An aesthete’s take on iOS 7: Ive’s Webified interface jumble

An aesthete’s take on iOS 7: Ive’s Webified interface jumble

Summary: Jony Ive may have abandoned skeuomorphism for the minimalist and over-white design of iOS 7, but his over-reliance on distracting, inconsistent text commands has compromised the usability and coherence of the new mobile platform.

TOPICS: Apple, iOS, iPhone, iPad, Mobile OS

I’ve already had my say about the predominance of battery-sucking and inconsistent black-and-white in the new iOS 7 design, and how it hurt my eyes to the point where I have been wishing I could downgrade to stop getting headaches. But the bright interface is only one part of the problem with the iOS design.

Textual commands, I'm looking at you.

Any time you stumble across a vestigial Web site in swish 1997-era Netscape text, you probably click away as quickly as you can. We expect more than just text from our Web sites, so why is it supposedly desirable on our mobiles?

I’ve seen analyses suggesting this is some sort of brilliant play by Jony Ive to meld iOS 7 with the Web interfaces we all know and love. We’re used to clicking on words on the Web, that argument goes, so we should love to do it on our phones.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but: bollocks.

Part of the reason we use mobile apps over Web sites is because mobiles offer a tailor-made, graphical interface that is different and more immediately accessible than what we get on the Web. Why try to dumb it down?

The reason we click on text links on the Web is because those links are highlighting a particular part of the content that is linked with other content. Yes, even Apple was an early entrant in this area, with its HyperCard tool adored by millions before there was even a World Wide Web to hear of.

In iOS 6 (bottom), use of spot colour or bezels helps separate content from commands; iOS 7 (top) increases the semantic effort by doing away with this. Screenshots: David Braue

Times change, however: just as few people still choose the text-based challenges of Zork over the joy of fragging complete strangers in the latest Halo instalment, almost no Web site in existence today still relies on plain-text commands as were common in 1997, and there is a simple reason for that: they’re too confusing.

Do even a cursory search of the Web sites you use every day, and I’d bet that even where you are using words-as-commands, they are set out from the frame content using styles that embed the words in different colours, pulldown menus or even stylised words and commands.

Any time you stumble across a vestigial Web site in swish 1997-era Netscape text, you probably click away as quickly as you can. We expect more than just text from our Web sites, so why is it supposedly desirable on our mobiles?

Icon, text placement: Like throwing darts

While the entire Web world has moved towards more-sophisticated interfaces where commands and content are separated, iOS 7 has wound the clock back by replacing its once-obvious command buttons with words that, even in my basic tests, all too often blend with the content in the window until it’s not actually clear where your content stops and the command line begins.

Having to not only figure out where the commands are, but what they mean, is demanding and irritating. Glaring inconsistencies in the layout of those words don't help either.

Having to not only figure out where the commands are, but what they mean, is demanding and irritating. Glaring inconsistencies in the layout of those words don't help either.

Consider the basic iOS 7's basic apps: in Messages and Clock, for example, the Edit option is in the upper left-hand corner; in Mail, it's in the upper right. In Photos, it's in the middle of the bottom row.

In the list screen of the Notes app, the option to create a new note is called New; in Phone's Contacts and Favorites screens, as well as in FaceTime, Clock and Calendar, it's just a plus sign in the upper right-hand corner. But in Photos, the + sign (to create a new Album) is in the upper left-hand corner.

While viewing a Note, however, the option to create a new note is no longer called New; it's an icon, and it's in the bottom right-hand corner.

iOS 7's Mail application arbitrarily switches between words (top) and icons (bottom). Screen shots: David Braue

Some apps can't even follow a consistent layout from one screen to the next: Mail, for example, displays a bottom row of icons for common tasks (including the trash can) while reading a message, but if you're in Edit mode (for example, while mass-deleting emails) the icons go away and are replaced by words – Mark All, Move, and Trash.

Why could Apple not have preserved the trash-can and other icons, I have no idea. These sort of layout nuances may reflect specific design considerations on Apple's part (what we'd like to believe) rather than accidental oversights (what probably happened) but they mean that you can never truly relax when using iOS 7. You have to keep close track of the commands in the app you're using, and waste time searching the corners of the screen to make sure you're choosing the right command.

With smaller screens that offer less space to manage information, mobile interfaces must be designed to clearly delineate content from application interface; flattening the interface so there are no visual cues at all, is dogmatic and ultimately counterproductive. On a small screen, users need direction and clear indications of what they can and need to do at any given point.

Making all commands appear the same – and as words that must be read, processed and discerned – compromises the intuitiveness of the interface and removes the mental cues that let us quickly navigate mobile interfaces by associating particular gestures with particular actions. Moving those commands around to different places in differnet apps makes the whole experience more complicated than it needs to be.

With smaller screens that offer less space to manage information, mobile interfaces must be designed to clearly delineate content from application interface; flattening the interface so there are no visual cues at all, is dogmatic and ultimately counterproductive.

The result is, often, that app screens become a muddled mess that actually requires more mental effort to use, and not less. This could all have been easily resolved by using even a touch of spot colour – come on, just a bit of grey, please – to separate the command line from the interface screen. Some apps have this – Safari and Mail, for example, each use grey bars albeit in different ways – and some apps – Notes, for example – simply do not.

Ive's disdain of skeuomorphism – the practice of using real-world motifs, such as faux digital leather on the Notes pad – is well documented, and iOS 7's design was always going to be much simpler.

Sure, we probably won't mourn the overdone handwriting-cum-sketchbook motif of the old Notes app, whose doodlesque concessions lent it a positively childish feel. Yet I question whether borrowing from the Web's text-heavy, hyperlinked design was the right call here. Just because something isn't skeuomorphic doesn't mean it cannot have any meaningful design components at all.

Sure, skeuomorphism was rampant in iOS 6 apps like Notes (bottom) – but the iOS 7 equivalent (bottom) blurs the line between commands and content. Screenshots: David Braue

If I'm going to deal with text on a small screen, it should be the text that I'm working on; commands should blend into the background until I need to use them. If a command absolutely must include text, it should be enclosed in an indicative shape, such as the Back arrow from previous versions of iOS. if nothing else, we never used to get confused about what were the commands and what was the active content.

With all of those visual cues gone, ease of use has suffered. I find that I still spend too much time trying to figure out what is going on with the iOS 7 apps. There are many places where icons would be more intuitive than text. I even have to think twice, sometimes, to remember which app I'm using.

What Ive has done to iOS 7's command interface is like deciding that football teams should all wear the same colour onfield, then choosing random alphabets in which to write the players' names: it might be interesting appeal for the TV cameras, but it's impossible to follow what’s actually going on. And, in the end, you just get a headache and a longing for something easier to look at.

What do you think? Am I being pedantic? Or have you also been confused by the move towards textual commands on mobiles?

Topics: Apple, iOS, iPhone, iPad, Mobile OS


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • iOS 7 has its faults, but most of us are thankful

    that Apple did not turn it into the mess that is Windows 8. There is a God!
    • One step forward

    • ...

      What's so mess about Windows 8? It's very clean in fact. Not as if anyone on iOS7 would know what a clean interface was.
    • ... if there's a God he would bring us iOS6 and skeuomorphism back quickly.

      I'm not sure whether Win8 or iOS7 is worse. For me iOS7 is a mess and is an absolute no go.
      Shame on Apple. I'm glad that I could downgrade back to iOS6 in time.
  • iOS 7 - No Thanks!

    iOS 7 stops me from upgrading my iPhone 4, it is rubbish and a huge leap, backwards! At least windows 8 was forward innovation and with a start button it would be fine but iOS 7 cant be fixed except by hacking your phone and going back to iOS 6! iOS used to be elegantly simple and that trait has now gone
    • time to fire jony ive

      you are one of the lucky. iOS 6 trumps iOS 7 on all grounds.
      iOS 6 looks and feels so intuitive one may wonder - what kind of f..k-mite wart has been contracted by jony ive.

      Time for Cook to publicly apologize, fire jony ive, and mend fences with Scott Forstall.
      • Not really

        There is some decent functionality in iOS 7 but yeah the GUI screws it all up. I wish they had allowed us to have a choice between this new UI and the old UI.
      • ... don't need to fire Jony ...

        ... because he's perfect with hardware. Just bring back Scott Forstall and let him delete the whole iOS7. Afterwards Apple could say, iOS7 was only an attempt to puzzle the Android software development team.
    • Neither are a step forward

      W8 is no forward innovation but neither is iOS7. After using it for weeks now I really miss 6. It has some nice feature and short cuts over 6 but, the graphics are bad. What was once very intuitive now has to be visually searched for. What was once an easy to spot button is now a word which must be read then acted upon. Also the W8 icons are a big step backwards. If I wanted childminded icons I would have ordered a Win Phone. Finally HATE the white color scheme.

      Fix this mess Apple!!!!
  • where is Scott Forstall

    ...when you need him to save Apple
  • You are being pedantic. Actually, I would say "nit picking"

    But I will say this after giving Win 8.1 a "spin around the blocks" today on my Surface Pro and RT tablets. The Win 8.1 update is more impressive than the iOS 7 update has been. Especially when it comes to system performance improvements on "older" hardware.
    • 8.1?

      SUCKS! God. I had to reload my Win 8 laptop from scratch just to remove the crapware Windows 8.1.
      • You sir

        Are an idiot.
    • Not hard to do.

      The difference is the iOS 6 had set the bar very high so iOS7 had a big job to do and it missed the mark in my book.

      W8 had the bar set so low it would have been almost impossible not to make it better. MS would have been much better served improving W7 but I guess if Ballmer had the brain to think of that he would be getting fired.
  • And who started it?

    Actually this wave of "let's remove contrast" could be seen very well before iOS7 in the latest Microsoft programs. I simply cannot use Outlook 2013, where I love to use Outlook 2010 (and will keep on doing). The entire Office 2013 suite has lost buttons and separation lines and the entire page looks like mush.
    I've been wondering for a long time why don't I actually like the new Office 2013 line and especially Outlook and figured that my eyes simply don't know where to focus and where to look. Constant searching makes me tired of it.
    Back to this article: It's the same mess as in iOS 7.

    Hopefully the next generation of UI design changes brings us back some contrast.
    • Improve the OS but leave the user interface alone.

      finpeegee has hit the nail on the head. Office is going from bad to worse with each new release. I've been compulsorily "upgraded" to Office 2010 at work and, much as I've always disliked the Ribbon interface, the removal of boundaries makes using it so much more difficult so although I've never used iOS7, I understand the problem. The trouble is that iOS6 was being criticised right left and centre for looking old-fashioned whereas Win8, for all its criticism, was considered new looking, so I reckon Apple copied the childish 2D symbols (can't really call them icons any more) of Windows 8 and, it seems, made as big a hash of it as Microsoft did with Windows 8. When something is good (and, although I'm not an Apple fan, earlier versions of iOS were elegantly simple to use) and functional, why do the powers that be (I did write idiots, but that would be insulting idiots) make stupid decisions to change what worked into something that everyone hates.

      Does top management ever listen to users? If so, please, please, Microsoft and Apple, bring back the easy to use interfaces of days gone by. Improve the underlying OS by all means but either leave the user interface alone or give users a choice between the new interface and the old.
  • Neither pedantic or nit picky

    Ios7 IS frustrating in it's lack of consistency and overkill in eliminating contrast. Some functions are much harder to use and harderon the eyes, especially older eyes. Wake up Sir Jonny, we all do not have the visual acuity of a 45 y/o. In addition to what has been written a bit of shading or light lines would be helpful in "Notes"
    Also skeuomorphism is not completely dead; note still extant wooden bookshelves in iBooks and leather stitched Find Friends app (an Appl app)
    The lack of consistency makes it (Ios7) fell like a conglomeration of aftermarket apps, not a polished platform.
  • IOS7 is Apple's Metro

    It's horrible, super-thin, hard to see, hard to understand.

    Ive should be fired, but tarred and feathered first.
  • iOS7 is an iOS Disaster

    iOS7 is an absolute debacle. Hideous to look at, inefficient to use and at the same time manages to cheapen the look of our Apple devices. Jony Ive is an absolutely brilliant hardware designer, but he clearly should stay withing the boundaries of his true level of expertise. I'm hoping that an enterprising developer, realizing the public's level of dissatisfaction with this monstrosity, will devise an app for us to keep the few beneficial aspects of the upgrade, but return us to at least the look of iOS6.
  • Office 2013

    Same problem with that godforsaken piece of ugliness- too much WHITE.

    iOS7 on my two iPads is very sluggish as well. I wish I had stayed on 6.