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.