A small disclaimer. I am an Apple user, and have had an iphone for a number of years now. I get on with the current interface but do find it a little over decorated. With ios7 I was hoping for some toning down of the various visual embellishments. I was excited about the more minimal approach Apple were said to be taking: I was looking forward to the dumping of the leather effect, the stitching and the green felt …
I am using a slightly buggy developer version for this review (7 Beta 2), I will not comment on the really flaky bits as I am sure these will be fixed once the final version is launched. There has been a lot of talk around the interaction detail and I don’t want to add to the noise, but with so much chat over the design – chat all based around the same static images – I wanted to experience the operating system myself, on a device in my hand, interact with it and hopefully offer up a few salient comments.
I guess its a little harsh reviewing the design of a product still in development, I will try to keep this to a critique of the general aesthetic – what it looks like and how it feels to use. it’s difficult to judge what is a know issue and is going to be ironed out, and what are deliberate choices by Apples UI team.
To start there is the obvious talking point – the turning anti-clockwise of the Skeuomorphic dial and the flipping on of the Flat switch (sorry). I feel this whole skeuomorphic vs flat debate is overcooked, a generalization and focusing debate away from more important matters. And as for skeuomorphism, this overused term is one I look forward to seeing the back of (I am guilty of adding to the skeuomorphic noise myself). None of Apples design has even been truly skeuomorphic (can anything digital be skeuomorphic?) but I guess the word has a new life and a new context … in reality Apples OS has been heavy on the use of metaphors. These metaphors still exist in ios7 no matter how ‘flat’ the design. An example is the dials for setting time on the alarm. exactly the same as they were, a forward facing dial, receding on the top and bottom edges giving a 3D effect. So a metaphor then. Of a real dial. A stylistic change rather than a conceptual one and not exactly ‘flat’ at all.
So onto the ‘flat’ design. There are many instances where the minimal design really does look quite beautiful – the easily accessible settings screens look lovely, and the weather app certainly looks ‘nice’. The calculator, with its simple functionality, really benefits from the minimal aesthetic and the subtle ‘tapped’ animation on the buttons game me one of those nice ‘ahhhh’ moments.
The icons suit this minimal thin lined aesthetic but the thin Helvetica just doesn’t work for me (more on that later). With the weather app, a cloudy day means white thin Helvetica on white clouds renders the text unreadable – hopefully something that will be fixed on the final release.
… And talking of the Weather app, if I swipe down to reveal the overview panel, the weather is shown as a description. Without any visual clues I missed it … and tapping on the description takes me to the weather app – an interaction with absolutely no signposting – a slightly concerning issue.
The calendar, music player and Messages app are examples of how white space and pure typography doesn’t always work, especially for small screens with dense information. For all its cleanliness the reduction of structure makes it all look a little out of focus – with no clear delineation of content the elements on the screen feel a little lost. When looking through the messenger app I was hankering for a little decoration or colour (I never thought would write this but … ) a little drop shadow to lift the design and separate out the content a little.
The use of colour seems a little haphazard. In places garish colours seem to clash (the horrific Game Center homescreen) within other apps (the music player, Messages app) the lack of colour and predominantly white and grey colorway contribute to the lack of structure evident on these screens.
To be frank, I am not getting along with the thin Helvetica. Retina displays mean the screen resolution can do a good job rendering thin typefaces but just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
I am not sure of the rationale for choosing this typeface – I am guessing that it was because connotations of slickness that Helvetica thin has are values Apple shares and aspires to, but unfortunately there are other connotations. Helvetica thin is the typeface of makeup counters, lipstick ads in fashion magazines, flyers for cheezy house clubnights … not all high flying fashion expensive watches and ‘aspiration’. My initial gut feeling was that it felt too much ‘fashion’, too ‘cheeze’.
I have seen the word ‘Holographic’ used for the subtle animated effect of the homescreen icons and background. again, this could be memory issues, but it was a little glitchy. It also felt a little Flash Parallax effect circa 2003 rather than 2013 cutting edge tech. Overall a little gimmicky. I felt the same about the number pad in the previous Beta version. Tapping a number makes made the numeral and its circular holder become transparent, briefly showing the parallaxing background behind. This should have been one of those lovely tactile moments you associate with a slick Apple Interface or transition but it just came across as a little, well, cheap. In the updated Beta version flat colour is used instead of the background – an improvement, but with a lovely ‘tapped’ animated effect in use for the calculator other conventions are really not needed – I hope these conventions are reduced and Apple go for one effect for each interaction.
There seems to be the addition of depth in the overall design strategy – the animated background that sometimes peeks through the layer above, all hint at navigating through, into, rather just from side to side – when transitioning in and out of apps, scale is part of the animation transition, again, hinting at navigating ‘through’ - this 3D aspect of the navigation is a possible clue for future development into interaction models and is the one genuinely exciting thing I get from i0s7.
The new minimal ‘flat’ (arghhhhhhhh) design almost works, most of the time it looks lovely. There is a slight lack of visual clues for interaction, rather worryingly so. For all the over-embellishment of the previous OS at least thought had gone into wayfaring and signposting. A little more thought needs to go into the design of the more dense screens but from what I have seen so far small tweaks will fix these, and I am confident the final release will have these issues solved.
The thin type just does not work. A bespoke face, designed for screen must surely be in the pipeline if Apple really are claiming to be leaders in mobile design. Culturally and practically, Helvetica Thin is just not suitable or appropriate.
The hints of navigating through a 3D space are intriguing even though it is just a hint, and it will be interesting to see if this ends up being just gimmick instead of a clue for future innovation.
I am looking forward to the final release, my main hope is that the interaction signposting and wayfaring is much clearer, I have confidence this will be so, and that at some future point they dump Helvetica Thin for a bespoke face designed by Apple for Apple devices. The Helvetica fanboys may not like it but it just ain’t right.