Black, white, and flat all over. Those are the much-ballyhooed words of an anonymous source quoted by every tech blog on the Internet last week, describing the future of iOS. And indeed, if early glimpses are any indication, some flatness may be in our future. But there's a more important question out there that has yet to be answered: How will iOS 7 function?
Broaching the subject of what iOS 7 will look like is a little bit like deciding to retile your kitchen; it seems like a simple task, until you get a look at the horrifying ant problem beneath the clean white surface. And iOS has plenty of ants to exterminate.
Beneath the relatively superficial GUI discussion—so long, skeumorphism!—lies a deeper well of ideas about the functionality of iOS 7. Conceptually, it sounds like the inverse to flat design: open up apps. Increase user access to settings. Design for the experienced user. We’ve heard a lot about flatness these past few months—but a flattened GUI will (hopefully) lead to a more multi-dimensional, flexible operating system.
Curious about what others imagined, I spent a few days polling designers and experts, asking for their input: What’s worth saving in iOS 6? What’s worth overhauling with iOS 7? What will iOS12 look like? Here's what they came up with; let's hope these changes are at the top of Apple's hit list as well.
The popular criticism that iOS 6 is too visually complex—e.g., the stale skeuomorphic flares like the Newsstand or the leather iCal stitching—is paired with the exact opposite criticism of its functionality: that it’s too simple.
Nielsen Norman Group partner Bruce Tognazzini, who was one of the earliest Apple employees and the developer of its first Human Interface (though, he notes, “Apple’s only had one HI designer [before Ive's new role], and he died about nine months ago"), describes iOS’ strict simplicity as “forced limitations.” As Tognazzini—or Tog, as he’s known—explains it, forced limitations were inherited from Apple’s desire to design operating systems that first-time users could easily understand. “When we built Lisa in 1981, no one had ever seen this interface,” he says. “But that era is long gone.”
iOS 7 concepts, showing opt-in browser selection and account controls, by Brent Caswell.
Six years after the original iOS, and 32 after the original OS, Tog argues that it’s time to stop designing for the first-time user. The forced limitations on his kill list range include basic things, like making it possible to schedule iCal notifications on exact minutes (rather than every five or thirty). Then there’s Photos, which Tog argues is overly simple for the current use case, where nearly every user has thousands of photos. “They live in flat-land,” Tog says. “They strip everything away. So not only can you not browse, you can’t search.”
Giving users a bit more latitude with the way they can organize and edit photos would go a long way. Even more pressing? The fact that users can’t choose to opt-out of stock apps. Or even choose which browser we’d like to set as the default.
If iOS is going to truly revolutionize how we work, it needs a keyboard with a better interaction model. Even the addition of a forward, back, and delete key would do wonders. And the cursor itself is problematic: according to Tog, it violates Fitts' Law, a well-known Human Interface rule that says the time it takes a user to move a target is directly related to the size of the target. "It sounds obvious," he adds, "but it’s amazing how often people do it wrong."
Sharing across apps—from Photos to Siri—as well as app try-out periods, are all frequently wished for. Concepts by Brent Caswell.
Rethink the Siloing of Documents and Apps
The iOS treatment of documents, and by extension, the restrictions between sharing data between apps, is another target. “This business of docs inside of app is crippling the functionality,” Tog adds. “People talk about tablets replacing computers in five years? Not if it takes five times as long to do the same task.”
According to recent rumors, AirDrop integration may be a major part of the iOS 7 update, though there are plenty of gripes about how information is shared between apps on a single phone, too. For example, why can’t we copy images into the notepad? Or test out apps before we buy them? Siri’s monolithic functionality was another frequently-ground axe: why can’t we ask her to interact with other stock iOS apps?
Curt Collinsworth, the Director of Digital at San Francisco product powerhouse fuseproject, argues that the entire architecture of the system needs an overhaul, since the use case has changed so drastically over the past six years. “There are so many more interactions with the device, in so many more contexts, than when the first iPhone came out,” he says. “It’s starting to feel bloated with all the band-aids that have gotten put on them over the years. I don’t think Apple could have imagined it. You almost have to start over.”
The interaction model of past iOS versions is based on a fairly new smartphone user—one who isn’t normally tinkering with their settings and accounts. Along the same lines, the sensors in our phones are capable of reading an incredible amount of information—and right now, much of it goes unused. “This is the year of the sensor,” says Tog, who imagines Wi-Fi-based security that senses when a user is at home and disables the iOS passcode. “If you’re at home, you don’t need your passcode for banking and health apps.”
Much of the discussion about Jony Ive has focused on whether an industrial designer can revamp a digital product. Collinsworth, in particular, is quick to point out that we’re forgetting something:Tthe very first interaction designers were industrial designers. After World War II, a golden age of industrial design emerged, thanks to the confluence of wartime engineering and nascent mid century-design principles. As an example, he cites the famed Eames Chair was based on a fibreglass crutch developed for soldiers during World War II.
That was almost seventy years ago. Digital design—and the concept of UI itself—has only been around for a few decades. And the idea that the two fields are mutually exclusive is probably just a function of our lingering awe over the advent of digital interfaces in general. “I think people are starting to realize it’s the same thing, it’s just different mediums,” says Collinsworth. “There’s no reason Apple can’t apply the philosophy they’ve had for their products to the digital. But it’s going to manifest itself in a different way from one medium to the other.”
At the same time, there's plenty to be learned—and retained—from iOS 6. Apple didn’t get to where it is today by jumping on prevalent design bandwagons. Everyone I spoke with about iOS 6 had differing ideas about what should be salvaged, but almost everyone I talked to was certain of one thing: that the brilliance of Apple’s original iOS is that it taught nearly the entire mobile market how to interact with a smartphone. Being first and best—at least for a few years—isn’t a bad basis from which to take the next step.
The speculation over a flat iOS 7 has focused primarily on whether the new UI will look like Windows 8 or Android, with sharp corners, monochrome palettes, and responsive panels. That’s not the only way to think about “flat design.” Flatness, deep down, is really just a call for designers to think harder about how they use the space of the screen.
In other words, we shouldn’t look for a UI that looks (or functions) like a Dieter Rams radio. Rather, we should look for an iOS 7 based on an ethos he and other designers held to: honesty to materials (in this case, the pixel) and a faithfulness to a pure expression of the medium (in this case, the digital). "Flatness” isn’t really about sharp corners or shadows—it’s about purity of function. “We’ve heard Jony Ive talk about finding the simplest form that’s almost invisible; Because it’s so pure and useful, it also becomes beautiful,” says Collinsworth. “I think there’s way more ways to do that than the Microsoft way."