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Apple Sucks: 6 Ways Apple Got The iOS User Interface Design Wrong

Apple released the current icons and design style of iOS back in 2013.

Icons were flatter and the whole operating system was simpler and cleaner than the previous versions created under Steve Jobs.

At the time, Apple said that it was the biggest shake-up in the iPhone operating system since its launch.

However, I believe that there are some fundamental usability problems, inconsistencies, and poor design decisions made with this redesign.

I was hoping that most of the major usability issues with the user interface would be fixed by now but many of them still persist.

This is why I think Apple sucks.

iPhone smashed with a hammer


Usability has been ruined

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.

Steve Job’s single-mindedness and attention to detail were well known – a trait that is illustrated powerfully with the agonizing he went through when deciding the Apple logo orientation on the back of their laptops.

So in my opinion Apple sucks!

Apple logo orientation on MacBook

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 realized 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.

apple icon upside down
The upside down Apple logo

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.

Although this move didn’t stop issues and bugs appearing, such as the iPhone “unable to determine location” Maps error.

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 its users.

Of course, Apple will always hype its products and create desire in its 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 the 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 the 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.

For example in Jaws, the 1975 movie about a killer shark, John Williams created the classic 2 note main “shark” theme to frighten the audience. Classic simplicity. Very Apple.

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:

use of color in iOS 7 mail

However, in the Music app this is changed to red:

use of color iOS 7 music

But in the address book red is used to delete a contact:

color use - delete contact iOS 7

But compared to iOS 6 it is less obvious due to the subtle use of color for the delete function:

delete contact iOS6

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:

add event iOS 7 with red

The color palette should be more consistent throughout to make it easier to use.

Red should be reserved for deletion or cancellation 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 backward 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 the 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 the 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 curveball – the shark appears without the theme. The audience is shocked as the auditory cue was ignored causing viewers to jump. Clever filmmaking 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 from 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 its own slightly different way of doing things with visuals cues changing from one to another. As a result, usability suffers.

new keyboard layout iOS 7
Is Caps Lock on? With flattened icons, it is much harder to tell

In a ComputerWorld article about the iOS refresh, they talk about usability being the most important element – not its 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.”

iOS 6 playlist
Actionable items work better when they are displayed as buttons
use of color iOS 7 music
Without buttons, it is harder to figure out what to press

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 has introduced a new variable to trip you up. The same gesture on different parts of the screen causes different results.

apple gesture
Wonder what this gesture would do on iOS?

If you swipe down the home screen of your iPhone you may see the search function, or perhaps the notification center. 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 center appears, halfway 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 the 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 become 3.

delete message
The process is slower and more confusing without the swipe

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.

menu options everywhere on iOS 7
Choices all over the screen

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.

iOS 7 mail icons
Sometimes it’s words, other times just icons

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 a 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.

6 Folders

I can see where Apple is 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!

iOS 6 app folder
In iOS 6 it is clear it is a folder with 12 to 16 apps

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 were shown so easily in iOS6?

iOS 7 app folder
In iOS there is only 9 apps per page with no visual hierarchy

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 to 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 the 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.

How to disable 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.

5 thoughts on “Apple Sucks: 6 Ways Apple Got The iOS User Interface Design Wrong”

  1. This is all the result of Jony Ives and his obession with Bauhaus design. Bauhaus design has butchered the design of everything from buildings to objects. Reducing them down to the most minium thing essentially making them unusuable. Sure Jony designed very sleak objects but what does the man know about software design? Apparently not to much.

    iOS prior to 7 was a delight to use and was so easy to use a child could use it. With iOS 7 and above the mantra became the following – we are all used to doing this now and the software should step out of the way. I remember the bloviating over it. Except it hasent stepped out of the way, it has gotten WORSE.

    Some samples:

    -Who would have thought that putting thin light gray fonts on a white backround makes it easy to read?

    -How about buttons that dont look like buttons and you are suppose to guess that its a button.

    DUMB. On the latest version of iOS I couldnt figure out how to add a bookmark on my phone. Oh yeah I am supposed to hold down the little book icon till anothe menu appears. So intuitive! NOT.

    The quicker they get rid of this flat garbage the happier everyone will be.

    Apple is not the only one guilty of this – Windows 10 is another trainwreck entirely.

  2. Christopher Tschirgi

    I wish you woulda talked about how ridiculous the SETTINGS menu is and how unnavigable it is.

    Example: to increase the color contrast for the phone you would logically think it would be somewhere in DISPLAY right? Wrong! 1.Settings
    a. General
    b. Accessibility
    c. Increase Contrast
    d. Increase Contrast Slide Bar (yes, twice you click increase contrast after all that)

    I agree the company is just not the same without Jobs.

    Also, when a company is a First-Mover/1st to bring brand new revolutionary product to the market I can understand the retail price and the cost. That is the benefit of being a first mover. But have the problems always been this cheap? As in actual parts and hardware? Or is this something post-Jobs. With the prices they charge i expect high-end materials, instead my phone is the Glass Menagerie.

  3. This article uses “it’s” several times when it should be “its”.
    Possesive pronouns that end in “s”, such as his, hers, ours, theirs, and its do not contain apostrophes.
    “It’s” is the abbreviation for “it is”.

    grammar cop

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