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On the design of iOS 7 and iconographoclasm

As I write this, the WWDC keynote presentation has been over for a little more than half a day. That, apparently, is plenty of time in which to evaluate a new version of an operating system based on a few slides, a short demonstration, and maybe a little bit of playing with an early developer preview.

What I see is a lot less texture than an iOS 6 screen, with flatter, simpler icons and a very thin Sans Serif typeface. That’s because I’m looking at a Windows RT screen, though. What’s that? iOS 7 looks the same? They’ve gone Metro-style? Surely this heralds the end of days. Dogs and cats lying with each other, fire and brimstone raining from the sky. It would be time to give all the money back to the shareholders, except that it costs too much to bring all that cash back into the US.

Oh no, wait. It’s just a phone, not the apocalypse. Also it’s just less than half a day with a preview of a phone. If first impressions of a graphics set were enough to form a decision on how an artifact is to carry around with me all day, every day for the next couple of years, the iPhone would have been dead a long time ago. Remember the HTC Desire, with its bright, saturated background and parallax scrolling? Or the Samsung Galaxy series, with their bigger screens that are easier to see across a brightly-lit and packed showroom? How about the Nokia Lumia, with its block colours and large animations? Those are the kings of the short-tem attention grab. Coincidentally they’re the things that many journalists, trying to find an angle on day one of a device’s release, latched on to as obvious iPhone killers. Well, those and anything else released in the last few years.

What no-one has investigated is how the new iOS interface is to use all the time, because no-one has had all the time yet. I don’t know whether the changes Apple have made to the design are better, but I do know (largely because they mentioned it at the beginning of the talk) that they thought about them. The icons on the home screen, for example, are a lot more simplistic than they previously were. Is that because they were designed by some cretin wielding a box of Crayola, or did they find some benefit to simpler icons? Perhaps given a large number of apps, many users are hunting and pecking for app icons rather than relying on muscle memory to locate the apps they need. If this is true, a simpler shape could perhaps be recognised more quickly as the pages of apps scroll under the thumb.

As I say, I don’t know if the changes are for the better or not, but I do know they weren’t the result of whimsy. Though if Apple are chagrined at the noise of a million designers angrily dribbbling over their keyboards, they only have themselves to blame. It’s my belief that this evaluation of computer products based on what they look like rather than on their long-term use has its origin with Apple, specifically with the couple of years of Apple Design Awards that preceded the iPhone app store’s launch. It’s these awards that heralded the “Delicious generation” of app design that has informed Mac and iOS ISVs (and Apple) to date. It’s these awards that valued showy, graphically-rich apps without knowing whether they were useful: giving design awards to software that people could not, at time of award, yet use at all.

Now it turns out that many of these winners did indeed represent useful apps that you could go back to. I was a long-term user of Delicious Library 2 right up until the day Delicious Library 3 was launched. That benefit was not directly evident on the granting of the ADA though: what Apple were saying was “we would like to see you develop apps that look like this” rather than “we recognise this as the type of app our customers have derived lots of enjoyment from”. It’s my belief that this informed the aesthetics and values of the ISV “community”, including the values with which they appraised new software. If Apple are suffering a backlash now from people who don’t immediately love the new design of iOS 7, it is their own petard by which they have been hoisted.

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