The layperson’s version of Occam’s Razor, a famous maxim, observes that the simplest explanation tends to be the correct one. Another maxim, dubiously attributed to Albert Einstein and saddled with the name “Einstein’s Razor,” goes: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
Today, I coin Apple’s Razor: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, and then even simpler. And then even simpler. And then even simpler.” (Et cetera, ad infinitum et ultra.) Concluding The Apple Goes Mushy, this article will argue three final ways in which Apple has blighted the once-thoughtful, once-human user interface of its linchpin mobile operating system, iOS.
In its designs for iOS, Apple no longer wields the following tools:
Sufficiently readable fonts and bold iconography, so that you can see what you are doing.
Feedback (for instance, the way an icon goes dark while being clicked). Providing feedback reassures you that you are accomplishing what you think you are, and it communicates the state of the computer.
You need only glance at the interface to know what you can do and how to do it. According to this principle, the design should not include “hidden” elements (buttons, menus, and other choices should always stay visible) and should clearly communicate, using visual clues, what will happen when you interact with an element of the interface.
These principles once bore the ripest fruit: the friendly home screen, the careful application designs, and highly original crumbs of cleverness, such as the slide to unlock method of accessing one’s device, the ability to zoom into a photo or website by a natural pinch of the fingers, Visual Voicemail, and the digital keyboard keys that helpfully hoist their symbols high when you press them (which, in this writer’s maybe-mushy mind, conjures whimsical images of a judge with a scorecard).
Below, I ponder all the little ways in which iOS has since interred good ideas beneath a squircle-shaped tombstone.
In iOS 7, Apple removed the drop shadows behind iOS’s system icons. (With a short-lived exception: around the time of iOS 7’s release, some promotional photos of the Home screen did feature drop shadows.) Since that decision, even users with shipshape eyeballs would struggle to see Apple’s borderless white icons on white backgrounds:
Especially for the visually impaired users among us, could Apple not include even the faintest borders or drop shadows? The company already arbitrarily exempts certain iOS controls from its “no drop shadows” rule (a rule that is itself also arbitrary).
Apparently not sated by its sets of illegible icons, Apple also took a buzzer to the system typeface—Helvetica Neue—which left its hairline-weight Thin and UltraLight variants scattered across prominent places on the system and carelessly destroyed the readability of iOS. See iOS 7’s introduction video.
Apple gradually emboldened most of this hairline type in subsequent betas and public iOS updates. But its decision to use that extremely lightweight type in the first place heralded a new recklessness at Apple; one that sacrifices such rudimentary concerns as “Can I read what is on my screen?” at the altar of whim and fashion.
When I say “fashion,” I mean something entirely different from when I say “style.” Fashion may change, but style stays stylish. Fashion can exist apart from function, but style is (all things being ideal, at least) inextricably linked to function. And a thing (or person) can be fashionable, but not stylish—or vice versa.
Color, too, has a hand in a legible interface design. Chapter 3 of this series addresses iOS’s colorlessness, but I must reiterate here that no one ever made anything easier to see by decreasing its contrast with its background, or by using wispier fonts.
Steve Jobs often professed his love for typefaces, which first welled up in him—like a font—in a calligraphy class at Reed College. One would surmise that this passion trickled into his co-workers, who must know that many typefaces offer a spectrum of weights, from light to black, to widen the toolbox of designers. Apparently the passion did no such trickling.
Apple has shown its willingness to appease minimalist dogma at the customer’s expense. That great customer magnet of the world, which built itself on ease-of-use, now builds itself on hubris.
User interfaces sometimes use visual cues to remind you that they work properly. I call these cues “feedback.” For instance, if you have an iPad or iPhone handy, tap an icon on the home screen. Observe carefully as you press: the icon darkens. Note also that no perceptible time passes between the moment your finger touches the icon and the moment the icon darkens. Quietly and immediately, to the point that it may escape your conscious notice, it assures you, “I notice that you are pressing me.”
Apple earned a reputation for meticulousness and quality by including such user-friendly details as that darkening icon.
I argue that Apple no longer deserves that reputation. On the home screen, the icons still darken the instant you press them, and I give Apple due praise for retaining that behavior. But in other (newer) nooks of iOS, the very same icons darken only after a long delay. Drag down your home screen with your finger; a search bar and a row of four icons will greet you. Press and hold one of these icons. Over two seconds(!) elapses between the moment your finger touches the icon and the moment the icon finally darkens. Because few people habitually press and hold icons for two full seconds, few people ever see the darkened state: a feedback mechanism that benefits them.
For other examples of poor feedback, open the Wallet app (only if you have never used it) and hold the Find Apps for Wallet button, or open the Weather app and hold either of the buttons in the bottom corners. The Wallet and Weather buttons take about half a second to react to touch. A half-second delay seems small, but in these contexts it defeats the purpose of button feedback: to communicate the pressed state immediately.
I wish I could say otherwise, but iOS’s feedback offenses go further than what I have detailed above. Please see this list of interface elements and actions that, when prompted by the finger, offer no feedback whatsoever:
Tapping video or audio in Messages; tapping the system-wide number pad toggle key; creating a reminder in Reminders; tapping the Touch to return to Navigation button that Maps displays when you leave the app while directions are still running; tapping a saved voice memo in Voice Memos; tapping a place in the list view in Weather; tapping a voicemail in Phone; and tapping an album under an artist heading in Music (actually, this one does give feedback, but only in a roundabout, sloppily-executed way: when you tap the first album in a list of albums, the top border line, already hairline-thin, disappears; or if you tap an album that has songs, not albums, displayed beneath it, both the top and bottom border lines vanish; if that description confuses you, I do not blame you, as the pattern itself is rather confusing).
iOS once excelled at feedback. Its Multi-Touch interface depends on a feeling of tactility. Somewhere beneath the rubble of iOS’s old incarnations, that fact lies forgotten.
Hold the Home button to access Siri.
Very well, you may reply. I can memorize that control scheme.
Let us hear a few more: pull down from the top of the screen to access Notification Center. Pull up from the bottom of the screen to access Control Center. Double-tap the Home button to make the screen slide downward for easy reach. Mind you, double-tapping is not the same as double-pressing: double-pressing will reveal the multitasking interface, where you can view and access all your open apps. Swiping an app upward will quit the app.
Yet more functions await: drag down your Home screen for access to Spotlight Search. Swipe an e-mail message to the right or to the left for access to various functions, including “Mark As Unread” and “Trash.” Swipe Safari tabs to the left or right to close them. In Photos, swipe a picture in any direction to exit single-photo view. When composing an e-mail, flick it upward to send it and downward to save it as a draft. If you have an iPhone 6S/6S Plus or later, pressing hard on most parts of the interface will activate 3D Touch, presenting you with a menu of quick(?) actions.
Can you memorize all of those functions?
Perhaps you can. I myself have memorized them. What of those who have not? They have only two ways to know that any of those functions exists: by accident, or through word-of-mouth. This is bad interface design.
The ideal interface design would employ graphics to clarify every available function of the device, rather than hiding those functions behind a gesture. To demonstrate what I mean, let us look at this screen shot of iOS’s multitasking carousel:
You can quit those open apps—Clock, Find My iPhone, and Find My Friends, in this case—by swiping them up. But Apple does not tell us, with a visual cue, that we have that ability. What visual element can we add in order to show people how to quit an app?
A simple X would suffice:
This solution looks wonky to me, but it does prove a point: just by adding one meaningful symbol, we made it clear what you can do (quit an app) and how to do it (just tap the X button).
Apple employs over 66,000 people in the United States alone. On a mass scale, it could solve design problems just like the one we just solved with the multitasking interface. Making people aware of the functions of their devices is just as important as having those functions in the first place. But, in Apple’s insatiable commitment to superficial simplicity, it plays “pay no attention to the feature behind the curtain.”
When the “Classic” Macintosh System hurtled onto the scene in 1984, it was meticulous, warm, welcoming, intuitive, legible, and undergirded by a great vision. When iOS saw daylight in 2007, it too was all those things. Apple itself was all those things. There was something to marvel at. There was a moral goal to be proud of. Now, there is only “fine.” People on Earth deserve better.
If you ever read these articles, leaders of Apple, I hope you can remember why you do what you do.
I have savored writing every word of this series. Thank you, whomever and wherever you are, for reading it. Good morning, good afternoon, good evening, and good night.
As of the 2021 launch of Winzie Howard Dot Com, every article in The Apple Goes Mushy has new images, and a catchy new title. Enjoy.
Winzie Howard is a designer, critic, editor, filmmaker, and musician. His work has earned the applause of New York Times columnists, chamber music directors, fashionistas, Apple/NeXT employees, Norton Best American Short Stories authors, and regular people who felt they couldn’t quite phrase their opinions until they read what Winzie has written about the graphical computer interfaces that occupy so much of our lives.