Essays on Technology and Culture

“Girly” UIs, Beta Software, and “Doing It Wrong”

My snarky post from yesterday was just a toss off in lieu of more grounded thoughts on the new iOS, or the thoughts other have on the new iOS. It was John Gruber on The Talk Show who noted “All the leaks are wrong” and that the new iOS design would be “polarizing”, which seems almost like an understatement now. When you have a technology commentator complaining/writing click-bait that iOS has become too “girly,” [1] I think polarizing doesn’t quite cut it.

If familiarity breeds contempt, so too does novelty bring antipathy. People have been clamoring for a visual refresh of iOS since the run up to iOS 6, but the critics have been more vocal in the last year. Apple’s UIs were too “skeuomorphic” with their reliance on textures and replicating real interaction behaviors. [2] iOS looked dated next to Windows Phone 7 and Android 4.0. The company that lead the charge of GUIs, invented the modern smartphone and tablet, and kickstarted an industry had “fallen behind.” And, seeing as the last major proponent of the texture and physicality-rich UI had been drummed out of the firm, plenty of folks at Apple were gunning for change, too.

And outside of Apple, enough people wanted a change that skilled designers spent ages mocking up UI concepts and creating YouTube videos simulating new interaction designs. I don’t fault them for doing it. It’s good practice for a designer, a way to get your name out there, and maybe get a new client or two. However, the proliferation of iOS 7 concept shots and videos permeated the mindset of fans, bloggers, critics, and journalists alike. It was clear that, though Apple probably wouldn’t mess too much with the fundamental interaction design of iOS, whatever Ive and his team of professional designers came up with would be very different than what had been going around. Clearly then, because Jony and Apple didn’t just rip off your preferred rumoriffic mockup, Apple is “doing it wrong.” Though what people who say that really mean is that “They didn’t do it the way I would.”

Jony Ive inherited the role of overseeing software UI and UX at Apple only seven months ago. Now, we’re seeing the first fruits of his labors. Whether Ive brought Apple’s marketing team to do the icons, or painstakingly drew every icon and overlay in Illustrator, seven months is not a lot of time. There’s room for improvement, and even the people who like the new UI for iOS will admit that. [3] Apple needs two things to improve iOS: user feedback, and time. With their unwillingness to do “focus groups” and internal user testing, the Developer Preview is the best way to get feedback.

Note these words: “Developer Preview.” This is software that, though shown to the world, is not ready for the world. Maybe the idea of a “beta” has been watered down by companies slapping it on hundreds of functional-enough consumer services and apps. [4] iOS 7 in the state it is at the time of writing is neither feature complete or design complete. By way of example, the current version is missing the “Voice Memos” application. If we assume a September release of iOS 7, this gives Apple three and a half months of time to tweak, add, and remove things. By then, who knows what Apple will change. This is something a lot of the more vocal complainers of iOS 7’s new look are forgetting: it’s not done.

  1. I’m not linking to this guy, because that would only give him what he wants. He’s wrong, he’s sexist, and you shouldn’t take design criticism from a guy who uses a tiled background on his website in 2013.  ↩

  2. They weren’t exactly wrong here, either, debates over the meaning of “skeuomorphism” aside.  ↩

  3. What is the deal with the Game Center icon, anyway?  ↩

  4. Apple’s even done this with a certain sassy “digital assistant.”  ↩