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More than meets the eye

Aug 08, 2013 - Elliott Draper

There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the fundamental changes happening in the next version of iOS, iOS 7. For a long time the user interface for iOS has stayed largely the same, with small, incremental improvements (mostly) made with each release. More recently, a lot of people expressed wishes for more of an overhaul, something to drastically change the user interface, to better represent how people are using their devices these days, but also to change some of the things that can’t easily be done with incremental iterations.

Why then, now it’s been announced, shown off, and it is in developers hands, is there such an outcry over the direction it has taken? Given that it is still in beta and thus only registered iOS application developers can download it, it’s fair to say that a lot of people are making their minds up based on screenshots - especially as a lot of these opinions stem from the minutes and hours after the announcement! Having seen a lot of the same screenshots myself before updating my device to iOS 7 with the latest beta, it struck me that the new design is very nuanced - initially it does look a little jarring, however, it’s actually incredible natural when in motion, on the device.

This got me thinking - are there a lot of scenarios where something gives off the wrong impression when you take a stale, single frame of it? After all, Apple wouldn’t have designed the new user interface solely with the intention of it looking good in screenshots. It’s pretty clear from how they announced it and the features they added, that it’s geared towards it being a natural experience in the palm of your hand. Something that feels right to use, something less clunky than its predecessors. So why is it being so harshly judged, mainly on screenshots, and mainly based on those icons?

It’s incredible how quickly all of that fades away when using it - the icons are bright and in your face at first, but it’s just because they are different, and you soon get used to them. They will almost certainly continue to be tweaked and changed anyway, but by and large they aren’t as terrible as a lot of people imply. Instead what you do notice after a day or two of playing with it is all of the transitions between apps and screens are so much more natural. Digging into folders of apps from the home screen, now using a zoom in instead of the sort of accordion expansion it had before, is so much nicer. Switching apps gives you a preview of each open app that you can swipe through. The whole experience now is so much more cohesive and feels right - this almost certainly is down to the fact that the OS is now designed expressly for all of the things you use it for, rather than the older versions which had features and user interface extensions bolted on as new capabilities were unveiled.

Besides being left with a very nice new experience for our iDevices, what else does the whole process that Apple have gone through teach us? One of the key things, I think, is that it’s always better to see things in motion, if that’s what you are designing for. Of course you want it to look nice in screenshots and promotional materials, but the proof is in the pudding, and experiencing something first hand needs to be so sweet, that it’s the last selling point you’ll need for someone to be in full agreement with you that your app/service/site is something they can’t live without (as well as convincing them that it does what they need functionally, of course). Why do we spend so much time in wireframes and mockups then? Essentially static, stale versions of our visions - we should be looking to do the bare minimum in terms of boring, lifeless designs, and instead look to get something functional and in motion as soon as possible. That is where we’ll see if our vision is flawed, or brilliant, and we can iterate on a moving product, honing in on the best experience.

I think most of us would rather figure out how best to show off an incredible product in screenshot form later, than worry that while our screenshots look good, our actual product experience doesn’t match it. I’m not saying mockups and wireframes have no place of course, but the concept of making sure there is a mockup for every page, and that it is signed off and locked down, doesn’t mesh well with fast, agile, iterative development, and with the idea of an MVP (minimum viable product) to find your audience, and your market fit. Get your branding right with a traditional design process, then bring the app to life with the smallest, simplest functionality you can. Iterating from there on a living, breathing idea, which you and your testers can use and fine tune, will result in a much better product. You may even ship a beta version to users and continue iterating the design there too. And if, like Apple, you get to the point where the design community at large feels the need to debate every facet of your newest design at length, then you’ve most likely done quite an effective job at building something innovative and fresh!

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