Reflections on iOS 7 and WWDC 2013

Jun 16, 2013. Posted in Apple, Design

Following along live to an Apple keynote has been a ritual of mine since somewhen in the noughties. It has been a little messy at times, monitoring various liveblogs over several browser tabs whilst watching video from TWiT as they try to hunt out a sneaky stream from a laptop in the conference hall. Thankfully Apple have returned to streaming live video allowing me to focus on their announcements, and giving me the benefit of having an honest, personal reaction uncoloured by several browser tabs covered in adulation, sarcasm or indifference.

“Can’t innovate anymore, my ass”

The opening keynote at Apple’s 2013 Worldwide Developers Conference was their first since October 2012; a near seven month gap from a company usually making some sort of public presentation every quarter. Coupled with the unusually long period of silence was a successful “doubling-down” on secrecy. Rumour trickled in the final few days, a stark contrast to the flow of spoilers preceding keynotes past.

The pace of the keynote was breathtaking. It was a dense two hours and memorable for several key changes—the new OS X name, the Mac Pro and iOS 7. What struck me most at the time was how assured the entire presentation was.

Unapologetic for their long run of silence, here was Apple in full stride, chest out, ready to open their box of surprises. Tim Cook has developed a more comfortable presence. Phil Schiller too appeared looser than he has ever been, and as a marketing guy he’s no stranger to addressing the public. The clear highlight was Craig Federighi. He was energetic, witty and sharp as a tack. Craig not only owned the stage for the considerable amount of time he was up there, but he didn’t miss a beat when responding to audience reactions. The keynote seemed no less rehearsed than before but it also felt less stiff and more human.

The Mac

It’s been an Apple community in-joke for years, and now Apple too has recognised they’re all out of cats and have introduced a new naming convention for future OS X releases based around inspiring Californian landmarks. It might as well be personal to Apple. It’ll feel good within the company and help define Apple to the rest of us.

Image from @Kookizu

OS X Mavericks is a steady, incremental update to a stable and mature OS. Mac, iOS and iCloud integration continues with Maps and iBooks; there are welcome updates to the usability of notifications and managing multiple displays; and file tagging and Finder tabs look to make navigating either dense or untidy file structures simpler. I was more taken with some of the technical features, however—especially App Nap and Compressed Memory which should help improve performance through desktop and portable Macs. It’s good to know an OS can do more than just shrug its shoulders and cite Moore’s Law.

The MacBook Air got a handsome improvement to battery life which, when coupled with OS X Mavericks, should make it a reliable all-day portable computer. That’s no mean feat.

Over a decade after the giant aluminium wind tunnel was launched, the Mac Pro received a significant and long-awaited update. I guess there was little point redesigning the hardware until Apple were happy with a predictable direction for I/O. FireWire is out USB 3 is in and Thunderbolt 2 should hopefully be the super-fast, catch-all solution its first iteration couldn’t quite deliver. That looks to be a solid base for the next five years. The product design was compact, bold and thoughtful in terms of accessibility and cooling. Apple’s message is clear: a solid-state core is going to drive the OS, apps and key files, and any extensibility is the user’s business. Business should be ripe for cable-management solutions for years to come.

iOS 7

Mobile remains a lightning-fast area of innovation and development, and while other platforms are iterating apace many tech pundits have felt it has made iOS appear as a sedate behemoth in comparison. Many niggling details with features and usability were ironed out by the time iOS 6 came along. The iPhone 5 shortly followed. Both seemed to underwhelm analysts and tech press who were looking to Apple to stretch a little further beyond the competition. Were they so hungry for something radically new that a steady pace of evolution was no longer sensible? Were they bored?

This versus that

Adding to the restlessness was a growing debate about aesthetics in the mobile space. Was there any place for tangibility and texture in an area so innovative it was making its own rules? Perhaps Apple wasn’t helping with apps such as Game CenterFind My Friends and Podcasts. They weren’t subtle. They tried a little too hard to emulate the physical world to establish context, laying textures and objects on thicker than before.

I didn’t mind Game Center quite so much. In what is essentially an app full of achievement lists and high score tables, why not get a little cute and throw in a skin of wood and green felt? OK, so an eight-year-old kid with an iPod touch won’t be familiar with the Blackjack table but they’ll kind of just get it anyway, right?

The Podcast app was the tipping point, I think. A real case of wrong interface, wrong time. Apple knew it too, and didn’t waste time in updating the app to cull the worst visual excesses. You may think that was the reel-to-reel tape, but I couldn’t stand the horizontally brutalised Helvetica.

By contrast, Android and Windows 8 were far less interested in emulating the real world, eschewing texture and instead focusing on simpler and cleaner ways of serving up the user’s data. It made many designers feel like Apple were pushing too far in the wrong direction. Digital corinthian leather became the poster child for the skeuomorphic trend, and virtually monochromatic and buttonless (and possibly just a little dry) environments became known as flat.

I gave the debate a wide berth. It got noisy pretty quick, was too simplistic and focused on what the prevalent trend was so much so that it made skeuomorphism was the villain at all costs. The debate wasn’t doing such a good job of considering what was contextually appropriate, nor did it much entertain the value of real-world visual cues…is my simplistic summary.

Birth of iPhone

At the very beginning of iPhone, at the January 2007 MacWorld Expo, was a brand new OS. Through its icons and interfaces, it carried a familiarity with OS X whilst they were discovering a touch-focused UI. Visually rich with a glossy touch reminiscent of Aqua, all brought together with a consistency of lighting and depth. Apple boasted iPhone OS was five years ahead of the competition at the time. Six years on and iOS is in a lot of hands, and the language it introduced has made it to in the competition. There’s a convincing argument that people get the concept of a touch interface now, even those who have only seen it in action without using it or owning a device running it.

Whilst early third-party apps were aping Apple’s own, today’s designers and developers are extremely confident creating their own experiences. Some, such as Clear don’t have any recognisable buttons and invite the user to learn the app’s individual language. This isn’t a case of repositioning a back button, it’s more about inventing gestures and discovering new ways of displaying information that better fit within each app’s ethos. That would have looked crazy back in 2008 at the App Store’s launch, but now it looks more crazy to people that iOS 6—a mature and steadily evolving OS—hasn’t caught up to the rest of the market.

Surprise

iOS 7 was introduced with a video. Here was the confirmation things were different. As with any design presentation, it’s important to set the stall for why decisions were made before you show the results. The consideration given to interactions and access to controls was sensible. The formalising of z-axis depth was a good step too, giving reason to why sheets and objects appear to be either in front of or behind others. This was all logical.

It’s surprising how much of the core design remains with iOS 7— which is a mark of how assured many of their initial decisions were. The visual approach got a huge overhaul to boost simplicity and ease of use, and take out anything that contributes to clutter. These changes were frankly disquieting.

During the time spent working on this post, I’ve got comfortable with why that is. I think it comes down to three things: shock, taste and tenure. It was a striking new direction so different from a style I had become very comfortable and embedded with over the last ten years in both Mac OS and iOS.

The general interface uses a lot more white space to define regions of content and context. Shadows are scaled right back, keylines are slender and buttons are almost entirely free of chrome. App tab buttons forego borders and bevels, and many of the navigation and input controls have larger text. You can see why: a whole bunch of obviously pressable buttons sitting in thick beveled bars at the top and bottom of an app narrows down key content in the centre of the screen. Colour is generally used to mark out which text controls can be pressed, or whether they are active or not. This could cause some initial confusion on what is and isn’t interactive, but shouldn’t present much of a learning curve.

Notification Center has text-only tab buttons contained within a slim border. I still find myself swaying to that approach but the downside to this, and probably the reason it was ruled out as an option everywhere, is that it would have required a reduction in text size and defeated efforts made to clean up controls.

Control Center against different backgrounds

I’m troubled by areas of low contrast, mainly those caused by the frosted glass effect blurring the items beneath it. The most obvious use is in Control Center, which thankfully unites many regularly accessed features once hidden in the old iOS’ multitasking interface and Settings app. There is a load of utility here but it’s harmed by blurring the plane behind it, merging colours to form a sludge of clown vomit from which thin black and white lines are expected to stand out. Against a photograph or an app largely free of complexity, this might not be so much of an issue, but against a home screen with a hotchpotch of icons atop a photograph and we’ve got a bit of a mess to deal with. Given a little time, muscle memory will probably do more of the navigating in Control Center than the eyes, but it is an aspect to the design that I find visually unappealing. It is the one area I would expect users with colour blindness or sight difficulties could struggle learning the interface, where background tones could get too close to the black and white used of the interface. Turning down the saturation could be a step in the right direction, or reducing the opacity of the ‘glass’.

There will no doubt be further iterations of iOS 7 before the launch later this year which could well iron out concerns many are having, but the broad strokes here mark the new framework and direction that’ll lead the next five or six years.

Boy, how about those icons though? In the opening video, Jony Ive talked about developing a grid system and a colour palette for Apple’s iOS icons. On first glance it appears to be a fussy move. We’ve had successful, beautiful app icons for years without it, so why would this be necessary?

Back in 2007 Apple’s apps were the only game in town. Their icons had to represent each app’s functionality, but didn’t need to worry about a universal language because they weren’t sharing a home screen with anything else. There is a vast market for apps today, and for a while Apple didn’t seem to mind being lost in the shuffle but iCloud changes the game. Apple wants you to use their pre-installed apps to host and sync your contacts, calendars, notes and the like, and now a universal language makes sense.

From Apple: Examples of iOS 7 icons using a dedicated gridBy using the tried and tested grid system, ubiquitous in print and ever evolving on the web, Apple can create a range of icons that say a lot of different things but are nevertheless subtly (or not so subtly) linked to each other. They also introduced a palette of astonishingly bright colours. I initially referred to icons as garish, and I think it was the use of colour that gave me that impression. In moving away from real-world paradigms there is no advantage or disadvantage in continuing to use real-world tones. The screen is the medium and the screen takes the lead.

Some colour choices are seemingly arbitrary, however, such as the black in the Stocks and Compass apps. By being predominantly black I feel like I’m being told these two apps share a utility or purpose, but a compass and stock tracker are as about as related as an elk and a chair. Instead, these icons are black because the appearance of the apps themselves are predominantly black. This isn’t consistent with other app icons which appear to be colour coded by utility as with Messages and Phone. Both of those app icons are green now as they have always been.

Comparing the Stocks, Compass, Messages and Phone apps to their icons

A new joy?

The last six years of iOS and the last thirteen of Mac OS X have given us millions of first- and third-party icons with cute references to how things look in the real world. It was in keeping with Apple’s vision of a human interface. It carried with it a touch of humour and a spark of recognition which made us comfortable in this digital space and told us it’s not as different or as alienating as we thought. It’s part of the joy Apple has always sought to give through their products.

My gut reaction on first viewing this new range of Apple icons was honest, utter shock. They all looked a little too dry, too stark for the Apple I’ve known. Where was the fun? Pundits, analysts, investors and designers had been clambering for a new look, perhaps with an expectation that it would essentially look very similar but have a more matte finish. Tasteful, flat, but still the Apple they knew. There was no iteration this time, no slow flattening of images once packed with texture and depth. This is a new visual direction looking to better fit a range of Apple hardware that has already removed extraneous detail.

But could this new Apple look at cute touches from the past, such as the genie effect when minimising windows to the dock in OS X, and decide it is unnecessary? Will it take itself too seriously in an effort to separate itself from a visual legacy left behind by Jobs and Forstall?

In closing

At the start of 2007 there was a feeling we could carry more than just an iPod in our pockets. When the iPhone was announced, as surprised as we were by how Apple had approached it, we were ready for their solution. Six years on and we were ready for a more than just another incremental iOS update, and got a solution we weren’t ready for. Apple did what they do best, looking at where the puck is heading.

Somehow we were caught off guard. I know I certainly was. Whilst things can certainly change between now and the public release of iOS 7, the shock will wear off pretty quickly and it won’t be long before we wondered why we ever jerked our knees quite so hard.