Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

iOS 7 “Brought About Only Superficial Changes”

This is a tough read from Jared Sinclair if you’re someone — like me — who thinks that iOS 7’s visual changes beget functional changes. Consider this:

Fast-forwarding a year, the effect that iOS 7 has had on third party development is disheartening — which sounds like a fatuous thing to say, since there have been so many well-liked redesigns over the past year. But that’s the rub: the vast majority of third-party developers’ time has been spent redesigning and reimplementing apps to dress the part for iOS 7. Many shops, such as Tapbots and Cultured Code, were forced to delay new products indefinitely while they scrapped ongoing work in favor of reboots. I suspect that many other developers had to make similar decisions.

That’s fair. Aside from rumours, developers had about three months to create an iOS 7 version of their apps if they wanted day one availability. Many chose to work longer and harder to create their iOS 7 updates, significantly delaying other feature additions and ideas they had in the pipeline.

But, then, consider this:

Some folks argue that the iOS 7 “flattening” was an urgent need. iOS 6, they claim, was looking long-in-the-tooth compared to Android and Windows Phone. They might be right from an informed designer’s perspective, but they’re wrong if they think that this was an urgent problem. Apple’s most important indicators for the success of iOS software, install base and customer satisfaction, were extremely high with iOS 6. It was a popular OS that showed no signs of waning in popularity. A total redesign of the OS — especially one that abandoned key visual brand elements in favor of an aesthetic that looks like every other popular OS — was an unnecessary risk.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the install base and satisfaction scores. According to Apple, iOS 7 is on 87% of devices as of the beginning of April;1 this is only a hair lower than the 93% adoption rate of iOS 6 as measured just before WWDC 2013. As for satisfaction, one survey performed soon after iOS 7’s release found that users were generally happier on iOS 7 than on iOS 6. If these are the “most important indicators for the success of iOS”, it appears that they have at least retained them — and possibly improved them — with iOS 7.

As for iOS 7 looking “like every other popular OS”, I, again, disagree. On a superficial level of the OS being less gradient- and shadow-heavy and free of photorealistic textures, sure. But in every other aspect — typography, colour palette, layout, iconography, and so forth — it’s very much still iOS.

This segues nicely into Sinclair’s argument that it “abandoned key visual brand elements”. That’s true. But abandoning them was for the best. What iOS lost in its own identity it gained in conforming greater to Apple’s overall identity. iOS 6 always felt like a visual anomaly in Apple’s design language, but it makes historical sense.

Around the time of the launch of iOS, its desktop counterpart was OS X Tiger in which Apple made some curious interface design decisions. Some of these — like the capsule buttons in Mail — were outright poor choices; others — like brushed metal windows — added some interest to the interface, but added clutter. Over time, of course, OS X gained a weird reflective Dock and leather in the Calendar. In Snow Leopard, all of the different window themes were unified and made consistent; in Mavericks, the textures were removed from Calendar and Contacts. At heart, though, OS X has always been had a very clean design language, largely devoid of unnecessary dressing and clutter.

The other contemporary (post-1997) user interface Apple developed was for the iPod. Again, it’s uncluttered, direct, and clear. And, of course, Apple’s hardware design has — since Ive has been running the show — been clear, direct, and premium in its simplicity.

That’s what makes iOS 1-6 — and the curious interface decisions in OS X — so perplexing. The hardware is designed to be neutral, so anything looks great on it. But shouldn’t the design language of the OS bear some resemblance to the design language of the hardware? They both come from the same company, after all, and they both perform similar tasks: they’re a stage and a format for content.

Which brings me to the question of how urgent such a change be. While the vast majority of iOS users and developers would probably be fine with iOS 7 if it contained no major UI updates and simply contained the technical improvements, when would be the right time to pull the trigger on a UI update?

Does Apple wait until there’s a mass-exodus of iOS users? That’s too late.

How about if it were delayed until iOS 8? Sure, that buys them a year for Ive to get comfortable and for potential issues to be seen internally. But not all issues can be seen internally — that’s why Apple releases developer betas. Even three months of developer betas is also not enough to discover all problems before release — consider the parallax animation issues.

iOS 7 was a reset. It caused headaches for developers, but it also opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Smart designers rethought their apps and reconsidered the necessity and design of every feature — the interface changes were decidedly not superficial. It’s given Apple a new bowl of low-hanging fruit to sort out. iOS 7 was a rough update in a lot of ways, but it was a necessary one. I’m excited for WWDC.

  1. According to Mixpanel Analytics, iOS 7 is on 93% of devices, but I’m not sure how accurate their stats are compared to Apple’s (just a hunch, but I’m guessing “less”). ↩︎