchiondo (aka Dean Ween of Ween) and Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads), and interviews with folks you might not: like Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening.

Theory of Obscurity_ gives the audience a peek into the remarkable artistic world of The Residents, and a sense of the exploration and process they have cultivated over their multiple decades of work. Theory of Obscurity should be a source of inspiration for anyone who creates art. To paraphrase Penn Jillette (since I didn’t write down anything in the dark theater), the important thing isn’t knowing how to do something, it’s knowing how to finish something. It’s a mantra that runs through the film. When you take away the masks, the theories, the lore, what stands is a four decade run of creative work, because The Residents finish things. If four weirdos from Shreveport can, so can you. That is advice for life.

For newcomers to The Residents, I helped collaborate on a guide to Residents albums for my friend’s website Kittysneezes called The Residents Project. It gives you a good overview of their major discography. If you want just a quick introduction to their music, here’s a few songs to get started with: