Wednesday, November 11, 2015

How Apple Is Giving Design a Bad Name

Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini (via Don Norman, comments):

The products, especially those built on iOS, Apple’s operating system for mobile devices, no longer follow the well-known, well-established principles of design that Apple developed several decades ago. These principles, based on experimental science as well as common sense, opened up the power of computing to several generations, establishing Apple’s well-deserved reputation for understandability and ease of use. Alas, Apple has abandoned many of these principles. True, Apple’s design guidelines for developers for both iOS and the Mac OS X still pay token homage to the principles, but, inside Apple, many of the principles are no longer practiced at all. Apple has lost its way, driven by concern for style and appearance at the expense of understandability and usage.

Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty. No, not so! Design is a way of thinking, of determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them.


What kind of design philosophy requires millions of its users to have to pretend they are disabled in order to be able to use the product? Apple could have designed its phone so that the majority of people could read and use the phone without having to label themselves as needy, disabled, and requiring assistance. Even worse, the assistive corrections destroy the very beauty Apple is so fond of as well as sometimes making the text no longer fit on the screen.


Unfortunately, visually simple appearance does not result in ease of use, as the vast literature in academic journals on human-computer interaction and human factors demonstrates.

There are lots of good points here, although I don’t think the solutions are necessarily clear. There are tough choices to make when the screen is so small. In my view, the biggest usability problem right now is not Apple’s design but rather the general buggy state of its software. On both iOS and Mac, I am running into new little things that don’t work properly every day. And then there are the larger issues, like the fact that my iPhone’s ringer sometimes sounds muffled until I reboot and that the Do Not Disturb exclusion list doesn’t always work. On the Mac, Safari and Mail routinely stop working.

Previously: Long-Term Exposure to Flat Design.

Update (2015-11-13): Lukas Mathis:

That’s not a great way to make design decisions. Remember how funny we thought the Blackberry Storm was, with its «sometime you just tap it, but sometimes you have to press harder and make it actually click» screen? Well, that’s now your iPhone.

Likewise, people made fun of Windows 8, and how people found it hard to use at first, but one of its genius decisions was to put all of its hidden features behind edge swipes. In order to figure out how to find possible actions in Windows 8, you had to learn exactly one thing: swipe from the sides of the screen to see your options.

Update (2015-11-16): Chris Pirillo:

I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a memo circulating internally which outlines a game plan for every release along the lines of: “Get our hardware out the door, but keep the software working poor.”

Update (2015-11-24): Andy Ihnatko:

I’ve had plenty of reasons to ask myself some of the same questions…particularly in the past month.


More than that, though, I still haven’t warmed to Apple’s 2013 overhaul of the iOS interface. Even after two years with it I experience many of the problems that Don and Tog talk about in their article. The UI is so subtle and stripped down that I often find myself hunting around the screen to figure out what I need to tap to make something happen. I just like Android 6 better.

Adam C. Engst:

The article is a damning indictment, coming as it does from some of the leading voices in the user experience field, and frankly, it has the best chance of any criticism of being heard at Apple. (That said, these points aren’t new — back in 2010, Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen wrote a more general criticism of gestural interfaces in the ACM CHI magazine Interactions.) The situation is similar to that of the emperor’s new clothes — although many in the Apple community have pointed out interface problems in Apple’s recent software (cough iTunes cough), the impression one gets is that Apple’s executives can’t hear any nay-saying because of the continual sound of money rolling in. Alas, usability is no more defined by corporate profits now than it was in the 1990s when Microsoft dominated the computer industry.

These interface issues aren’t just a matter of academic complaint — in writing and editing TidBITS articles and Take Control books for everyday users, we constantly run across tasks in Apple apps that are difficult to document because they’re dependent both on multiple levels of context and visual controls that have no names[…]

See also: The Talk Show.

Update (2015-12-12): Lloyd Chambers:

Over two years ago in iPhone Viewing Tips for Presbyopia and Vision Issues I discussed one core design problem: unreadability of text on iOS. What Norman and Tognazzini point out matches my experience exactly:

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[…] The solutions [aren’t] necessarily clear. There are tough choices to make when the screen is so small. …The biggest usability problem right now is not Apple’s design but rather the general buggy state of its software. MORE […]

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