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Usability, not 'flat' design, key to Monday's iOS refresh

Gregg Keizer | June 11, 2013
14-year veteran of Apple UI/UX design calls flat a fad

"I think we will soon see which of those last two [iOS 7] is, [an aesthetic or an ideology]: Apple has been seriously decreasing the usability of the Mac by 'simplifying' the visual design through stripping out functionality," said Tognazzini. "The same thing has been happening on the iPad, but there it manifests as a stubborn refusal to increase the functionality."

He hoped that when the new mobile operating system is revealed Monday it will show that Ive chose a middle-of-the-road approach. "If Ive starts making everything monochrome, the current fad, that is going to seriously impact usability," Tognazzini said. "If it's just simply 'flat,' but he allows his designers to communicate through all human perceptual channels, including color, then he could end up doing a good thing."

Pundits have assumed that Ive will overhaul the iOS UI and UX because, first, iOS looks and operates much the same as it did at its 2007 debut. Secondly, the thinking goes, Apple has to do something to iOS to make it "new" or "fresh" or "modern" as it faces unprecedented competition — in units sold globally — from a slew of handset manufacturers that rely on Google's Android.

Nielsen and Tognazzini have a different perspective, that change for change's sake can be damaging if the new isn't more usable. And both were critical of Apple's operating system usability of late.

"Apple's skeuomorphism style of recent years is overkill ... and the overly ornate design ends up distracting users from the functionality," said Nielsen. "So a scaled-back, simpler design will be better, as long as it's not scaled back so far that they remove the cues that users depend on to find out what they can do on each screen."

Tognazzini, meanwhile, hoped that Apple tested the usability of its UI and UX, a practice he'd found wanting. "Overall, what's missing at Apple is that either it does zero [usability] testing, or if they do, that no one is listening to the results. It's one thing to make things simple ... that's wonderful. But it's not if they pretend things are simple because they're just hiding the complexity."

Citing several examples — including the disappearing scroll bars in Safari on both OS X and iOS — Tognazzini pointed out UI/UX failures where "pretend" simplicity had been achieved by hiding elements. He attributed the practice to Apple's desire to show how easy its operating systems were to use during the 15 minutes customers evaluated them in the store.

"Steve [Jobs]'s whole focus was to sell computers," Tognazzini said. "When he put the big apple on the cover of the Mac, but turned it so that to the user it's upside down, but from across the room, or on television, it's right-side up, that was absolutely symbolic of the flip [to stress sales by unnecessarily hiding complexity]."


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