Generosity of Perspective

Louis CK has a joke where he lambasts anyone who complains about the speed of their mobile phone by saying, “Give it a second! It’s going to space. Could you give it a second?” Yesterday, during Apple’s keynote on the redesign of iOS 7, I kept thinking about CK’s joke while trawling through the stream of criticism and snark on Twitter. It’s a bummer to think that it’s acceptable to go from complete ignorance of a product’s existence to a staunchly held opinion on its quality in a only few minutes. And, without even using it! Could you give it a second?

Granted, I couldn’t resist a potshot of my own, but perhaps it is worth exercising some generosity of perspective before I mewl to strangers on the internet. This perspective doesn’t negate the problems, but at least offers some sympathy as to what might have caused them.

A Lack of Consistency

This morning, I watched the videos of the iOS 7 interface again, and I saw a bunch of rushed designers unable to stabilize an uneven interface. It’s worth remembering that Ive took over Human Interface only 7 months ago, and they redesigned the whole phone in that time. Straight up: seven months is a ridiculous deadline.

Part of being a good designer is having a hatred for inconsistencies, so I take the interface’s unevenness to mean a hurried timeline, rather than an unawareness of the inconsistencies. Working on multiple screens, apps, and userflows means that certain aspects of the whole system will fall out of sync with each other as the later parts’ lessons override previous choices. The last step of most design processes is to take the lessons learned along the way and apply those best practices to the niggling incongruencies that have inevitably sprung up. This last step usually gets cut under tight deadlines, because the work is technically “done,” but just not “right.” Unfortunately, this kind of consistency is usually seen as a design indulgence that can be postponed. “We’ll iterate,” designers are usually told, but everyone knows you lose a bit of the luster of a tight first impression.

Designers are usually the most aware of the problems in their work, and I can imagine a bunch of them in Cupertino reading Twitter during the keynote saying, “I told you we had to fix that before we shipped!” Every time I assume a talented person isn’t painfully aware of the flaws in their work, I am wrong.

The Problem of Everyone and The Sexiness of New

Interface designers for the iPhone have an unusual problem: the phone is so successful, the designers’ target audience is practically everyone. How do you even begin to design for that?

I’d probably start with aesthetics, because it’d be the thing I could see, and then hope it would eventually lead me somewhere deeper. As I look at the iconographic choices, color palette, and typography, there’s a tendency to overindulge in very visible ways (such as the bright, almost garish colors and the use of transparency and blurring) and undervalue more subtle ways of establishing graphic tone (such as the use of Helvetica as the primary typeface instead of something with more character and better suited for interfaces). Basically, there’s not much nuance there, but there’s not much room for subtlety when one has to give the impression of stark newness. Maybe this lack of nuance also comes from Ive’s lack of familiarity with interface design? Usually expressive visual choices like these seem good in isolation, then become overbearing when viewed together. Experience gives a person the eyes to imagine their small choices in aggregate.

Luckily, things like icons, colors, and typography are easier to iterate than userflows, information architecture, and features. They’re also the elements that take more time than expected to craft, so I can see all of these refinements being the most likely to be cut from a tight deadline, and the first up to be revisited by the design team before the official release, or quickly thereafter. If that awful Safari icon bugs you, imagine how the designers at Apple must feel.

On the Bright Side

To Apple’s credit, the new version of iOS has a lot of practical changes that will make the experience of using the phone have less friction. Common settings, such as screen brightness and airplane mode, are now easier to access via the Control Center. The Calendar app now acknowledges that it knows what day it is and slides the week and month views accordingly. Safari has had its thick chrome made more svelte, and multitasking is now more fluid and visual by presenting a screengrab of the task. To boot, animations are used well inside of the interface, as apps zoom into full-screen mode, then pull back to present all the running tasks. The interface’s spacial relationships along the z-axis all feel very well baked, and something that should have been there all along.

There are problems with iOS, but with a bit of imagination, I can see those issues being the result of situations I’ve struggled through on previous projects of my own. The aesthetics will be refined in time, as they always are, but it’s worth noting that it’s always easier to take something that’s pushed too far and make it more tame than to do the opposite. I’m not a fan of how iOS looks right now, but I have hope for its future. iOS has one thing that can’t be denied: it lacks nuance, but it has courage.