Sir Jony Ive needs no introduction
Ive’s industrial design work has been one of the key drivers of Apple’s rebirth. His relentless, iterative focus on simplification of form and function under an aesthetic budget is legend. From Bondi blue iMac to iconic iPods to flatscreen iMacs to iPhones to iPads, his signature is unmistakable.
What’s not publicly known is Ive’s role, if any, on Apple software. The current meme of Ive coming on a white horse to rescue geeks in distress from Scott Forstallian skeuomorphism is wishfully hilarious. Like industrial design of physical devices, software is part form and part function: aesthetics and experience. Apple’s software problems aren’t dark linen, Corinthian leather or torn paper. In fact, Apple’s software problems aren’t much about aesthetics at all…they are mostly about experience. To paraphrase Ive’s former boss, Apple’s software problems aren’t about how they look, but how they work. Sometimes — sadly more often than we expect — they don’t:
- Notifications, dark linen background or not, is woefully under-designed.
- Six items that drain mobile device batteries (GPS, WiFi, cellular radio, Bluetooth, notifications and screen brightness) still require laborious, multiple clicks in multiple places, not immediately obvious to non-savvy users to turn on and off, without any simple, thematic or geo-fenced grouping.
- iCloud-desktop integration and direct file sharing among Apple devices are circuitous and short of “It Just Works.”
- Many Apple apps, like the iWork suite, are begging to be updated. Others, like Preview, TextEdit, Contacts, desperately need UI and UX overhauls.
- Core functionalities like the Dictionary or the iOS keyboard layout and auto-correction are not the best of breed.
- iOS app organization in tiny “folders” containing microscopic icons on pages without names borders on illegible and unscalable.
- Navigating among running iOS apps (inelegant and opaque for users) and data interchange among apps in general (vastly underpowered for developers) remain a serious problem.
- Obviously, it’s not much use piling up on this list, as everyone else’s list of “things to be improved” is likely ten times longer. Neither is it really useful arguing at this point whose fault it is. Apple software — especially its self-declared future, iOS — needs some serious overhaul both in aesthetics and experience, and far more in the latter departmen
One Man. One Company. One Aesthetics?
The question is, can one person, even the world’s most eminent industrial designer, pull it off? Is it possible for one person to have enough time in a day to pay sufficient attention to hardware and software — aesthetics and experience — at a level of detail that has become necessary?
After all, Apple’s Human Interaction Guidelines (HIG) has never been just about the aesthetics of icon shadows or button alignment, but also about the behavioral aspects of application design in general. A generation ago, especially prior to the ascendency of web design, HIG was far more respected and adhered to both by Apple itself and its developers. Loyal users also noticed deviations and complained. HIG debates on public forums were not uncommon.
Today, not so much. A radio button or a checkbox can initiate a webpage navigation. Navigational menus now come in circular and triangular popups. There are now purely gestural UIs otherwise betraying none of their functionality to the user. Layers of sliding panels cascade on each other. List items slide left and right to initiate drill-down actions, up and down to reveal interactive media. Some UIs are beveled in 3D, some flat with no shadows, most a loose melange of many styles. And with each such “innovation” they bury the notion of a once powerful HIG a foot deeper.
Is it possible then to have a Human Interface czar for a 500-million user ecosystem today at all? If it were possible, would it be desirable? And if it were possible and desirable, can one person be in charge of both the visual aesthetics and the functional experience of such a huge ecosystem?
- Can one person truly understand how Siri’s problems surfaced at the display layer actually go deeper into its semantic underpinnings, phoneme parsing, lexical contextuality, data-provider contracts, network latencies, etc., and therefore how the overall solution depends on this interplay of form and function?
- Is it fair and reasonable to expect one person to understand how user-facing issues that surface within Maps or Passbook apps also suffer from similar technical and operational constraints?
- Or how a lack of a social layer in Game Center or a content discovery layer in iTunes or App Store impede their functions in so many ways?
- How about the cognitive mess that is document management and sharing in iClouds, as Apple moves away from user-level file management?
- Or that monumental experiment also known as the Grand iTunes Redesign that’s been threatening to arrive any year now?
- Or the Apple TV that needs an injection of a barrel of aesthetics and experience redesign?
- In just how many UI corners and UX paths can a HI czar discover the depth of lingering problems and craft solutions as Apple designers play chicken with OS X menubar and iOS status bar translucency and color with every update? These are not just, or even mostly, aesthetic problems.
Apple, quo vadis?
It’s not known if Ive’s is a transitionary appointment necessitated by Scott Forstall’s departure or a harbinger of a longer term realignment of Apple design under a single umbrella. Unification of hardware and software design under a czar may certainly bring aesthetic efficiencies but it can also be pregnant with dangers. Much as the “lickable” Aqua UI ended up doing a decade ago, a serious mistake would be to hide many of these behavioral, functional and experiential software problems under a more attractive, aesthetically unifying display layer, such as:
- A more modern, less cheesy Game Center redesign that still doesn’t have a social layer.
- An aesthetically unified iTunes without appreciably better content discoverability.
- A Siri app without the background linen but still lacking much deeper semantic integration with the rest of the iOS.
- A Maps app without the ungainly surreal visual artifacts but still missing a robust search layer underneath.
- An iBooks app without the wooden shelves or inner spine shadow, but still with subpar typography and anemic hyphenation and justification.
- A Podcast app without the tape deck skeuomorphism, but with all the same navigational opaqueness.
In the end, what’s wrong with iOS isn’t the dark linen behind the app icons at the bottom of the screen, but the fact that iOS ought to have much better inter-application management and navigation than users fiddling with tiny icons. I’m fairly sure most Apple users would gladly continue to use what are supposed to be skeuomorphically challenged Calendar or Notebook apps for another thousand years if Apple could only solve the far more vexing software problems of AppleID unification when using iTunes and App Store, or the performance and reliability of the same. And yet these are the twin sides of the same systems design problem: the display layer surfacing or hiding the power within or, increasingly, lack thereof.
Yes, unlike any other company, we hold Apple to a different standard. We have for three decades. And we have been amply rewarded. If Apple’s winning streak is to continue, I hope Jony Ive never misplaces his Superman cape behind his Corinthian leather sofa…for he will need it.