Usability, not 'flat' design, key to Monday's iOS refresh

14-year veteran of Apple UI/UX design calls flat a fad

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Nielsen and Tognazzini have a different perspective, that change for change's sake can be damaging if the new isn't more usable. And both were critical of Apple's operating system usability of late.

"Apple's skeuomorphism style of recent years is overkill ... and the overly ornate design ends up distracting users from the functionality," said Nielsen. "So a scaled-back, simpler design will be better, as long as it's not scaled back so far that they remove the cues that users depend on to find out what they can do on each screen."

Tognazzini, meanwhile, hoped that Apple tested the usability of its UI and UX, a practice he'd found wanting. "Overall, what's missing at Apple is that either it does zero [usability] testing, or if they do, that no one is listening to the results. It's one thing to make things simple ... that's wonderful. But it's not if they pretend things are simple because they're just hiding the complexity."

Citing several examples -- including the disappearing scroll bars in Safari on both OS X and iOS -- Tognazzini pointed out UI/UX failures where "pretend" simplicity had been achieved by hiding elements. He attributed the practice to Apple's desire to show how easy its operating systems were to use during the 15 minutes customers evaluated them in the store.

"Steve [Jobs]'s whole focus was to sell computers," Tognazzini said. "When he put the big apple on the cover of the Mac, but turned it so that to the user it's upside down, but from across the room, or on television, it's right-side up, that was absolutely symbolic of the flip [to stress sales by unnecessarily hiding complexity]."

While iOS 7 won't be put to the test until customers have it in hand -- and that won't be until this fall when Apple launches a new iPhone -- Tognazzini hoped to see a revamp that stressed usability as much as design.

"I think the highest grade I'd give Apple [on UI and UX] would be a "B" at this point," Tognazzini said. "There are too many loose ends, and decisions made for that 15 minutes [in the store] when those decisions carry over into the next 10 years."

There's a lot on the line with iOS, which powers the two largest money makers in Apple's stable, the iPhone and iPad. The changes, if as widespread as rumored, will be the most significant made to Apple's products under the watch of CEO Tim Cook. A misstep could damage the iPhone's reputation and have long-term ramifications, just as the ones made by Microsoft with Windows 8 echo eight months after its debut.

But Tognazzini was optimistic. "The potential [at Apple] is there for great work ... they have the best people in the world [in design]. I think Apple can be a lot more creative [in UI/UX] than before, when everything had to go through Steve [Jobs]," said Tognazzini, explaining the past failures to that bottleneck.

This article, Usability, not 'flat' design, key to Monday's iOS refresh, was originally published at

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is

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