Tuesday, June 18, 2013

iOS 7: Update or Languish

I spent last week in San Francisco attending Apple's World Wide Developer Conference. I'm always excited by the new stuff that Apple releases there. I spend that week each year lodged firmly inside the RDF.

But this year was different.

This year was a whole new level of "Wow!" for me. Given that it was my seventh consecutive WWDC, that's saying something. And the bulk of the wows actually came after the keynote during the various NDA sessions.

During the keynote, the focus was on the user-facing changes to OS X and iOS, plus some hardware announcements, which included a completely redesigned Mac Pro (another "Wow!"). I may talk about the new hardware at some point, but right now, I want to focus on the software changes, and specifically the changes to iOS, because they are substantial and somewhat in-your-face.

We all saw the new UI that was shown during the keynote, and it's been the subject of much debate ever since. Every single designer with a dribbble account or a copy of Photoshop has spent the last week or so telling anyone who would listen why the design of iOS 7 sucks. Now, I'm not a designer, so I'm not going to enter the fray except to say two things:
  1. What they're all judging is a developer preview released at a developer conference and made available to registered developers only. We're at least three months, possibly more, from a final product. It's very likely that many of the "design problems" that people are pointing out in these early builds will be gone by the time iOS 7 is released. Apple doesn't design and then go build as two distinct and separate steps. They iterate, and they are still iterating, and they will continue to iterate for quite some time. The right place to point out actual design flaws on a pre-release version of iOS is right here, not on a blog or on dribbble.

  2. I've read a lot of posts claiming the new iOS design breaks various "rules of design" and that "no designers" think what Apple has done with iOS 7 is right. They're pointing out things like iOS 7 "using straight-from-the-tube colors" and explaining how "the new icon grid is wrong". I'm sure there are many valid and worthy points buried amongst all the whining (but, again, see #1). Of course, when I hear these comments, I can't help but think back to something an art teacher once said to me. I can't remember the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of: "Competent artists know the rules and follow them. Masters know when to break them." When the dust settles and iOS 7 ships, most of the "broken" design rules at that time will likely have been broken intentionally. Maybe you're a better designer than Jony and his team, but you're a dark horse in that race if so.
Don't get me wrong: iOS 7 isn't perfect. But, nobody should be expecting it to be perfect at this point. It's not done. That's why it was only released to developers.

Whether you like it or not, though, we've seen enough to know the general direction Apple is taking for the foreseeable future. While the look and feel will evolve a little with each beta, the broad strokes we've been shown will still be there when iOS 7 ships. Lighter colors, thinner fonts, playful physics-based animation? Those, without a doubt, are going to be prominent parts of iOS 7, and likely iOS 8 and 9 as well.

So, if you're an app developer and you don't update your apps or if you continue to create what I'd call "heavy" skeuomorphic interfaces, your application is going to look out of place on iOS 7. It's going to look outdated no matter how well designed it might be. Go back and look at a screenshot of Mac OS 9. What you just felt looking at that is what people will feel when they look at your "heavier" iOS apps six months or a year from now.

These changes to iOS 7 mean an awful lot of work for developers and designers alike. But, for the most part, the developers are not complaining. Almost every developer I've talked to is incredibly excited about everything that came out this year. We like progress. We're okay having to do extra work to keep up and we're happy to file bug reports to tell Apple what's not working. We want to help Apple iterate toward a better final product. We like this game and we're really happy to be playing it.

Which is good, because it's time to "update or languish". Marco Arment got it basically right: everything is in flux right now. Whether you like Apple's new direction or not,  apps that don't revisit their interaction model and visual design are, in most cases, going to be pushed aside by newer, lighter, more playful apps that take advantage of the cool stuff that iOS 7 has given us.

Don't get hung up on what you don't like. Focus on what you need to do to keep moving forward and to keep your apps relevant and exciting. That's going to help users far more than knowing that the corner radii on their home screen are "wrong".

If you need help figuring out what to do with an existing app, or want to create a new one, that's what we do at MartianCraft, so feel free to drop us a line. We'd love to talk with you.