(For now, a brief encore.)
When you design a new user interface, you have to start off humbly. You have to start off saying: “What are the simplest elements in it? What does a button look like?” And you spend months working on a button.
That’s a button in Aqua. This is what Radio buttons look like. Simple things. This is what Check boxes look like. This is what Popup lists look like. Again, are you starting to get the feel of this? A little different?
At this time still interim CEO for another hour, Steve Jobs was at Macworld Expo 2000, introducing Aqua, the Mac OS X user interface that is still with us today. But it is only still with us today in the sense of the ship of Theseus. Every part has been tweaked, retouched and redrawn entirely from the ground up at least three times and few pixels line up in comparing OS X 10.8.4 from the Mac OS X developer preview where Aqua debuted. Most recently, it was redrawn in Mac OS X 10.7, in preparation for Retina displays where everything would have to scale to twice the size. And of course, over the past twelve years, it’s gotten a lot less gaudy. Still, you’d be hard pressed to agree that Aqua has changed fundamentally.
Let’s skip forward seven years to find another momentuous day. When Steve introduced the iPhone, he laid on the background even more heavily, but he focused on the mode of interaction. iPhone was going to use finger-centered touch as one of the first phones in the world. More than an hour of feature presentation hammered home this point by showing Steve using this phone – there were no scroll bars, there were no cursors, so not only would the OS and app have to indicate position and progress more clearly, they would have to be fundamentally different from desktop apps.
In order for the brain to not consider the device a weak companion to be commanded, cues like momentum scrolling and rubber-banding were not glitz or sizzle, they were coarse-grit sandpaper to sand away the perception that what happened on screen did not necessarily respond to any known laws of physics. Meanwhile, most of the actual user interface were totally and completely foreign to any interfaces designed before for a desktop application. They embraced the set, small format of their target device and focused on lists with one column, or of one visible photo, and of having a stack of navigation along with animation to entrench this hierarchy.
I’m not saying that anyone who designed this sort of interface for a desktop app before 2007 would be out of a job, but it certainly wasn’t obvious. In the fever pitch run-up to the iPhone’s original launch, most commentators considered it an iPod phone, and it turns out even large parts of Apple itself wanted to come at it from the Clickwheel already known to the iPod.
One year later, Apple said it was the “phone that changed phones forever”, and wasn’t far off the mark. Microsoft had three concurrent phone efforts at the time; the waning Windows Mobile (mixing the best of 1999′s processor speed with the best of 1999′s UI design), the long rumored codename Pink (later renamed Microsoft KIN and sold in numbers that were barely plural and had the Zune team pointing and laughing), and finally the new Windows Phone.
Windows Phone was initially released as Windows Phone 7 by being anointed the successor to Windows Mobile 6.5 (a dubious privilege at the best of times), but it was nothing like it. In fact, Windows Phone was hardly anything like anything. Like the iPhone, it would be unique at launch and it would have some cutting technical shackles to make the energy consumption work out, but those were the only things that would be like the iPhone.
Windows Phone was the first OS to use what Microsoft dubbed Metro, a new design philosophy for user interfaces. Later adopted by the Xbox 360 dashboard, many apps and finally Windows 8, it would even inform the general design of Microsoft’s graphical profile, web site and Windows Azure.
While Microsoft has recently tossed the name Metro to the wolves to avoid a trademark dispute, it has consistently toted it along with a series of guidelines. These guidelines and their implementation has set up the most interesting UI debate in recent years.
Metro purports to be “authentically digital” and instructs to eschew all the markings of an element that can be linked to traditionality. Traditionally, buttons were distinguished by a sense of depth, typically a bevel, to show that it could be pressed and activated. If you are living now and are using a digital device, you can probably figure this out from many other cues, goes the thinking, so let’s just do the minimal thing. Frame it with a thick frame, so that people know it’s a discrete element, and have it light up uniformly when you tap or click it, so that people know that it’s about to go off. Dropdown lists also “go off”, so let’s just add a downward-pointing arrow to the edge to make sure there’s a difference and looks sort of like before. And so on.
Gradients and drop shadows in this environment are viewed as adding nothing of import. Typography finally plays a role worthy of Microsoft’s extensive research into the field throughout the years, as it is regarded a way of making the “content” clearer. Icons are washed of color; icons to launch apps or functions are replaced by “tiles” with the instruction that visual noise should come from relevant “content”, while buttons with icons are told to sport pictograms. Tabs, a Microsoft invention and clearly traceable to physical objects, are out of the question and “pivots”, a neat way of organizing different strains of functionality in the form of lists, are recommended in their stead, at least on the phone.
Building up over a period of a few years, and at a time where developers and users are all a bit worse for wear by the constant drive for “high production value” effects and textures in apps — often bundled up into, but not equal to, the concept of skeumorphism, which just is the functionality-neutral application of themes which no longer carry any meaning — the promise of Metro begins to attract more followers.
Most of Metro is relatively sane. Removing visual noise is a timeless tactic used to great effect and typographic attention to detail has long been lacking in most applications for Microsoft platforms. Not to mention that many users will be happy to do without the execution of high-octane Photoshop sessions turned inscrutable UI that is the effect of well-meaning designers intending to spruce up their programs without a set of credible, well-known guidelines that will sit still for more than 36 months and having to design for three or four supported Windows versions.
However, self-inconsistency and antipathy towards physical metaphors also cripples the Metro school of thought. Choosing to display a stack of cards as a stack of cards is not the result of skeumorphism but a helpful, space-efficient layout that serves as a memorable, unique mnemonic device. What Metro gains from providing good solutions to common problems, it also loses by making more apps look like each other.
To take an example of the inconsistency, the distinctions between a tile being pushed inside toward a special angle to highlight the side of the tile where the tile is being pushed adds no information about the tile being pushed, but all of a sudden projects the digital tile as a half-physical object in a physical environment. Shadows don’t apply (there is no light source) but some interactions make perfect sense. Modern user interface design is awash with these mixes and these environments, but not with guidelines trying to shake off their nature. And on Xbox 360′s dashboard, the Metro concept almost applies; it, like the phone, has pivots, but tiles scale and glow and are clearly flying around against a physical backdrop with a horizon line.
The recent rumors about a “flat” way out for iOS 7 stem not only from the popularity of the branch of design and layout thinking from whence Metro sprouted, but from good old Apple rumor monging. Scott Forstall, who happens to have had pivotal roles both in the original design of Aqua and in growing the iPhone platform into a texture fertile environment (not the least with the help of like-minded Steve Jobs), was famously ousted in a turn towards intertwining all user experience design across the company under the auspices of Jony Ive. Ive’s team has designed everything related to unboxing, holding and powering on a product for years, but his dislike for the ever-ramping love of texture has only recently come to light.
It is a cheap answer to think of Ive’s iOS 7 at all. Apple is stuffed to the gills with user interface designers, and if I had a nickle for every time two of them were at odds with each other over the balance and direction of an interface, I wouldn’t be sitting here bitter that I didn’t get into the still proud stock at $10 or $20.
But even assuming that we think of Ive’s iOS 7, it is a really cheap answer to think that “Ive shipped a tabled that was just a black rounded rectangle and a screen; he will be partial to software that is just a rounded rectangle and some text”.
Watch any clip, or at least most, of Ive sprouting about Apple’s products and their design and the word Essential will be mentioned. If he once was, Ive is not interested any longer in design as ornamentation. Ive is interested in things being only what they are about and not primarily about sprucing them up to look cool while doing so.
Look at the iPad, which seems to be about cleanliness itself. It has two physical volume buttons, and it could look even cleaner if they were to disappear into the edge of the tablet, maybe scored by perforation. But they are physical buttons and they will be the best physical buttons they can be if they are allowed to look, feel and work like buttons, so buttons they are, even if they are slim buttons. Even the lock button, while it melts in better, is still a button.
This line of thinking does not lend itself well to “flat” in the way we know from Metro. With this line of thinking, there will be no problems having a button be a button; a thing that looks like it can be pressed to the point of seeming raised. What’s new is that there will also not be any point in giving texture to things that are functionally invisible. The back of the iPad and the border along the front are made of the material of their surroundings and don’t signal anything on their own. To do so would be to take away what the actual things that do matter could signal.
With a view like this, what could Ive’s iOS 7 be? The starting point of every other of Ive’s creation seems to be: figure out what the parts that matter are all about, design them to be their best and let everything else fall in line; to be there but not even remotely the focus. There are tons of moving parts in iOS to which this could apply; big things like the basics of slide to unlock, app switching, folders and home screens and small things like the emergent inconsistency of app removal being a “close” button and app shutdown being a “remove” button. iOS 6 and iOS 7 can only be so far apart for so many reasons, but it’s probably “iPod phone”-level nearsighted to think that the big thing in iOS 7 will be a slightly more extensive coat of paint that more or less has accompanied every iOS revision.