How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name

How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name:

“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.”

(Via FastCoDesign.)

I just got around to reading last week’s editorial on Apple design, written by two legends of UI theory. Both have written classic books on user-oriented design: Don Norman wrote “The Design of Everyday Things” and practically every early Mac geek owns a copy of Bruce Tognazzini’s “Tog On Design.”

When they say that Apple’s lost the thread on effective, functional design, everyone ought to listen.

I’ve had plenty of reasons to ask myself some of the same questions…particularly in the past month. I reviewed Apple’s Magic Keyboard, and couldn’t hide my disappointment and confusion; it’s a desktop keyboard that looks great as a static object, but why on earth did they make so many tradeoffs?

Then Apple released Apple TV. The new touch-based remote has plenty of nice features. And, it’s impossible to sense if you’re holding it the right way without looking at it. And because the touchpad runs from edge-to-edge, it’s almost impossible to pick it up without unintentionally fast-forwarding through a video.

Apple TV is actually a perfect example of the sort of stuff Don and Tog point out in the article. I was seriously annoyed by the remote on the first day. Then, I discovered and read Apple’s User Guide. Now I know that if I accidentally fast-forward, I can cancel it by tapping the Menu button.

I love Apple Pencil. It works great. Even there, though, Apple’s focus on design commanded them to design a stylus that doesn’t have a clip or anything else that makes it easy to carry, no cap to protect the tip, and its glossy body is slippery enough that I dropped it when trying to get it out of the box.

(It’s also round. But it’s weighted so that it won’t roll off the table. Neat.)

I’ve always thought that good software design requires ideas that make the software easy to use during the first week, and other ideas that make it easy to use three months later. First impressions are important for a beginning user. Still, at some point this person gets experienced. That’s when he or she wants power features that allow them to get more done with fewer clicks, even if they need to go into Settings or (God forbid) actually learn something.

Few things disappoint me so much as an app that’s easy to outgrow…especially when the only reason for those limitations is “we wanted it to be clean and pretty, and [missing feature] is something that only 10% of our users would actually be interested in.” 

Don and Tog talk about how Apple has walked away from its earlier commitment to functional design. They would know (Tog, Apple Employee #66, literally wrote the book on Apple user interface design). I have to wonder if part of Apple’s problem is that they no longer have the luxury of being a niche maker.

In the Eighties and Nineties, the company made hardware and software for fans of Apple. That’s not to say that Macs weren’t objectively great computers; Apple was making stuff for their own audience. Now that they’re unquestionably a juggernaut, they’re making phones and computers for everybody. Apple’s clean design aesthetic is of limited or no value to them; therefore, they’re more keenly aware of limitations that Apple Design sometimes imposes. Like me and the Magic Keyboard, they see no aesthetic upsides. They just wish there were a visible “Back” or “Menu” button.

These things matter. I chose to spend the summer with my SIM card in an iPhone 6 Plus, so I could thoroughly test Apple Watch and also find out if I needed to widen my perspective, after two years with an Android phone as a daily driver.

iOS 9 has addressed so many of of the iPhone’s limitations over the past couple of years that I was considering switching back permanently. I still haven’t decided yet, but it seems unlikely now. Google’s new Nexus phones are outstanding.

More than that, though, I still haven’t warmed to Apple’s 2013 overhaul of the iOS interface. Even after two years with it I experience many of the problems that Don and Tog talk about in their article. The UI is so subtle and stripped down that I often find myself hunting around the screen to figure out what I need to tap to make something happen. I just like Android 6 better.

The whole article is definitely worth a read. Whether you agree with their conclusions or not, it’s a terrific primer on design theory. And I hope it spawns some serious conversations. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect users to learn new skills over time before they can get the most out of an app or piece of hardware. It’s just that, Jeez…five years ago I couldn’t have imagined myself deciding that an Android phone has a prettier, easier-to-use interface than an iPhone.

8 thoughts on “How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name”

  1. “Apple’s focus on design commanded them to design a stylus that rolls right off the table”

    All the reviews I’ve read about Pencil (esp. Gruber) talk about how the pencil is weighted inside so that it *Doesn’t* do this. How is your experience with Pencil different than the others? I haven’t had a chance to see it yet, and am very curious about this feature.

  2. Apple, unfortunately, has transitioned from a company with personality (icon garden, anyone?) to a big player whose products are designed to look great in a photo-shoot.

    “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” — Steve Jobs

  3. Your link to your article on the Apple Keyboard reminds me of something I’ve wanted for a long time – someplace, a link to each thing you publish. On various podcasts I hear you talking about pieces you’re writing, but I often seem to miss them.

    A little self-promotion would be a good thing.

  4. It is clear to me that the industrial design (ID) team at Apple is the one with the hand on the rudder, design and engineering wise. As a graphic designer, I’m a little sceptic about the wisdom behind such an alignement (specifically in regards with interface design and software user experience)… But at the same time I have to admit that – with the caliber of talent in that ID team – I understand the reasoning behind it (and there is also the unavoidable reality of Apple’s financial success since iOs 7).

  5. I was wrong (and corrected that in the post). The Pencil rolls enough that I went to grab it before it fell of the desk when it got away from me the other day. If I’d let it go, it would have slowed down and stopped.

    It’s weighted such that it won’t go far. But it’s so subtle that you won’t feel it in your hand.

  6. I wouldn’t go that far. I think they try to get the mix between “Ugly but effective” and “Emotionally-appealing but with usability compromises” just right with every product. Their design ethos defines “just right” in a way that tilts things towards the latter. At least to my eyes.

  7. No matter what I think or say, the fact remains that Apple can’t make these things fast enough and customer feedback is overwhelmingly positive. So they’re doing something right!

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