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.

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.

iOV7-vs-iOS6-3
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.

iOV7-vs-iOS6-2
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.

iOV7-vs-iOS6-4
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, iPad, iPhone, Mobile OS

About

As large as the US mainland but with a smaller population than Texas, Australia relies on ICT innovation to maintain its position as a first-world democracy and a role model for the developing Asia-Pacific region. Award-winning journalist David Braue has covered Australia’s IT and telecoms sectors since 1995 – and he’s as quick to draw le... Full Bio

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