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

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

Apple is expected to debut a revamped iOS on Monday, featuring a "flatter" design that, if not done properly, could be a step backward in usability, a pair of user interface (UI) experts said.

"Totally flat design, like in Windows 8, is a terrible usability mistake because it removes the users' ability to see at a glance where they can click," said Jakob Nielsen, a usability guru with nearly 80 U.S. patents to his name. Nielsen, co-founder of the consulting firm Nielsen Norman Group, was formerly a top-level engineer with Sun Microsystems and has a Ph.D in human-computer interaction. "The actionable elements on the screen have to be called out in some way."

Although designers may argue over what "flat" means, the consensus seems to be a reduction in the three-dimensionality of icons and other actionable elements -- buttons, for example -- that make them stand out from the background. Instead, colors, textures and typography are used to draw attention.

In the most radical cases -- Nielsen's example of Windows 8 and its "Modern," formerly called "Metro" UI -- icons, the small pictograms representing programs, functions or documents, are ditched, replaced by colored blocks or tiles with typographical labels.

Those who anticipate a flatter iOS 7 have based their forecasts on the fact that Jony Ive, who is noted for his sleek, minimalist product designs of the iPhone and iPad, was put in charge last fall of "Human Interface," the Apple team responsible for software UI and user experience (UX) design and development, after Scott Forstall, former head of iOS software, was ousted.

Pundits also expect iOS 7 to lose most if not all of its "skeuomorphism," a label for design that, in software, adds elements that make a program resemble a physical object. Famous examples in iOS and OS X include Calendar, which looks like a paper desk calendar, iBooks and its wood-grained shelves, and Notes, which mimics a lined notepad.

Ives has reportedly expressed his distaste for such ornamentation.

But a "flat" UI isn't inherently better than what replaces it, argued Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini, also a co-founder of Nielsen Norman Group.

"The long and short of it is that [flat design] is simply a design aesthetic and/or ideology," Tognazzini said, calling flat a fad, not necessarily a bad one, that inevitably will be replaced. "I have nothing against either skeuomorphic design done right nor flat design done right. It was weird when they were blended together, and Apple had managed to do both of them wrong."

Tognazzini spent 14 years at Apple, where he founded the Human Interface Group -- the team that Ive now leads -- and acted as the Cupertino, Calif., company's evangelist for Human Interface. He was also the lead designer at WebMD, worked at Sun, and has 56 patents, either issued or pending.

"I think we will soon see which of those last two [iOS 7] is, [an aesthetic or an ideology]: Apple has been seriously decreasing the usability of the Mac by 'simplifying' the visual design through stripping out functionality," said Tognazzini. "The same thing has been happening on the iPad, but there it manifests as a stubborn refusal to increase the functionality."

He hoped that when the new mobile operating system is revealed Monday it will show that Ive chose a middle-of-the-road approach. "If Ive starts making everything monochrome, the current fad, that is going to seriously impact usability," Tognazzini said. "If it's just simply 'flat,' but he allows his designers to communicate through all human perceptual channels, including color, then he could end up doing a good thing."

Pundits have assumed that Ive will overhaul the iOS UI and UX because, first, iOS looks and operates much the same as it did at its 2007 debut. Secondly, the thinking goes, Apple has to do something to iOS to make it "new" or "fresh" or "modern" as it faces unprecedented competition -- in units sold globally -- from a slew of handset manufacturers that rely on Google's Android.

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 Computerworld.com.

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 [email protected].

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

Read more about ios in Computerworld's iOS Topic Center.


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