Been There, Done That

We’re all thinking a lot different today.

Designers and developers alike are coming to terms with Apple’s latest iteration of iOS. As I tweeted just before the announcement, there is only one way to describe it:

shock |SHäk| noun
• a sudden upsetting or surprising event or experience.

Those of us who’ve been around awhile had a similar experience 13 years ago. Apple switched from the Classic interface in Mac OS to a new Aqua interface. As fate would have it, I was in the room with some of my colleagues when Steve Jobs introduced a UI “that you wanted to lick.” We all left that keynote in the same state of shock as we experienced yesterday.

I think it’s useful to look at the history of Aqua while thinking about the future of iOS 7.

Some designers are saying that the new look is “over the top.” The same thing was said about Aqua over a decade ago. And in succeeding years, that original UI has continuously been refined to what we see today.

We’ve become accustomed to Apple’s incremental approach which continuously refines their products. This is typically an additive process where new features are included or existing ones are improved.

But with major user interface changes such as Aqua or iOS 7, Apple has another tendency: they overshoot the mark. Their incremental approach then becomes one where unnecessary items are removed (such as Aqua’s stripes) or improved (excessive shadows and transparency are toned down.)

There’s a good reason for this: it’s much easier to take away elements from a design than it is to add them. Simplicity is achieved by removing that which is not really needed.

One parallel with iOS 7 and Aqua that I don’t expect to see: an evolution that takes over a decade. There are a couple of reasons for this.

The first is that the pace of development for iOS is much faster than we’ve ever seen for OS X. Ask any developer and you’ll hear the same thing: it’s a constant struggle to keep up with Apple’s improvements on iOS. Shit happens, and it happens quickly.

Another is the amount of time Apple’s designers have had to work on this project. The decision to put Jony Ive in charge of the interface design happened in October: a mere eight months ago. A major overhaul of a system-wide interface takes much longer than that.

It would not surprise me to learn that the developers had a very short time with the graphical assets we saw yesterday (think in terms of weeks.) This would also explain why the first beta is only available for smaller screens. The development work to support larger screens is relatively easy, but specifying the layouts and generating the assets is much harder.

Another important aspect to consider is the conditions where this new user interface was being evaluated. Every iOS developer who was using iOS 7 prior to yesterday’s announcement was using a security screen. These screens distort the colors and other elements on screen. Try looking at your laptop screen with polarized sunglasses and you’ll see what I mean.

Apple’s “doubling down on secrecy” also played a part. No friends or family were able to see an engineer’s work-in-progress. It’s likely that no one outside the engineering organization was able to give feedback on what they saw. I can think of a few types of users where this kind of criticism is essential: kids that can’t read, friends with vision impairment and parents with failing eyesight.

The good news, and reason I think that we’ll see many improvements before the fall, is because these kinds of surface changes are relatively easy to implement.

Which leads me to my final points: what are the most exciting parts about what happened yesterday?

It’s hard to tell from the keynote, but all of the interactions that surround the app you’re using are vastly superior. Unlike the visual redesign, the work on Springboard feels more mature. It’s likely that work has been underway for a much longer period of time (probably before last year’s WWDC.) Moving around in iOS is so much more fluid and natural.

Like with Aqua, these fundamental changes in how things work will stick around for a long time. We may complain about how things look in the short term, but improvements in usability will be something that we value much more in the long term.

But more importantly, and more subtly, is the change of focus within the apps themselves. In the design of Twitterrific 5, we went through the process of figuring out what content was most important and then designing controls around that information. Previous designs focused on the control structure first and then filled it with content.

(It’s also interesting to note that apps like Twitterrific and Vesper, which take this content-centric approach, also immediately feel at home on iOS 7.)

It’s clear that Apple’s designers have done the same thing: their focus has shifted towards content. I can’t wait to see what happens to the iOS ecosystem when other designers and developers follow their lead. That path forward won’t be easy, but it will take the platform to a whole new level. Yet another example of “can’t innovate any more, my ass”.