Apple design chief Jony Ive loves to preach about how design isn’t just how something looks, but how it works. Yet, in the first wave of app updates for iOS 7, most developers seem to have simply given their apps a facelift to match Apple’s latest software. Instagram’s latest update, for example, is very attractive, but just feels like a fresh coat of paint.
To Ive, iOS 7 is about more than a dash of color and Helvetica Neue
To Ive, iOS 7 is about more than a dash of color and Helvetica Neue. It’s about the physicality of the operating system, a functional skeuomorphism which helps people identify layers within apps as if they were papers on a desk. "It’s no longer about mimicking real-life objects visually, it’s about how they work, and the way things move and interact with your finger, and the rest of the elements on the screen," says Jeff Broderick, who co-founded software design studio Collective Ray, and is now creative director at ShopSavvy. If you pull up on the camera icon and then slam it down hard enough, Broderick points out, you can bounce your lock screen up and out of sight as if you had thrown a tennis ball into the ground.
"Finding a good way to utilize physics and the parallax effects are the key to making an app feel good," says Broderick. In other words, it’s not about how the wooden drawer holding your stuff looks, but about how it opens and closes. So have any apps made the jump yet — not just to getting the look right, but to getting the feel right?
It all starts with creating the illusion of "direct manipulation," says Jeremy Olson, creator of upcoming iOS 7 app Hours (pictured above). "It’s the idea of performing functions in real time by directly manipulating objects on the screen, rather than tapping a button in one place and seeing the result in another," he says. Swiping to scroll, pinching to zoom, and dragging and dropping objects are all examples of this. Apple has always focused on responsive interactions within iOS, but has given the philosophy an even greater role in iOS 7, where apps spring forth from inside their icons and pages within apps can be swept aside when you want to go back. Hours has buttons that expand and contract when you touch them, as well as highly legible text and clearly denoted colored areas you can tap. In combination, the two elements add up to an interface that’s easy to parse, and an app that’s better than it otherwise would’ve been.
It all starts with creating the illusion of "direct manipulation"
But, if Hours’ design and animations are so great, couldn’t its developers have potentially come up with these ideas on their own? The answer isn’t so simple. "If you go too far outside the norm of Apple’s built-in apps, the user isn’t going to adapt as quickly, and they may reject it for fear of difference," says Michael Simmons, the designer of Fantastical. Simmons is known for his attention to detail on realistic textures and buttons (as is Olson), but was relieved when he first found out about iOS 7. "iOS 7 stripped back extraneous visual elements and made it so content was center stage," he says. "I saw a new way to make apps that can’t hide behind varnish — that can’t hide behind phony design." What really matters is placed front and center, whereas before, wood panels and other ornamentations were considered paramount to helping a user understand how the app works.
Simmons’ current version of Fantastical, which is filled with pixel-perfect fake glass and "iOS linen" textures, is by no means phony, but he cites a variety of App Store chart-toppers that fooled users into thinking they were useful simply because they were pretty. "iOS 7 is about bringing functionality and utility to the forefront," he says. Fantastical 2, which launches for iPhone in the coming months, ditches the gloss and texture in favor of making your events as highly legible as possible — a mandate from Apple in iOS 7’s design guidelines. "The app is so much better because of iOS 7," but not just purely because of its stripped-down design.
"To call iOS 7 just a 'flat' redesign is discounting what Apple has actually done."
"To call iOS 7 just a ‘flat’ redesign is discounting what Apple has actually done," says Second Gear developer Justin Williams, who builds Elements for iOS. "The biggest feature of iOS 7 is the transition toward the use of layers to convey content depth," he says. On an abstract level, adding "layers" doesn’t sound like anything new — most apps already have various levels you can explore like a feed, and an underlying drawer of additional pages — but iOS 7 pushes for something different, Williams says. A large part of Apple’s vision for the OS is about motion, the transitions between screens, and about mimicking the real-life movements of objects in order to communicate where the user is inside an interface.
"OmniFocus 2 feels like the truest reimagining for iOS 7," says Williams, since it encompasses both a visual and tactile redesign. The app uses layers to communicate what’s happening when you tap on an item. Tapping "Projects," on the app’s home screen, for example, splits the page in half and fades the background away to expose what’s underneath, as if you’ve unsealed an envelope. If you long-press the back button at any time, the current page fades out to expose the home screen of the app, as if it had laid in wait until you needed it again. The theory is that when you pull away your content and expose what’s underneath, you’re creating a spatial relationship users can instantly understand. Reeder 2's new "share sheet," for example, slides out from the right side of the screen, on top of the article you're reading. App structures are no longer being built on letting the user move from one "screen" to another.
"OmniFocus 2 feels like the truest reimagining for iOS 7."
Even before iOS 7, some developers caught on to this useful interface paradigm. Facebook takes a similar approach with its photo viewer and Chat Heads messaging features, which pop into view on top of whatever you’re doing. Vesper slides your note’s header into the right spot when you tap on it, and Rdio introduced blurred, transparent glass overlays — which are now common in iOS 7 apps — and which hint at what’s underneath what you’re currently interacting with.
"How about giving your brain a clue about what’s happening?" advises Pasquale D’Silva in his seminal piece on "Transitional Interfaces," which was astoundingly prophetic of the interfaces in many new apps. iOS 7’s emphasis on bounces, swoops, and fly-ins that inform what’s onscreen seem to suggest that Ive agrees with D’Silva. It might seem obvious, but by adding a cue that one piece of an app or interface is above another, it lowers the cognitive cost of interacting with each onscreen element, say designers. "One of the things that we were interested in doing is, despite people talking about this being ‘flat,’ is that it’s very, very deep," Ive told Bloomberg Businessweek. "I mean, there is only so long you can make your shadows."
"How about giving your brain a clue what’s happening?"
The first crop of iOS 7 apps are in the wild, and while only a few seem to fully grasp Apple’s intent with iOS 7 beyond bright colors and circular avatars, the path ahead looks promising for users. "The more spartan approach to UI elements in iOS 7 almost guarantees that there is more focus on how things work," says Cap Watkins, design lead at Etsy. "Previously, a lot of time was spent on making interfaces skeuomorphic (with buttons, app icons, tape decks as podcasts, etc.). By stripping those visual elements away, you move the interface conversation toward one of function over form." And when your apps focus on function, instead of on serving a dollop of colorful but useless interface gumbo, users win, and an app is made better. And hopefully, the app is also made easier and more logical to use. "You pick the right sort of visual architecture, the right layering, and then it’s intuitive," says Apple software chief Craig Federighi, "[and] people without thinking are going to do the right thing."