Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Design Is How It Works

It’s just about a month before the big WWDC keynote, which means that the rumours are flying as to what the new versions of OS X 10.9 and the perhaps more anticipated iOS 7 will bring. Since October’s announcement that Sir Jony Ive has been tasked with overseeing all of the design that comes out of Apple on both hardware and software fronts, the rumours of a shift away from leather and wood in the company’s user interface design were perhaps inevitable. A shift to a flat Metro-esque design, the rumours often claim, is in the cards for iOS 7.

This line of thought betrays a certain lack of thought into the processes of a design-driven company which, of course, is what Apple is. In November, the mysterious Kontra wrote:

Like industrial design of physical devices, software is part form and part function: aesthetics and experience. Apple’s software problems aren’t dark linen, Corinthian leather or torn paper. In fact, Apple’s software problems aren’t much about aesthetics at all…they are mostly about experience. To paraphrase Ive’s former boss, Apple’s software problems aren’t about how they look, but how they work.

The debate within Apple is likely not a case of skeuomorphism vs. solid block colours, for example. This is a gross oversimpification of what the redesign process entails for something that is as complex as iOS. The questions likely being asked will be more abstract than this, but more intelligent — questions like “how much detail is necessary to impart functional meaning for users?”. Perhaps a bigger internal question is something like “how do we make the operating system better for users to match their new use cases compared to when the OS was launched?”

The way we use iOS has changed since 2007 but, as I have noted previously, app management has barely changed since that time. Idealism would suggest that there’s no reason to have 86 apps on my iPhone (including, for some reason, five Twitter clients). Pragmatism would state that this isn’t a huge number of applications, and that there must be a better way of dealing with them than by increasing the depth at which I can store them.

That isn’t to imply that there are no aesthetic concerns at Apple; that would be ludicrious. But the problems aren’t limited to the colour palette and icon gloss. The above-linked article by Kontra provides a short list of some of the problems that Apple faces with their current applications and services, based wholly on function and not on appearance. But, as much as I’d love to see Notification Centre eschew the linen texture from my glossy iPhone’s screen (seriously: glossy linen?), I’d much prefer a better way to deal with incoming notifications than whittling down my fingertip to tap the clear buttons. And, no, the better way is not to make the buttons bigger.