Is Apple giving design a bad name?

This article was originally published by Fast Co.

Once upon a time, Apple was known for designing easy-to-use, easy-to-understand products. It was a champion of the graphical user interface, where it is always possible to discover what actions are possible, clearly see how to select that action, receive unambiguous feedback as to the results of that action, and have the power to reverse that action—to undo it—if the result is not what was intended.

No more. Now, although the products are indeed even more beautiful than before, that beauty has come at a great price. Gone are the fundamental principles of good design: discoverability, feedback, recovery, and so on. Instead, Apple has, in striving for beauty, created fonts that are so small or thin, coupled with low contrast, that they are difficult or impossible for many people with normal vision to read. We have obscure gestures that are beyond even the developer’s ability to remember. We have great features that most people don’t realize exist.

The products, especially those built on iOS, Apple’s operating system for mobile devices, no longer follow the well-known, well-established principles of design that Apple developed several decades ago. These principles, based on experimental science as well as common sense, opened up the power of computing to several generations, establishing Apple’s well-deserved reputation for understandability and ease of use. Alas, Apple has abandoned many of these principles. True, Apple’s design guidelines for developers for both iOS and the Mac OS X still pay token homage to the principles, but, inside Apple, many of the principles are no longer practiced at all. Apple has lost its way, driven by concern for style and appearance at the expense of understandability and usage.

Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty. No, not so! Design is a way of thinking, of determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them. Design combines an understanding of people, technology, society, and business. The production of beautiful objects is only one small component of modern design: Designers today work on such problems as the design of cities, of transportation systems, of health care. Apple is reinforcing the old, discredited idea that the designer’s sole job is to make things beautiful, even at the expense of providing the right functions, aiding understandability, and ensuring ease of use.

Apple, you used to be the leader. Why are you now so self-absorbed? Worse, why does Google follow all your worst examples?

Yes, once upon a time, Apple was known for its ease of use, for computers and applications that were understandable, powerful, and could be used without reference to any manuals. All the operations were discoverable (the power of menus), all could be undone or redone, and there was considerable feedback so you always knew what had just taken place. Users were encouraged to blossom, with greater and greater power being revealed as users became ready. Apple’s design guidelines and their principles were powerful, popular, and influential.


However, when Apple moved to gestural-based interfaces with the first iPhone, followed by its tablets, it deliberately and consciously threw out many of the key Apple principles. No more discoverability, no more recoverability, just the barest remnants of feedback. Why? Not because this was to be a gestural interface, but because Apple simultaneously made a radical move toward visual simplicity and elegance at the expense of learnability, usability, and productivity. They began shipping systems that people have difficulty learning and using, getting away with it because people don’t recognize such problems until it is too late, and money has already changed hands. Even then, people tend to blame themselves for the shortcomings of their devices: "If I weren’t so stupid...!"

Today’s iPhones and iPads are a study in visual simplicity. Beautiful fonts. A clean appearance, uncluttered by extraneous words, symbols, or menus. So what if many people can't read the text? It’s beautiful.

A woman told one of us that she had to use Apple’s assistive tool to make Apple’s undersize fonts large and contrasty enough to be readable. However, she complained that on many app screens, this option made normal fonts so large that the text wouldn’t fit on the screen. It’s important to note that she did not have defective vision. She just didn’t have the eyesight of a 17-year-old. We suspect she would have been perfectly able to read the same text before Apple switched to type fonts with thinner stroke widths and less visual contrast.

What kind of design philosophy requires millions of its users to have to pretend they are disabled in order to be able to use the product? Apple could have designed its phone so that the majority of people could read and use the phone without having to label themselves as needy, disabled, and requiring assistance. Even worse, the assistive corrections destroy the very beauty Apple is so fond of as well as sometimes making the text no longer fit on the screen. If the font would have had slightly greater width, higher contrast, and with just a bit less antialiasing, all well understood principles of font design for readability. Apple could have preserved both beauty and legibility.

The legibility of the text is only one of Apple’s many design failures. Today’s devices lack discoverability: There is no way to discover what operations are possible just by looking at the screen. Do you swipe left or right, up or down, with one finger, two, or even as many as five? Do you swipe or tap, and if you tap is it a single tap or double? Is that text on the screen really text or is it a critically important button disguised as text? So often, the user has to try touching everything on the screen just to find out what are actually touchable objects.


Vivek Kemp

Another problem is the inability to recover after an undesired action. One way to do that is with undo, the addition of which to the original graphical user interfaces was brilliant. Not only did it allow for recovery from most actions, it gave users the freedom to try new actions, confident of their ability to recover if the result was not to their liking. Alas, Apple, in moving to iOS, initially discarded this essential element of system design, perhaps because undo would require an object on the screen in order to invoke it. This would detract from the clean elegance Apple now prefers over clear understanding and usability.

Out went undo. So guess what happened? People complained. En masse. So they put undo back in, sort of: All you have to do to undo is to violently shake your phone or tablet. But undo is not universally implemented, and there is no way to know except by shaking. And even then you don't know if you didn't shake properly or if undo was not implemented for that particular situation.

Touch-sensitive screens, especially on relatively small devices, offer multiple opportunities for things to go wrong when an active link or button is accidentally touched. These accidental touches move the user to a new destination. The standard, simple way of correcting for these occasional mis-touches is to have a Back control: Android phones have Back built into the phone as a universal control that is always available. Apple does not. Why? We don’t know. Were they trying to avoid having a button or a menu? The result does provide for a clean, elegant visual appearance, but the simple-appearance mask is deceptive, for it increases the difficulty of usage.

Apple does provides a “back” arrow in some locations, but, unlike Google’s Android, where it is universally available, Apple’s undo and back buttons are at the option of the developer. Not everyone, including Apple, implements these features.

In the absence of any signals on the screen (what Norman calls "signifiers"), how is a person to know whether to swipe up or down, left or right, use one finger or two or three or four or five, or tap once, twice, or three times, or tap long or short? Users must memorize these gestures after first being told, "read the manual" (what manual?) or discovering them by accident.

The product is beautiful! And fun. As a result, when people have difficulties, they blame themselves. Good for Apple. Bad for the customer. Someone should write a book about this. (Oh, wait, both of us have—severalbooks.)

Good design should be attractive, pleasurable, and wonderful to use. But the wonderfulness of use requires that the device be understandable and forgiving. It must follow the basic psychological principles that give rise to a feeling of understanding, of control, of pleasure. These include discoverability, feedback, proper mapping, appropriate use of constraints, and, of course, the power to undo one’s operations. These are all principles we teach elementary students of interaction design. If Apple were taking the class, it would fail.

Worse, other companies have followed in Apple’s path, equating design with appearance while forgetting the fundamental principles of good design. As a result, programmers rush to code without understanding the people who will use the products. Designers focus entirely on making it all look pretty. And executives get rid of user experience teams who want to help design the products properly and ensure the products are made usable during the design phase, not after manufacturing, coding, and release, when it is too late. These uninformed company executives assume all this up-front design research, prototyping, and testing clearly must slow down the development process. Nope. When done properly, it speeds things up by catching problems early, before coding even begins.

The result of avoiding proper design methodology? Higher costs for service lines, for help. And the eventual defection of unhappy customers who may publicly still sing the praises of Apple’s simple interface while forking over the money for a different brand phone that they hope they’ll be smart enough to actually be able to use.

Please don’t tell us stories of grandparents who can now use technological devices such as tablets whereas before they could never master computers. Just how much of the new technology have they mastered? Yes, gesture-controlled devices, tablets, and phones have easier barriers to initial use. But they have huge barriers to anything advanced, such as selecting three photos to send in an email, or formatting some text, or combining the results of several different operations. These and myriad other operations are far easier and more efficient on traditional computers.

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