iOS 7: Does user experience really need a reboot?

iOS 7: Does user experience really need a reboot?

Summary: I've already railed against Apple's overhaul of iOS 7, with its jarring use of white and its over-reliance on textual Web motifs. But, as the rest of the software industry follows suit – and as Microsoft and Apple blur the boundaries between tablet and desktop user interfaces – it's worth asking if the user experience really is improving.


I do not own a shopping-mall retail store, but I know from friends who do that one common requirement of lease contracts is that the owner of the business invest regularly in new shopfitting so as to keep the look and feel of the place as fresh as possible.

It can be a major investment – six figures, from what I'm told – and it's enough to drive many small businesses to shut up shop rather than make the investment. Sometimes it also confuses customers, who grow used to a particular layout or brand and can't find their way around the newly redesigned store. The magic may be there one day, but when you move everything around many customers will simply walk away in frustration.

Amazon's latest iPhone app has followed Apple's iOS 7 design cues by painting everything in squint-inducing, battery-sucking white. Is this good or bad?

After many weeks spent coming to grips with the rather different, power-hungry, over-modernistic design of Apple's iOS 7, I've come to the conclusion that this is largely what's happening with Apple's mobile operating system. Apple decided it was time for a change and, love it or leave it, certainly did change things.

For new users, it all looks shiny and new, although this is not always a good thing. For longtime iPhone and iPad users, it's just strange enough to cause that sort of conceptual disconnect that leaves us a bit shaken and bewildered. Icons look different; functions have been moved; the text-heavy design evokes the Web just a bit too much.

Overall, the whole feel of the new platform has come off as strange and unfamiliar – and, weeks later, it's still rather annoying. I've gotten use to it a bit more, as I'm sure you have – but there are still things I would do differently.

Apple could have done some other things differently, too – for example, by putting its weight behind its Touch ID fingerprint scanner or rethinking its questionable iPhone 5c.

The bigger issue with iOS 7, however, is its longer-term implications for software design.

I'm hardly surprising anybody to say that the whole tech industry watches Apple closely – particularly designers of software that runs on Macs and related devices.

Many application designers follow Apple's every move in deciding how their own apps should look and feel, and many spent the weeks leading up to iOS 7's launch revisiting their look and feel, their icons, and their user interfaces (cf Twitter, Pandora, Facebook, eBay and others; here's an interesting list of 20 apps that have done so).

Does this mean the future lies in minimalist, sometimes confusing icons and text-based applications that take the fun out of the mobile interface? Hopefully not. And, yet, the bigger question is not just how how iOS 7 will affect the design and usability of the iPhone and iPad – but how it's spilling over into Mac OS X and, by extension, driving the direction of the desktop interface on Macs and other systems.

The bigger question is not just how how iOS 7 will affect the design and usability of the iPhone and iPad – but how it's spilling over into Mac OS X and, by extension, driving the direction of the desktop interface on Macs and other systems.

There's no question Apple has been bringing its apps towards the iOS interface for some time; it was several versions ago, for example, that it began standardising on the embossed-arrow-in-upper-left motif to go to the previous screen, and pushing towards the use of its Cover Flow method for displaying rows of images.

The increasing reliance on multi-touch gestures, the issue of the Magic Trackpad to allow something resembling a touch interface on the Mac – it all points to the iOS-ization of the desktop.

And, yet, there is the risk of pushing it too far – or polarising once dedicated and enthusiastic users: Microsoft's tiled Windows 8 has its share of fans, but it has also attracted derision and frustration from longtime users that find its mollycoddling just gets in the way of a good operating system.

Whether Apple would allow Mac OS X to get that far, I am not sure. Its obviously conscious decision to not just follow the pack and release touchscreen or pen-based PCs – which I have observed working quite well in certain situations – would seem to suggest it still sees a need to differentiate the computer and the mobile user experience.

And, yet, with each successive release of Mac OS X the differences are slowly being whittled away. The inclusion of Maps, Messages, Launchpad and more have given desktop users some familiar touchpoints, as has the shift towards App Store styled software distribution in recent years.

These advances could broadly be said to be good things, since they allow for consistency across the device interfaces and the portability of data between them. Yet, given the cognitive dissonance that iOS 7 has created for myself and many, many other users, it's also worth wondering just how much design change is a good thing; how much is just for change's sake; and whether our major OS vendors are now at risk of tweaking themselves so much that it's no longer a good thing.

What do you think? Are you a fan of the iOS 7 design conceit? Should the rest of the industry be following suit? Or is it time for some fresh thinking around the user experience? And, while we're at it: why is nobody copying the Android user interface?

Topics: Apple, iOS, Mobile OS, Mobility, Operating Systems


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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  • Apple's par for the course

    Apple changes things when it wants.

    So does Microsoft, since most people will say what they want about the GUI it standardized on and/or changed...
    • Both Apple & Microsoft ruined their user interfaces

      I think there are amateurs in charge of these organisations.

      Microsoft's Ballmer ruined the Windows interface for strategic reasons. He put the phone interface on the tablet and desktop, to try to influence Microsoft's desktop users to buy its phones and tablets. It failed. In fact, it had the opposite effect.

      Ballmer may have been a competent middle manager, but was out of his depth and utterly failed with the big picture.

      Why did Apple ruin its interface with iOS7? I think it was designed by U.I. amateurs. People who may be skilled in a different area thought they'd "have a try" in user interface design. It looks like they had no U.I. training or even experience. The result was a failure.

      Before, a 2-year-old child could use an iPad. Now they have difficulty. iOS7 has absurd thin pastel arrows that toddlers can't see. In fact, old people can't see them either. Apple ruined one of its main advantages.
      • Agreed

        As a computer graphic artist, I agree totally with your statement. The goal of a business is to sell product, not make a fashion statement.

        When I want to approach a client with an idea, I must give them a choice in products and advertisements. Neither apple or Microsoft has done this.

        Sadly as the leaders of the industry, the question is now, where do people go? Both were the go to company when angered by the other.

        The future is with empowerment. Empower me, the user to choose my interface, to make a new interface that works for me. That is innovation.
  • Squint-inducing, battery-sucking white

    Doesn't white color actually use *less* energy on an LCD screen (fewer pixels need to be turned on)?
    • You're thinking of black

      It's black that means less pixels, white means more.
      • Are you sure?

        With a back-lit display, white might require the least energy expenditure *assuming* that the LCD pixels are set to transmit light in their default state (i.e. in the absence of an electric field.)

        If the pixels default to blocking light (in the absence of an electric field) then black would use the least power.

        I don't know what the default state of LCDs actually is,
        • Either way TFT almost does not consume, it is hard to detect the difference

          So David Braue is wrong ANYWAY. Backlit displays do not care how much the screen is white or not.
    • Re: Squint-inducing, battery-sucking white

      Indeed. The default state of LCDs is to allow light through. You require power to change their state to block light and produce varying darker shades of the subpixel colour.

      When the screen is 'off' what you see isn't the LCDs all powered and sent to black, otherwise in 'standby' your phone would draw more power at the display than when it was running. What you see is the black coating and substrate behind the individual LCDs.

      Having a white background for apps means the LCDs are mostly unpowered where showing white, where the backlight is shining through.

      In fact settings on the phone should detect this and lower the backlight brightness which would save more power (and improve contrast) compared to a black background bitmap and white text.

      I would agree that it is very squinty, but it is far from battery-sucking.
      • But don't forget OLEDs

        With LCDs, it's the backlight that uses the power; the liquid crystals themselves use virtually none. In fact, they use the most power when changing state; just maintaining that state - whether white or black - uses an insignificant amount of power. However, some LCD displays wind down the backlight when most of the screen is black, thus allowing for the POSSIBILITY of reducing the power consumption with a mostly black screen.

        But really it's OLEDs that save power with mostly-black screens. That's why mobile phone OSs are so often set up to give white text on a black background. With OLEDs, a black pixel uses no power, and large areas of white really are battery-sucking.

        I'm not sure which tablets use OLED displays, but those that do really will use a lot more power with squinty-white user interfaces. Not LCDs, though - the difference would be too small to make any difference UNLESS the screen modulates the backlight.
      • Display brightness

        As I mentioned, I lowered the brightness from 75% on iOS 6 to about 40% on iOS 7. I call that a gain for battery life. Try it!
    • Is that a joke?

      White is on black is off!
      • On LCD not so

        The subpixel being "more on" means it blocks more of the back light thus darker, while bright white means the LCD pixel is completely off. In OLED the subpixel actually produces light thus black is means the OLED pixel is completely off.
  • Yes

    First, the old look was getting stale but, that's not half as bad as the issues the new look brings.

    Web pages and transitions both stutter on iOS7 and that was something you used to be able to count on being smooth with iOS. Why did this happen? Well, because Apple decided to rework their front end and just change some artwork instead of actually developing the whole new structure from the ground up and instead reached for the lipstick and polished that pig up.
  • With all due respect, David, but even passionate quests can be based

    upon false premises. If I may digress just a bit, I would like to clarify my final points with this movie observation.

    There was once a wonderful movie staring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward called "They Might Be Giants". For those interested a quick Wikipedia search will prove insightful and entertaining. (But do see the film if you haven't already.)

    The point is, this quest of yours, David, expounded on in these last two blogs of yours, might simply be the literary flailings of a passionate writer against a "Don Quixote Windmill".

    From that Wikipedia source, George C. Scott's character explains about Quixote's belief that the windmills were giants.

    "He thought that every windmill was a giant. That's insane. But, thinking that they might be... Well, all the best minds used to think the world was flat. But, what if it isn't? It might be round. And bread mould might be medicine. If we never looked at things and thought of what they might be, why, we'd all still be out there in the tall grass with the apes."

    I won't caution you to give up your quest against iOS 7's design changes, on the chance that your arguments have merit, since they might be fighting "giants" after all, but IMO, for the majority of iOS 7 users, I would posit that we find those changes far more beneficial than not and that quests to expose perceived failings in iOS 7's design philosophies are useless endeavors.

    But I will still give point of view my attention since - they might be giants.
    • Balance Called For

      Certainly don't want to say that an opinion is wrong. And I hesitate to counter one opinion with another, namely mine. But, I'm okay with iOS7.

      And while I accept that all things may be questioned, I have an iPhone 5c and I think it's swell. As to its implications as a business strategy, well, I can't say as I care. I suspect Apple thought through the implications of the 5c carefully and we observers have to remember that the alternative wasn't the Low-cost China phone, but continuation of the metal iPhone 5. I don't see how Apple does not come out ahead for going with the 5c rather than the 5 in the middle tier.
      • Speaking about the iPhone 5c

        My sister "desperately" needs a new phone .. well, all things are relative, grin .. but I was thinking that her holiday gift might be an iPhone 5c. Still haven't decided on the color scheme yet. (Sometimes I would like to virtually "back smack" Sir Jonathan Ive's head over his color choices)

        I have an iPhone 5 and the plastic version of it (the iPhone 5c) is lighter and slightly improved from my version of that phone so I would not feel bad about spending some money for it as a gift to my sister.
        • 5C

          Hate to break this to you, but the 5C is NOT lighter, but heavier, and a couple of mm thicker as well. On the other hand, it seems to work quite well, and people using it are pretty pleased, at least those I have discussed it with, are.
          • You are correct! iPhone 5s is 112 g and iPhone 5c is 132 g

            The iPhone 5c felt lighter to me when I picked one up in the store. Must have been the plastic and larger body distributing the weight better.

            Thanks for the correction.
        • Get her a Nexus 5

          If you really care about your sister, get her a Nexus 5. It's dirt cheap and absolutely
          At least do yourself a favor and check it out.
          Don't get lead around by a phone that is all hype and little substance!
          Break-away from the crowd and experience something better!
          Be a rebel not a sheep!
          • I have looked at Android phones and other Android products.

            Last year's holiday presents to her teenage son and daughter were a Nexus and a Kindle tablet, respectively. And her son also purchased a Galaxy S4 that he likes very much.

            There are great products using Android. In fact, "Uncle Walt" published a blog on November 26th (yesterday) on All Things D about a modified Moto X phone by Republic that has me interested. The data plan is VERY interesting. You should check it out.

            And, other stores are offering an unlocked Moto X on Black Friday.

            I have been looking around CND-Dude. But I also value the Apple ecosystem (my sister has an iPad) and the reliability of the iPhones in general.

            Thanks for your suggestions. I'm closer to a fanboy since I enjoy my Apple products but I still remain very open minded and try to pick the best gift for the person involved.