Apple released iOS 7 to a great fanfare announcing that it is the biggest shake up in the iPhone operating system since it’s launch. Icons are flatter and the whole operating system is simpler and cleaner. However, I believe that there are some fundamental usability problems, inconsistencies and poor design decisions made with the redesign. I was hoping that most of the major issues would be fixed in iOS 8, 9, 10 or 11 but many of them still persist.
What makes me say this?
Well Apple has always put usability at the heart of everything they do. At least they did when Steve Jobs was alive. This meant designing beautiful products that we all love to use.
But these days the iOS design is poor making me conclude that Apple sucks at software design.
Job’s single-mindedness and attention to detail was well known – a trait that is illustrated powerfully with the agonising he went through when deciding the Apple logo orientation on the back of their laptops.
Apple logo orientation debate
For those of you that don’t know the story there was once was a time when that iconic logo that shines from the top of Apple notebooks was positioned upside down.
This was no mistake. In fact the Apple Design Group had discussed the issue of the Apple logo on the lid extensively.
They realised the logo on the laptop is a visual clue that guides users to open the screen correctly. You will naturally orientate the logo so you see it the right way round before trying to open the lid. However the logo is upside down when the screen is open – so everyone else sees the logo the wrong way round.
If the logo is turned around then it is the right way up when the laptop is open but it confuses new owners as it is upside down when they try to open it.
This led to the question “Which way round should the logo be on the MacBook lid”?
Apple CEO Steve Jobs wanted to provide the best experience for the user, and so the Apple logo was initially placed upside down on the lid so it was easier to figure out how to open the laptop. But the decision was reversed within a few years because it looked weird to others and didn’t promote the brand.
Joe Moreno, a former senior web app engineer and marketer at Apple “Opening a laptop from the wrong end is a self-correcting problem that only lasts for a few seconds. However, viewing the upside logo is a problem that lasts indefinitely”.
This is evidence of real in-depth thinking about how people interact with Apple products – even for the small stuff that most of us wouldn’t even consider. But it seems to have been forgotten lately.
Apple Maps disaster
Who can forget the Apple Maps disaster that resulted in the firing of director Richard Williamson? This move saw Jony Ive moved into human interface design as Senior Vice President of Design – a move most of us welcomed.
There is no doubt that the Brit has designed some of the most iconic Apple products but does that really make him the man to design software?
One thing is for sure, Apple needed to show that they could keep up with Android and also manage a large scale software project after the PR disaster of Apple Maps.
So why change iOS?
It seems to me that the motivation for the redesign isn’t to improve usability, but to show off something new and shiny in an effort to improve sales. A success story after the Maps disaster. This seems to me to be very un-Apple. It is ignoring usability and instead they want to create ‘shiny new object syndrome’ for it’s users.
Of course Apple will always hype it’s products, and create desire in it’s fan base but this is a promotional tool. Now I believe they are using this to guide their vision for how the current iOS should operate.
I found usability issues that I would find it hard to believe would have got past Steve Jobs. From inconsistent use of gestures, to the removal of valuable visual cues – the new design seems to be a step back in many ways. Sure the icons look cute, in a 1950‘s cartoon kinda way but it has forgotten it’s roots. It’s ease of use. It’s simplicity. Instead it is a disappointing mixture of razzmatazz and gimmicks.
6 Ways iOS sucks
Here are the 6 biggest (usability) issues I have with iOS.
1. Use of color
Color is used in design is to draw attention to things that are important in the same way as sound is used to create tension in a movie. Color and sound aren’t things that you may be consciously aware of but it enriches the experience.
When Williams first demonstrated his idea to Spielberg, playing just the two notes on a piano, Spielberg was said to have laughed, thinking that it was a joke. Spielberg later said that without Williams’s score the film would have been only half as successful, and according to Williams it jumpstarted his career.
Williams explains: “I just began playing around with simple motifs that could be distributed in the orchestra, and settled on what I thought was the most powerful thing, which is to say the simplest. Like most ideas, they’re often the most compelling.”
What has this 70‘s flick to do with iOS?
Well like a film score the color palette creates a mood, Also, like the shark theme, it should be simple and compelling. Most important of all it should be consistent. If you hear that theme then you know the shark is coming to get you!
However the use of colors isn’t applied consistently with iOS creating confusion and causing users to make mistakes.
For example blue text is mainly used in iOS as action buttons as shown below in Mail:
However in the Music app this is changed to red:
But in the address book red is used to delete a contact:
But compared to iOS 6 it is less obvious due to the subtle use of color for the delete function:
This inconsistent use of color is spread throughout iOS, for example to add an event in the calendar it uses red for the action buttons:
The color palette should be more consistent throughout to make it easier to use.
Red should be reserved for deletion or cancelation actions, with blue used as the call to action color and green reserved for positive actions such as send.
This consistent use of color would improve usability massively.
2 Use of visual cues
Related to the use of color is the use of visual cues. Stuff such as arrows to indicate moving forwards or backwards when using an App or the use of buttons. These cues also need to be consistently applied so that users can build a mental model of the workflow and complete the task successfully.
Going back to Jaws, the shark theme is used each time the monster muncher appears on screen so that the audience gets used to associating the 2 elements together. You hear the music so you know the shark is nearby. Most of you won’t even be conscious of the link but it is used to create tension. This was important in this movie in particular as the shark doesn’t actually appear on screen that often. Spielberg creates a hidden menace below the surface with the music indicating when danger is near.
At the end of the movie Spielberg and Williams throw a curve ball – the shark appears without the theme. The audience is shocked as the the auditory cue was ignored causing viewers to jump. Clever film making that has been used in horror movies ever since.
The use of visual cues is very similar to auditory ones. The idea is to prevent users being shocked, surprised or confused. In order for this to work it needs to be applied consistently. In iOS it is not. Each iOS App has it’s own slightly different way of doing things with visuals cues changing from one to another. As a result the usability suffers.
In a compterworld article about the iOS refresh they talk about usability being the most important element – not it’s flat design.
“Totally flat design, like in Windows 8, is a terrible usability mistake because it removes the users’ ability to see at a glance where they can click,” said Jakob Nielsen, a usability guru with nearly 80 U.S. patents to his name. Nielsen, co-founder of the consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group, was formerly a top-level engineer with Sun Microsystems and has a Ph.D in human-computer interaction. “The actionable elements on the screen have to be called out in some way.”
Nielsen also said about the trend for flat design (in this case for Windows 8):
“The UI is completely flat. There’s no pseudo-3D or lighting model to cast subtle shadows that indicate what’s clickable (because it looks raised above the rest) or where you can type (because it looks indented below the page surface).
I do think the UI has more elegant typography than past UI styles and that the design feels fresh.
But the new look sacrifices usability on the altar of looking different than traditional GUIs. There’s a reason GUI designers used to make objects look more detailed and actionable.
Icons are supposed to (a) help users interpret the system, and (b) attract clicks.”
Surely it could have been possible to flatten the design but keep the buttons to make it obvious what can be clicked at a glance?
3 Use of gestures
The gestures such as pinch and swipe are well known as they have been the same since the initial launch of the iPhone. You are probably used to the different methods of controlling the device but with the new iOS Apple have introduced a new variable to trip you up. The same gesture on different parts of the screen cause different results.
If you swipe down the home screen of your iPhone you may see the search function, or perhaps the notification centre. This is because the self same gesture does 2 different things. The difference between them is where you swipe the screen. Swipe at the top and the notification centre appears, half way down the screen the search function appears.
On Android phones a search box is always on the home screen ready to use. No swiping required. Easy to see and use BUT it takes up valuable space. On a super-sized Android smartphone this isn’t so much of an issue but on the smaller iPhone it is.
As a result I believe Apple has come up with a halfway house – search appears on the home screen but it doesn’t take up any room unless you want to search. Great in theory but poor from a usability point of view in practice.
Even when you do get to grips with the gesture there is a bigger issue. The old saying, out of sight, out of mind, will turn out to be accurate. Because the search is hidden, users will forget to summon it even when needed in the same way they forget to use Windows 8 charms.
Some of the familiar methods no longer work either – such as the left to right swipe to delete an individual item. This was a simple way to remove things one at a time. However this sweep, then confirm gesture for deleting something seems to have gone. Instead it is replaced by a more cumbersome action which involved tapping edit first.
This is obviously an issue as edit is edit, not delete. So having to remember that the command to delete an item lurks under another command is plainly stupid design. Once you have hit the edit button you click on the red icon before tapping the big delete button on the right. So 2 screen taps now becomes 3.
Surely the point of an upgrade is to improve usability, not to make it worse. I don’t really understand why the swipe delete action has been removed so why not keep it as it was?
4 Placement of menus and buttons
Menus and buttons (although they don’t look like buttons) seem to be randomly placed around the 4 corners of the screen. Each App has a different location for them and it makes it hard to figure where to click to carry out the action you want.
This is more difficult than it should be because menus and buttons are not designed to attract your attention. They blend in to the flat sameness.
It is also made harder as sometimes actions are described with an icon, while other times they are written. Sometimes Trash is written, other times it is a trash can icon.
Incredibly inconsistent and much harder to learn how to carry out different activities. Surely it would be easier to use one system, or the other. Better still, use both so that people can understand what each icon means before deciding to click it.
5 Background image
Having a boring old static image behind all your apps on the home screen is so boring – at least according to iOS.
It introduces a new feature that allows the wallpaper to pan around as you move your phone to give a 3D like view. This is called Parallax.
This introduces a new and unintended feature – motion sickness. It is also extremely distracting, especially on the larger screen of the iPad.
Luckily, this feature can be turned off as it is complete waste of time. Pointless. It illustrates brilliantly how far Apple has gone towards trying to wow customers with razzmatazz without anyone saying ‘but what is the point?’.
All style no substance. And together with the zooming icons and apps it makes me feel motion sick.
I can see where Apple are coming from on the redesigned folders. They wanted us to be able to add more Apps to each folder as there was a limit of between 12 and 16. They solved this issue by having multiple pages of apps within the folder. Great idea!
However the application of this idea was poor.
Firstly you can only see 9 apps on the first screen rather than 12 or 16. So if the app you want was 12th on the list you need an extra swipe gesture to see the next page of icons before activating it. This might not seem so bad if there was no room for any more apps – but there is loads of space.
Why leave so much space when 12 to 16 apps was shown so easily in iOS6?
If the folder title was made a little smaller and the whole screen was used then it should be possible to easily get 16 to 20 apps on each page.
So unless you have a huge number of apps they would all appear on the first page giving really easy access in the minimum number of taps and swipes.
The new folder view is also a floating box that has no relationship to the home page. In the earlier versions of iOS there is an arrow pointing to a miniature version of the folder so you ‘get it’. In iOS no such visual cue exists making it harder to build a mental model of where you are and what you are doing.
A bit like breadcrumbs on a website we need to know where we are on the device in relation to the home screen.
Jakob Nielsen wrote an interesting article on breadcrumbs which showed
“One line of text shows a page’s location in the site hierarchy. User testing shows many benefits and no downsides to breadcrumbs for secondary navigation.”
Based on this study, and many other similar ones it would seem sensible to retain a relationship between the home screen and the folder. Again, this is an odd decision since there is so much room on the folder to provide this information.
At least you can disable some annoying iOS features
Finally, if you are fed up with some of the new features there is a great article on how to disable some of the more annoying new features of iOS over at the Telegraph.
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Kevin Craighead is iChimp’s chief technology editor and has been covering Apple’s mobile electronics, security, privacy and the wider technology sector since 2011. He is also a highly regarded Web Designer & Developer.
With a career spanning 30 years which began doing PC support (before the internet existed), Kevin’s technical expertise and experience is highly regarded in a wide variety of fields. His well-researched work resulted in highly regarded and often cited articles such as the infamous ‘Unable to move message to trash’ error on iOS devices.