Design Lessons From iOS 7
September 28, 2013 Editor 0
With over 200 million devices upgraded to Apple’s iOS 7 in just five days, it is clear that Apple has another success on its hands. Revamped in just eight months (an unheard of timeframe for an OS redesign), iOS 7 represents the first major software release under Sir Jony Ive’s leadership of Apple’s software group. Throughout the new OS, his influence is easily identifiable, in both good ways and bad.
iOS 7 represents a final and emphatic break from skeuomorphism – design that takes its cues from physical objects — something that has been a raging debate in design circles for years. (You can read about it here, here, here, and here.) But within this break from skeuomorphism lies a great commitment to realism. This iteration of iOS is easily the most intricately tied to the iPhone hardware. Its connections to the sensors of the device allow it to behave according to the laws of physics, making it feel of this world, as opposed to drawing on simple visual metaphors.
This, more than anything, represents both the true breakthrough of iOS 7 and is the primary evidence of Sir Ives’ touch. For years, Ive has obsessed as much about the internal construction of Apple hardware as he has over the external design (jump to minute 3:25 of this video to hear him gush about a thermal system). This unrelenting focus on the marriage of a device’s internal workings with its external experience is what gives Apple products their specific appeal and quality. Ive has done the same thing with iOS, obsessing over the internals of the phone and building an operating system that takes the maximum possible advantage of them. The result is an OS that feels alive, responsive, and modern.
But iOS 7 is not perfect. The easiest targets for criticism are the garish color palette and the unreadably-thin typefaces which have inspired their own meme, though they make more sense now that we have seen the color lineup for the iPhone 5C. The icon grid put forth by Ive’s team is mathematically precise, but lacking in many areas digital designers have been refining for years, such as color choice, visual appeal, and metaphor. Finally, Apple continues its stubborn refusal to introduce dynamic information into the top-level experience of the OS. Yes, the control panel is better than before, but Android and Windows Phone are much more dynamic with their home screens, enabling users to gather crucial information without requiring an app to be launched. This lack of glance-able information and user-customizable interfaces is going to become a very real crutch soon enough.
At its core, iOS 7 represents a new foundation for the world’s most profitable mobile platform. And as a first offering, it has great promise. Unfortunately, it does not yet fully live up to its potential, which is how Apple has worked historically. The first generation of OS X was a revolution, but it was laggy and buggy. The first Macbook Air suffered multiple problems before becoming the laptop it is today. Even the first generation of iOS was locked down before establishing the mobile developer ecosystem. This is Apple’s pattern: release a revolutionary experience and then relentlessly iterate and perfect it over time.
However, this launch is different than previous efforts and presents two primary risks to Apple. The first is that Apple’s competitors are also building extremely compelling mobile ecosystems. Android, long lamented for its design shortcomings, is starting to gain traction from an experience standpoint, with influential designers like Twitter’s VP of Design, Mike Davidson, adopting the OS for the first time.
Secondly, the rapid adoption of iOS 7 could potentially serve as a negative for the developer community. Updating an application from iOS 6 to iOS 7 requires more than simply updating graphics and preparing the software for the new phones. iOS 7 is fundamentally different and requires some serious rework to ensure that an application feels native to the system. This level of effort should be compensated, and indeed some developers are gearing up to charge for their iOS 7 apps, but consumers have been conditioned to getting OS upgrades for free and the press is already calling out developers for “double dipping”. One party in this exchange is bound to feel frustrated. The consumer will be unwilling to pay and the developer may be frustrated at giving so much work away. With Android continuing its marketshare dominance and Windows Phone finally emerging as a viable option, this could represent an inflection point where more developers begin looking at other platforms first.
After six years of iteration on the original iPhone OS, iOS 7 is a refreshing reset. Without a doubt, Apple’s new operating system will look and feel dramatically different a year from now. It will take advantage of the hardware in new and innovative ways and has the potential to once again reshape our expectations of what our mobile devices are capable of. The big question for Apple will be whether or not consumers are willing to travel along this road of iteration once more.
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