Note: This has been lying dormant, dusty and unattended in Google Docs for some time now. It’s an incomplete look at Apple’s user interface design and how it fails to relate to Apple’s product design. It will remain incomplete, as there are many more things to write and things to work on that interest me far more than whining about Apple’s questionable design decisions. Maybe it’s better that way.
As of late, Apple’s UI design relies on ornamental elements that run completely counter to Apple’s product design, resulting in a disjointed and frustrating message. By and large, I believe this is what has led many people to write critiques of Apple’s UI design direction. After all, don’t most companies feature poorly designed UIs? Why attack Apple for something that the majority is guilty of?
The difference with Apple is that their hardware design points to a beautiful, albeit homogenized, future while their UI is so firmly rooted in the past that it’s laughable. In an attempt to understand what went wrong, I re-watched the 2007 unveiling of the original iPhone. In hindsight, I’m not sure what I had hoped to glean from the presentation. Maybe I hoped that there was some long-forgotten explanation by Jobs that totally justified their current UI decisions. After all, I think everyone’s forgotten that Jobs offered up an iPod/rotary dial hybrid as a joke before actually unveiling the phone. Hindsight makes that joke sadly ironic. Anyhow, instead of my fears being washed away by the cool logic of Steve Jobs, I was confronted with a number of head-scratching contradictions, which raised even more concerns of an Apple gone astray.
While presenting the functionality of address book and the ability to press someone’s phone number to call them, Jobs comments, “If I’m real last century, I can push the keypad here.”. Now, if you’re really last century, you can put your next appointment on your leather bound, hand stitched paper calendar that exists on your computer screen. How the fundamental contradiction in these design decisions escapes Apple is beyond me.
Perhaps it’s not a contradiction. Perhaps, as many people argue, skeuomorphic design helps users comfortably transition into unfamiliar new technology. While the iPhone has only been around for 5 years, the impact it’s had on people’s day-to-day lives is profound. People are accustomed to touch devices now. So many things that were once foreign are now common place; just listen to the response to “Slide to unlock” in 2007 and again in 2010. What is first met with an audible gasp and applause is, three years later, so commonplace that no one bats an eyelash. Is this the same user base that needs to be coddled by fake stitched leather in Find My Friends or lined note paper in Notes?
In his 2007 iPhone unveiling, Jobs was quick to tout the interface advancements Apple has made in the past, citing the mouse and the iPod’s click wheel. The mouse was an intuitive way to navigate a GUI, while the clickwheel made it easy to browse music with your thumb. The clickwheel did not rely on the buttons and switches of the past because they were no longer the most intuitive form of interaction. Fast-forward to Apple’s recently released Podcast App, which mimics a reel-to-reel tape recorder when playing a podcast. Is there something more intuitive and personal about a reel-to-reel machine that the iPhone’s super versatile touch display is missing? If Apple refuses to incorporate a keyboard add-on a la Microsoft Surface, why do they try and adapt even more outdated technology in their own UI?
While Jobs originally claimed that, with the iPhone, Apple had created “…breakthrough software that’s 5 years ahead of anything on any other phone.”, Apple is now producing software reliant on analog inputs designed 5 decades ago. When Jobs touted the iPhone’s “Revolutionary UI”, he was referring to the (then) unique grid system, which was finger friendly and utilized intuitive gestures to navigate. Now, within Apple’s own software, intuitive gestures are being replaced with static buttons that reference outdated technology. Apple has simply stopped breaking any new ground in the world of UI while more innovative apps like Clear, Figure and Sºlar to lead the world of UI design into less tread pastures. I’m not sure if Windows 8 will succeed in its attempt to shake up the UI status quo, but I certainly salute Microsoft for taking a bold approach.
In the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that Apple will soon aspire to build user interfaces that match the beauty of the devices they lie within. It’s time to take off the training wheels, abandon the skeuomorphic crutches*, and pursue directions that don’t pander to users with the input methods of yesteryear.
* That training wheels and crutches bit is 100% Luke Mills. Seriously, I just copied and pasted it from the IM conversation we were having. He gave me permission to use it, so it’s ok.