Monday, September 23, 2013

First thoughts on iOS7 - User Interface FAIL

As iOS was officially made available to the public, I went through the pain of downloading it and updating my phone. I say pain because the traffic to the server meant that several of my initial attempts to download it failed or dropped partway through. Oh, and there's that part about needing to update to iTunes 11.1 before you can install iOS7.

The iOS update for my phone was about 1.24GB, so that download was one that I started before I left for lunch. However, once I had the download, the install was surprisingly quick, probably less that 15 minutes, but I wasn't watching the clock closely. In the process of doing the update, iTunes also explained to me that if I wanted to listen to podcasts, I now needed the Apple Podcast app. If you're someone that prefers planning ahead and you don't know, you may want to get that one as well.

So I've got everything installed now, and I'm just left with my first impressions of the new software, which I can sum up in one statement:

I like the new features, but I hate the new interface.

There are a bunch of great new features in iOS7 -- long overdue features.
  • You can block contacts (calls, IMs, etc) in iOS7.
  • You can turn WIFI or Bluetooth on or off from a simple one-button click using the controls that slide up from the bottom of the screen.
  • Theoretically, iOS7 is better at managing your battery, so you don't have to be as conscientious about killing apps.
  • Folders now page. I went from Games1, Games2 and Games3 folders to a single Games folder.
But as for the interface, I find it horrible.

I hate the "flat" design. While I can appreciate the push back against some of the overdone skeuomorphic elements, stripping them out completely turns the interface into a rather cartoonish rendering. In this USA Today interview, this is how Jony Ive explains it:
"When we sat down last November (to work on iOS 7), we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn't need physical buttons, they understood the benefits," says Ive. "So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific. It got design out of the way."
Ive is referring to iOS 7's more simplified and almost two-dimensional feel, particularly when it comes to app tiles. The so-called skeuomorphic template established during Jobs' time — where real textures and objects are mimicked, such as the green pool table felt of the Game Center app — was laid to rest in favor of a less fussy look. Game Center is now just a series of colorful bubbles.
For years, interface designers and artists have looked for ways to add dimension with 3D textures and effects in 2D space. They do it not because we're uncomfortable touching glass, but because 3D illusions make environments immersive. It makes it easier for us to establish order and structure, to find things that stick out -- like buttons. Not stupid 3D like the glasses, but simple, basic depth of field. Perspective.

And then we have this explanatory quote for the graphics from Craig Federighi, Apple's senior vice president of software engineering:
"This is the first post-Retina (Display) UI (user interface), with amazing graphics processing thanks to tremendous GPU (graphics processing unit) power growth, so we had a different set of tools to bring to bear on the problem as compared to seven years ago (when the iPhone first launched)," he says. "Before, the shadowing effect we used was a great way to distract from the limitations of the display. But with a display that's this precise, there's nowhere to hide. So we wanted a clear typography."
This is the justification that they're providing for using the ultra-fine type and for elements like the face on the clock app actually keeping time. Now, you could attribute my dissatisfaction over these elements to the anti-glare screen protector that I use or to the recent addition of reading glasses to my tool bag, but this ain't working for me, and I'm pretty sure it's going to be problematic for the parents and grandparents that were a pretty strong iPad demographic.

Hard to read is an understatement. Combine the ultralight fine type with the stripped 3D visual cues and what you have is possibly the worst interface to come out of Apple, ever.

Wrapping it Up
In working with artists, designers, and creative people for over twenty years, one of the things that I've learned is that they all go through phases of creative infatuation and boredom. "I'm so bored with this color, that logo, or this technique." Often the creative voice will express itself in a response to this, exploring new ideas and strange new worlds. Sometimes new ideas bring in an influx of life, windows into the unexpected. Other times, they just don't work. It may be a good idea, an interesting direction, or the spark for something greater, but by itself it's not ready for prime time.

In the art world, passing through these kinds of phases and periods is perfectly acceptable. Not every Bob Dylan album is Blonde on Blonde. Sometimes you need to go through a Good as I Been to You to get to Time Out of Mind. But when you're providing tools that are used by schools, businesses and people around the world, there's a lot less room to creatively swerve if you're making a wrong turn.

This is why it's important to have an editor. You need someone to work with the creative voice, to direct it and filter it. You need someone who understands the need to explore the outer limits of those ideas and try them, but who -- at the end of the day -- can align them with larger goals of the narrative (or the business).

Consider Disney. As tired and recycled as so much of their generic promotional materials are, they continue to connect with their audience and move that product. They may stretch a concept here or there, but they remain focused on their core business identity. Sometimes larger creative businesses like Hallmark cards will empower creative spin-offs like their Shoebox line, empowering the exploration of ideas that don't seem to fit within the existing brand.

I can see the creative pendulum swing in the new interface -- the response to so much design out there being a copy of your original work along with the frustration surrounding the overuse of some of the skeuomorphic elements that were being used -- but this interface change has crippled the device. If I can't use the phone without magnification, then it is not user-friendly. Instead of being invisible, iOS7 has become a barrier to using the device.

So here you have this trade-off -- some great new features versus a horrible new interface. You might think twice about upgrading, but then you're saddled with the other terrible anchor -- compatibility. Everything going forward is built around this version, not the older one. MacWorld has a possible path if you want to attempt to revert back to the previous version, but the reality is that this isn't something like Windows 8 where you can just blow it out and install Windows 7. Having recently been forced to upgrade to Mountain Lion from Snow Leopard, I came across another one of those stupid designs gone wrong -- the reverse touch-scroll direction implementation designed to make the touch experience more tablet-like. With Mountain Lion, it's a simple setting that can be turned off -- we don't have that flexibility with the iOS7 interface.

While I look at aspects of iOS7 as the design equivalent of a retro 8-bit style that has become hipster-popular, I hope that the lack of utility will force the company to correct this course. But ultimately, this will be an interesting measure of the new Apple. Will they be able to find there way past this or will we see a bunch of corporate shills running around providing cover for this directional blunder? Only time will tell, but my phone contract date is looking like an important milestone for my user experience.

As a postscript to this thought, you'll see a number of places report that the interface improves once you get used to it. Remember those videos where a baby is able to pick up an iPad and use it? That's because before iOS7, the interface didn't require you "to get used to it". It makes you wonder whether they did any UI testing on the toddler demographic (side note: I'll bet toddlers love ultralight type faces and 8-bit graphics too).

For me, I've found that the new interface has succeeded in doing something that no previous version has been able to do -- it's reduced the amount of time I interact with the phone. And not because it's streamlined the functionality, rather, because I just don't want to interact with it. Using iOS7 is like choosing to drive in traffic -- it's a daily exercise in frustration. It's truly mind-boggling to think that this came from Apple.