Apple needs to let users select the level of contrast in the user interface
For Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013
One of the things that you notice when you upgrade from iOS 6 to iOS 7 is that you're squinting at the screen a lot more than before. Why? It's all due to the re-design of the user interface headed by Sir Jonathan Paul "Jony" Ive, chief designer at Apple (he was knighted in May 2012). CEO Tim Cook recently put Ive in charge of the design of the user experience in addition to the industrial design of the physical products. iOS 7 is the first re-design of the user interface since the iPhone was introduced in 2007.
The primary issue that Ive wanted to address was the way in which many icons and design elements in iOS took on too much of a similar appearance to their physical counterparts. Take the contact icon. It used to look like very much like a high quality leather Filofax to help users be more comfortable with the icon for the user's Contacts and Calendar. "Give them something that looks like what they have used in the physical world" has been the mantra for many years.
But, in the latest design of iOS in version 7, most of the literal translation of real-world products have either been toned down or eliminated entirely. The subject of attributing digital appearances to their real, physical counterparts is called skeuomorphism. It's a hard word to pronounce, but it's getting a lot of attention by designers of software systems. Or, should I say the trend is toward anti-skeuomorphism.
A skeuomorph is a derivative object that retains ornamental design cues to structures that were necessary in the original. Remember when the station wagon had plastic wood grain to simulate the wood used on carriages (Figure 1 above)? Skeuomorph's have been going on for a long time. Take a look at the examples shown in Figure 2.
The plastic appearance of wood on the side of the car is meant to have the car look like a horse drawn carriage from past millennia. Some have simulated the use of yellow tablets, pages in a book or a 'real' microphone that's used in Siri.
However, in iOS 7, Ive and his design team went much further. They wanted to remove much of the contrast in the way the operating system interacted with the user. They believe that the OS should be 'Flat with less contrast'. You can easily see this in Figure 3 where I have shown a number of examples of where iOS 7 (on the left) is much flatter, software than the same screen images from iOS 6 on the right. These images were captured from my iPhone 4s and my wife's iPhone 4 just before we upgraded her phone to an iPhone 5s.
You can find a good interview of Jony Ives that gives his side of the story at this link. A few other good pieces on this topic can be found here, here and here.
I believe that Apple has gone too far with the flattening and softer interface. While I'm not skilled in industrial or software interface design, I know that I have to 'squint' at my screen a lot more wishing there are more contrast so I could more easily see the important information. I should point out that you can go into iOS Settings, General Settings and use the Accessibility settings to increase the contrast a bit or make type larger and bold face. This does help, but it doesn't allow you to get out of the 'flat, more monochromatic' overall look and feel.
This trend to make computer systems flatter and have less contrast is showing up in other places. Take a look at the way Microsoft has designed Office 365. You'll see all the menus much software with less contrast.
I think the design efforts to take out literal use of physical objects and replace them with pleasing and easy-to-understand icons is good. The icons should have their own meaning and not try to have you think of them as their physical counterpart. But, going further to make the user interface flatter with less contrast is going too far in my estimation. There's a better way.
I recommend that Apple let graphic designers begin to offer a number of 'variations' of the basic look and feel so that users can select the design variation and contrast that they most prefer. Apple lets third parties build apps for the Apps Store so users can have choice. And, Apple lets musicians write songs for iTunes so users can have a choice. Apple should also let third parties provide designs ("skins") that enable users to have a choice. 'Skins' became popular in the MP3 player days, so there's precedent out there. Apple will be deemed to be the innovator in giving users a better experience. It's another way Apple could delight customers.
| Written By:
From time to time, I may have a direct or indirect equity position in a company that is mentioned in this column. If that situation happens, then I'll disclose it at that time