I am coming to terms with what I’m really missing most in apps, web sites, software, interface design, etc is the allowance for me to be human.
Being human sometimes means being gruff and conservative, sometimes wide-eyed and progressive, sometimes strict, sometimes random, sometimes irreverent. What it really boils down to is that you are many different things, often contradictory, all at the same time.
For example: When my sometimes acquaintance John Gruber writes the latest instalment in his personal bet that the 3.5 millimeter headphone jack is not long for this world and insisting that sentimentalism must not inpinge on the need for progress, he is doing so on a Movable Type installation that has been tweaked over years, on top of a background color that’s been set so long it had a Flickr group before it had a Twitter hashtag.
There’s good reason for John to do this. He writes for a living. He invented (together with the late Aaron Swartz) his own formatting language Markdown, to minimize the distance between the raw text and the desired formatting, and before that the quote curler SmartyPants, to keep typography alive on a platform that seems to have forgotten them. His site has looked more or less the exact same for at least 10 years now, and his writing process seems to be identical too. (My guess is that he’s still using BBEdit, a piece of software that debuted in 1992 for System 6.)
He has molded his tools to fit him like a glove, the way you do with something you care about. You pick through alternatives, you try new things, you settle on what works well for you.
Recently I attempted to survive a week with my phone set to the greyscale color filter, under the premise that it might seem less appealing and cool down the desire to activate it during every idle moment and bounce around between the apps. I am more hooked than I think, but it also drove home just how dysfunctional flat design (or “iOS 7 Thought”) can be.
The primary differentiator in iOS for an active button is color. Wash out colors and you’re hanging on by trying to discern the level of saturation, which varies not only from app to app, but from screen to screen. The colors are all different, since the color is intended to be a primary method of personalizing and branding apps. For me, this hell is self-imposed - for the color blind or visually impaired, this is constant. There are color filters for improving life for people living with color blindness, and there are accessibility options to turn on “button shapes”, just as to minimize motion and translucency, make text bold and set the font size.
I was going to write this post partially about Agenda, a promising app that seems to take an approach to continuous note taking that I’ve long requested. But when I downloaded it and opened it and looked around, even though it had got the mental model closer to what I’d like, it was too flat, too barren. And while iOS has a single dial for font size, Agenda has none, and no way to zoom in or increase the font size. I tried typing but it did not feel right to me. When I type posts or articles, I want my text a bit bigger; when I type other things, I want it smaller, when I read, I go back and forth.
I’m instead writing this post in Visual Studio Code, of all things, because it is a competent Markdown experience also keeping related files in reach. It’s not particularly important for this post, but it’s worth noting that it also has a flat design motif without once leaving it up for question what’s clickable. If it’s there, it’s either text in the editor or clickable - it is most likely selectable and the state of the tabs is never confusing. There are issues with the app as a whole, but they got this more right than iOS.
The phone or tablet iOS runs on is a physical object. It was considered in endless variants. The volume buttons, the lock button, the home button (something else possibly not long for this world) has to work for everyone. The user interface, the software, the soul of the device, does not have to. It is adaptive. All of iOS can change with a software update. We can go from having buttons that are clearly demarcated as buttons to buttons that we just know are buttons because of contextual cues and because the text is blue.
It’s not worth imagining this is a fundamental insight or new information, but iOS’s flat soul was inspired by advertisement materials, by page layouted brochures. The hurdle in this is that a brochure has very few, if any, interactive parts, while software is almost all interactive parts. Wanting for the elimination of computer administrative debris is worthwhile and even enviable. Wanting it to the elimination of usability, of utility, of cognitive agility is less enviable.
Needing bolder text and bigger fonts and inverted colors is fine. Needing fundamental tweaks to the aesthetics to make the user interface tractable at all means that you have failed at your job as a user interface designer. Apple’s WWDC theme is intriguing because it suggests a return in some form to user interface elements as semi-physical objects with weight, with depth, with importance and character. Laying the red herring of loupe-inspected linen textures aside, hints to inform the character of each element make the interface a thousand times smoother.
I am not going to (successfully) unite the frayed ends into a red thread. But there is something fundamentally similar in a working headphone jack being thrown out, in a flat design esthetic with little to no backing in user interface lore being forced on an entire platform and in the feeling both programmers, pro users and everyday people get when something they use has been all of a sudden “updated”. So often, the new does not maintain the core of what was useful and expedient. So often, the desire to simply progress shortchanges the priorities of the people of flesh and blood who are relying on this tool every day.
By all means, introduce new things, and by all means get rid of stuff when it’s old and busted. But new iPhones don’t make it impossible to use new wired headphones - they make it impossible to use good, common, reasonably priced wired headphones without an adapter. Bluetooth headphones may be great, but they’re not for everyone, and we are left high and dry.
And iOS’s flat aesthetic gives it an airy and maybe subjectively less dated feel, but one which still has reasonably basic usability issues even four versions in. In particular, its options may be confused for personalization at a distance, but amount to escape hatches unworthy of the world’s second most used mobile operating system. It should all be much clearer than this, and this kind of upheaval says, first and foremost, that respecting the tool’s ability to fit you like a glove is not as high a priority as, say, Apple’s desire to dip everything in new paint, some of which is vibrantly acrylic, and or ham-handedly attempt to copy the dynamic Material Design headers.