Dear OmniGroup Designers & Developers,
I’ve been a huge fan of OmniFocus, both Mac and iOS, for years. You guys helped me graduate college, become an ICU nurse, start a family, and change careers to become an indie iOS developer.
I’m writing to say that I’m very disappointed by the iOS 7 redesign of OmniFocus for iPhone. I’ve been using it since it came out, hoping that I would adjust to it, but it just hasn’t happened. Instead, I’m often reverting to a plain text list in a note-taking app for quick notes about the day’s tasks. I’m only using OmniFocus on my Mac now.
I’m not complaining about the flatness of the iOS redesign. Go with the current, by all means.
Instead, I’m disappointed by the underwhelming airiness of the whole app. It is excessively understated to the point of being hard to use. Navigation looks indistinguishable from content. I have trouble seeing the logical hierarchy of information. My fingers hesitate before tapping anything because I’m never entirely sure that I’m tapping the right thing. The inconsistent use of transition animations — some are standard push/pop transitions, others are the custom vertical split — act like speed bumps, preventing the use of muscle memory. The light weight fonts feel fragile and make quick, accurate reading almost impossible.
In short, the new design slows me down. I can’t build safe muscle memories. I can’t quickly navigate the app without constant tension. The design is driving me away from OmniFocus, and I don’t want that to happen.
Here’s what I wish you would change, at a minimum:
Consistent Navigation. Use one, consistent navigation paradigm throughout the app, even if it’s just the standard UIKit push/pop transition. Help me build power-user reflexes that speed up my work.
Distinguish Navigation From Content. Make navigation tonally distinct from content. I suggest using white text on a solid color background for toolbars and nav bars, and dark text on a white background for content. You could even use context-specific background colors for the navigation bars. The color cues from the dashboard screen would be even more resonant this way.
Use Readable Fonts. Don’t use light weight fonts. Don’t rely on the Settings.app text accessibility preferences, either, because what looks good in OmniFocus might look bad in another app. Make the out-of-the-box fonts easy to read.
Make the App Logically Obvious At A Glance. Short of jumping into Photoshop myself and showing you what I mean, I will say this: the task editing screen should be redesigned with a more obvious logical hierarchy. The current design’s closest analog from the real world is a tax form: a dizzying grid of equally-important boxes. The task editing screen is complex for a good reason. All the features are necessary. Rather than hide the complexity with understated controls, take the opposite approach. Make them easily understood even at a glance. The tabs should look like tabs if that’s how they function. A good test would be to see how accurately a new user remembers the content of a task after being shown the screen for a brief interval, say 2-3 seconds.
Thanks for all your hard work over the years. I entrust so much of my life to your software. I want to continue to be a loyal customer and fan.
Jared Sinclair | @jaredsinclair
My finger-to-the-wind says that apps and services aiming for mainstream consumer appeal, which were already impossibly hard, are only going to get harder in the coming years. There’s too much noise, and attention is fleeting. Any company that hasn’t started by now has already lost.
But on the other hand, iOS is a rapidly-maturing operating system. It’s officially seven years old today. The latest round of iPads and iPhones have practically removed all hardware barriers limiting what software can do.
In other words, while the tides of attention-based, multi-million-dollar startups churn red with the blood of all the contenders, I think there’s a vast blue ocean waiting for independent developers to make prosumer and pro software. I look at an app like Editorial by Ole Zorn and think, “My god, that’s where the rest of us should be going.”
Mass market, VC-funded companies can’t ship those kinds of apps. Apple’s apps will never be all things to all customers, either. But many people are still going to need advanced tools to get through their day-to-day lives. Not just writers, but first grade teachers, speech-language pathologists, youth pastors, session guitarists, ICU nurses — everyone.
I think that success will come to folks who can figure out how to ship “maximum viable products” on day one, without venture funding and without going bankrupt in the process, apps that are carefully designed and built to solve real problems for real people.
The Polar Vortex of 2014 has been a boon for Unread. Icy midwestern weather trapped me indoors and blurred the week into one, uninterrupted, very productive Work Day. I cleared the last must-have feature from the Version 1.0 todo list a few days ago. Only a few stepping stones remain between here and App Store submission. If you have any questions not answered below, feel free to ask me.
Fixes and Polishing
The private beta has been a relief. The testers have sent fantastic notes and bug reports. Most of their concerns are fixed and ready to ship. Fresh eyes are indispensable after you’ve spent six straight months staring at the same screens. The app is on feature lockdown from now on: no new features until after App Store submission. I’m obsessively polishing the smaller details. The best news I can give you is that the testers are really enjoying the app. I hope you will, too.
Technically, I’ve integrated Feedly into Unread already, but I only have access to the development sandbox. I’ve requested access to the production environment so that any Feedly user can sign in with Unread. If for some reason Unread is not approved for production access, then I will submit Version 1.0 without Feedly, trying again later. I requested access very recently, however, so I’m confident that Feedly integration will be in the 1.0. This process may end up pushing back the 1.0 several weeks. Unread also works with FeedWrangler (which I use personally) and Feedbin.
[UPDATE] Since publishing this article, Feedly has granted Unread production access. When the final testing is finished, I’ll be submitting Unread for App Store review. Stay tuned for more updates. January 22, 2014.
App Submission Collateral
I need to assemble the items required by the App Store, the usual bric-a-brac: screenshots, an app description, et cetera. Easy stuff.
I’ve finally chosen a price: Unread will be available at an introductory price of $2.99, for a limited time. I know the tides have turned in favor of freemium pricing models, but those models work best for:
- Apps that connect to their own proprietary services. Unread connects to other companies’ services. There are no server-side features of my own that I could charge for.
- Games with consumable purchases. I could charge you $0.99 cents for every article you read or share, but I don’t think I could stomach the one-star reviews.
I considered using the free-with-pro-upgrade model we use in Riposte, but it doesn’t make sense for an RSS reader. Riposte’s biggest challenge is drawing customers to App.net, which has a much smaller network of users.1 RSS, while not as popular as it once was, is an established medium with plenty of existing users. Hopefully there’s a good number of them who aren’t afraid to spend a few bucks on a new app — especially one that tries very hard to be a fresh take on an old idea.
App.net also has the Developer Incentive Program, which is a nice bonus. ↩
Tonight iA announced that they will drop their controversial patent application for the “Syntax Control” feature of Writer Pro. Upon learning of the surprising good news, I was reminded of an anecdote from Zen in the Martial Arts by Joe Hyams.
Hyams, a journalist and a devoted martial arts student, compiled the book from unexpected life lessons he learned while on the mat. Despite its short length, it is rich with practical wisdom. It’s not a book about feats of the body, but a work of deep gratitude for the teachers who helped him become a happier person (I cannot recommend this book enough; it’s wonderful).
This is one of my favorite stories:
I will remember one of my initial sessions at [Ken Parker’s] dojo in Los Angeles where I was practising kumite (sparring) with a more skillful opponent. To make up for my lack of knowledge and experience, I tried deceptive, tricky moves that were readily countered. I was outclassed, and Parker watched me get roundly trounced.
When the match was over I was dejected. Parker invited me into his small office; a small sparsely furnished room with only a scarred desk and battered chairs.
"Why are you so upset?" he asked.
"Because I couldn’t score."
Parker got up from behind the desk and with a piece of chalk drew a line on the floor about five feet long.
"How can you make this line shorter?" he asked.
I studied the line and gave him several answers, including cutting the line in many pieces. He shook his head and drew a second line, longer than the first.
"Now how does the first line look?"
"Shorter," I said.
Parker nodded. “It is always better to improve and strengthen your own line or knowledge than to try and cut your opponent’s line.” He accompanied me to the door and added, “Think about what I have just said.”
Software developers: lengthen your line.
Loren Brichter, inventor of the now ubiquitous pull-to-refresh control, interviewed in an article by Fast Company called “Why the Pull-to-Refresh Gesture Must Die”:
Brichter, however, feels that it’s high time his gesture evolves. “The fact that people still call it ‘pull-to-refresh’ bothers me—using it just for refreshing is limiting and makes it obsolete,” he says. “I like the idea of ‘pull-to-do-action.’”
If you like the sound of that, you’re gonna love Unread.
It’s common knowledge that there are too many apps on the App Store, with no reliable way of discovering the good ones. It’s like panning for gold: piled on every hidden gem is a heap of worthless lumps.
Most of the attempts to solve the problem lean on shoddy software algorithms. They’re blunt tools at best, and games for crooks at worst. From “What’s Hot” to the top free/paid/grossing sections, the algorithm-based lists of apps have spawned a cottage industry of companies like TapJoy and AppGratis, which promise to pump up downloads in exchange for thousands of dollars from desperate developers. There’s also the “Genius” recommendation engine, which isn’t vulnerable to app marketing tricks, but in my experience it has never produced a recommendation that matched the quality of a recommendation from a friend with good taste.
Taste is the missing ingredient in App Store discovery thus far. People with good taste, whether in apps or otherwise, nourish their taste by continually looking for things that stretch the boundaries of what they know and like. I don’t know if I have good taste, but I try to. When a friend first played Tom Waits for me, I was still listening to godawful Dave Matthews Band and Korn. I hated Tom Waits. Eventually I learned how to love him. Tom Waits’ work is music about music. When my mind finally snapped into that higher register, my taste expanded. I learned a new way of listening.
Your taste in apps can grow in the same way, but no algorithm can take you there. Only the good taste of a friend can help. This is why the App Store needs “app playlists,” a list of all the apps currently installed on the iOS devices of anyone with an iTunes account — one playlist per account.
Consider the failure that was Ping. Ping’s failure is a lesson to learn, not a fate to repeat. Ping tried to be too many things, worst of all a new social network. It missed the crucial element that could have made it powerful: taste. As my brother pointed out to me, Ping should have been nothing more than a way to snoop through my friends’ album collections, with a buy button next to each one, and a “Buy All“ button at the top. We improve our taste by absorbing the tastes of people whom we admire.
App playlists should be rigorously simple: just a list of apps. Not all the apps ever downloaded, but the apps that a given user currently has installed on their device. The assumption is that if somebody has an app on their device, they probably like it. App playlists should be given top-level priority via their own tab in the App Store. When selected, that tab should contain two main screens: one for recent activity, and one for a list of all the people you follow. When viewing a playlist, you should be able to buy each app individually, or buy them all with a single tap of a “Buy All” button at the top of the screen. The playlist view should look just like the current “Purchased” screen in the Updates tab.
App playlists would succeed where other attempts have failed because they would be effortless. Even the most esoteric high-quality app is downloaded by the developer’s friends and Twitter followers. It would take no extra work for these “promoting” users to share their new discoveries. Simply downloading an app and keeping it would suffice.
There are a number of ways Apple could build the social graph behind this. They could do it the same way they built Game Center, whose popularity is the strongest counterargument to any Ping-hating naysayers. Alternatively, Apple could require linking to a third-party account like App.net or Twitter — App.net is especially poised to back this kind of service, with its powerful, open-ended API. However Apple builds the social graph, it should only be used to keep track of following status. There should be no comments, likes, reposts, or anything of that nature. The problem of App Store discovery is not due to a lack of social media coverage or bad algorithms. The real problem is a failure to empower people to share their good taste.
Since I received one last week, I’ve been jotting and sketching with a Pencil stylus from Fifty Three, makers of the Paper drawing app for iPad. Paper, which was already my favorite iOS app, promised to be even better when paired with the Pencil stylus. That promise is mostly fulfilled.
My Pencil arrived packaged in a cute cardboard tube that opens from the top like a tiny diploma canister. Pencil communicates wirelessly with the Paper app via Bluetooth, so there is an internal battery that requires charging. A warning label on a protective wrapper around the stylus reminded me about the battery. Fortunately, my stylus was already fully charged.
Pairing the stylus was easy. A short video showed me how to do it. You press the tip of the stylus against a spot on the left edge of the tool tray. It pairs after pressing and holding that spot for a few seconds — faster than I was expecting, but not as fast as I would like. It is disappointing that the stylus must be re-paired after an extended period without using it. In practice, I have found that I need to pair the stylus every time I pick up my iPad. Your experience may differ, since I probably use my iPad less than most folks.
You don’t need to pair Pencil to use it as a stylus. Pairing is only necessary to unlock the features specific to the Paper app. You can see these features here. All of them work as advertised, almost without caveat. Even the palm rest detection was perfect. The eraser was the only new feature to give me trouble. The eraser tip’s shape, a wide thin rectangle, is different from the shape actually used by the app, a small circle. This makes it hard to judge what areas you’ll actually be erasing.
As a stylus, Pencil is better than most of the others I’ve tried, but it is not the best. That accolade still belongs to the Maglus by Applydea.
Pencil’s tip collapses easily and requires too much force to trigger a touch recognition. This is a common problem with every stylus I’ve used except the Maglus. The black material at Pencil’s tip may be resilient, but it feels fragile. It buckles under the tip of my finger. By comparison, the Maglus’ tip is sturdy, and feels paradoxically stiffer as I apply more and more force. The tip retains more of its resting shape under pressure than the tips of other styluses, making the Maglus the most accurate stylus I’ve used.
Like the Maglus, Pencil is shaped like a carpenter’s pencil, though Pencil’s shape is much closer to the real thing. Pencil’s body feels smooth and light — too light, I think. I ordered the walnut version. It’s definitely machined from real wood, but hollowed out until the walls of the stylus are thin. A matte finish was applied thinly over the fine grain, leaving behind a satisfying texture. The part line where the black tip meets the wood exterior would benefit from higher manufacturing tolerances. This part line is where the electronics separate from the body when you need to recharge the battery. There’s a distracting contrast there, unfortunately placed right where your fingers spend the most time. I feel anxious that I might break what feels like a fragile seal.
In contrast, the Maglus is a tank, constructed from a solid piece of aluminum. It’s pleasantly heavy and practically indestructible. Both Pencil and the Maglus have magnets embedded in their bodies to make it easy to stow them on your iPad’s Smart Cover or on the side of a filing cabinet. Pencil’s magnet is much weaker than the Maglus’ magnet, and placed near the eraser end, making it harder to attach it to your iPad with confidence. The Maglus’ magnet is in the middle, right under the black rubber skids, and is so strong that I don’t think I could ever accidentally brush it off.
If you love the Paper app as much as I do, you’ll find that Pencil is an indispensable companion when using that app. While it isn’t the most comfortable or accurate stylus you can find, the features it unlocks in the app are enough to overcome its weaknesses. On the other hand, if you are looking for a general purpose stylus, the Maglus still can’t be beat. The Bamboo stylus, pictured above, is the best alternative for folks looking for something that feels more like a pen than a carpenter’s pencil.
I was a guest on this week’s Accessible podcast by Steven Aquino and Ben Alexander. We talked about teaching Siri to understand folks who stutter; how my wife is much smarter than me; what Ellie Sattler’s Jurassic fern frond has to say about iOS 7; web leather, mobile leather; and how a pile of dog parts on your living room floor doesn’t make a Lassie.
This app is unabashedly my vote for the best iOS-6-to-iOS-7 redesign I’ve seen. It retains the spirit and flavor of the previous version, while still treading safely within the new flatness dictated by iOS 7. Get it here.
Playful animations are easy to spot but not overbearing, which is difficult to achieve. My favorite animation is the animating hearts when tapping a like button (I sure hope people don’t get push notifications every time I tap a heart button, because I can’t keep myself from tapping them again and again).
If I could change one thing, it would be the use of the blurring views behind the status and navigation bars. They’re so heavily tinted blue that the resulting effect is a distracting flicker when scrolling. The true purpose of iOS 7’s blur is to create the illusion that your “content” is always visible, even from behind a navbar. This goal would be better achieved in Tumblr’s case by using semi-translucent non-blurring blue bars.
Together with Justin Williams, I recently announced an open-source iOS sharing library called OvershareKit (available on GitHub). It makes it trivial to add rich sharing options to your iOS apps. There’s enough material in OvershareKit to warrant many blog posts, but I figure I should start with some of the cooler bits that you might not discover right away:
OSKTextView: A Better UITextView
OvershareKit comes with OSKTextView, a fork of JTSTextView, my open source UITextView wrapper (until Apple fixes some bad iOS 7 bugs with UITextView). The OvershareKit version has some nifty additions. It can highlight links, hashtags, and @mentions as you type. You can move the cursor with the Riposte-style swipe gestures: one finger to move by character, two fingers by words, and three fingers by paragraphs. It also automatically converts dumb quotes to smart quotes.
Built-In Support for In-App Purchases
This was Justin’s killer idea. Your app may have certain sharing activities that require in-app purchases (e.g. Riposte only shows the OmniFocus and Things options if you’ve upgraded to Riposte Pro). Why hide those from the share sheets, when OvershareKit could do more? Once you mark your chosen activity types as requiring in-app purchase, OvershareKit will badge those activity icons with little price tag indicators until they’re purchased. If a user taps one of them, OvershareKit queries the relevant OSKPresentationManager delegate for your custom purchasing view controller. You are still responsible for making the purchase from the App Store, and for storing/validating purchase receipts.
Optional Dark Mode
More and more customers are realizing how nice it is when an app shifts to a low-light mode or “dark mode” during evening hours. OvershareKit has an optional dark mode setting, which you can trigger through the OSKPresentationManager’s style delegate. You can also customize many of the default colors.
The username / password screens in OvershareKit show 1Password search buttons if that app is installed. Tapping the button launches 1Password with a search query based on the activity, e.g. “Instapaper.” This logic is based on some open source code I wrote for Riposte, available on GitHub.
With the exception of Pocket, all third-party services in OvershareKit support multiple accounts. We included an account management screen that you can use to add or remove accounts for each service. You can see the accounts screen in the sample app by tapping the left navigation bar button from the app’s main screen. You’ll know best where this screen should live in your application.
VoiceOver and Localization
OvershareKit’s views and alerts have 100-percent VoiceOver coverage. All user-facing strings are in English, but you can provide localizations via the localizationDelegate of OSKPresentationManager. Never ship an app without VoiceOver, and never ship a new design without testing its accessibility implications first. Ask your users for help. You probably already have some tech-savvy users with visual or other impairments that would love to join your beta team. Look for smart folks like Marco Zehe and Steven Aquino.
Dave Brasgalla has an interesting write-up on the iconography of the first Alien film and its parallels to the iconography of iOS 7. In the course of his article, he offers his take on iOS 7:
For my part, I have a very positive feeling towards iOS 7, for one main reason: it brings computer iconography firmly back around to concentrating on communication rather than illustration – function over form. This is the realm of the graphic designer, where informed decisions about composition and colour create successful, strong symbology that will outlast trends, and is applicable over multiple uses.
I think everything he writes makes sense, but I also think what he says is totally irrelevant to why most people buy and enjoy iPhones and iPads.
People don’t choose an iOS device out of respect for Apple’s adherence to formal design principles. They are only dimly aware, if at all, of the design battles being waged between people who make apps and smartphones for a living. People buy iPhones and iPads because they are the first computers that you can use without feeling stupid.
The warm, evocative design of iOS 1 through 6 made using a computer easy and fun. For many, many people, this was an entirely novel experience. Most people had only ever owned or used clunky, complicated Windows PCs for work or school. It was walking on egg shells, and it was never fun. The iPhone changed all that.
Designers with more rarified tastes may cringe at torn paper textures and green felt, but these extremes were the exceptions, not the norm. This bears repeating: the skeuomorphic excesses of iOS 1-6 were the exception, not the norm. The norm was much more nuanced. The aesthetics were focused on making things intuitive and fun:
Notes.app Icon: On iOS 6, the Notes.app icon was a little roundrect version of a yellow legal pad. It was warm, cute, and — most importantly — easy to understand. It immediately conveyed its purpose: this is for jotting down notes. The new icon looks like nothing at all. It has been designed with strict adherence to Apple’s new formal visual rules for their app icons, but only against that metric could it be called a success. The new icon puts form before function.
Buttons: On iOS 6, buttons had subtle gradients and borders, not as whizz-bang, but to make it abundantly clear where you were being invited to tap — just as sidewalks make it abundantly clear where you are being invited to walk. On iOS 7, it is often impossible to tell what is a button and what is not.
Slide-to-Unlock: On iOS 1-6, the lock screen slider was composed of a sliding button and a track. It was so easy to understand that babies literally figured it out on their own. The springy physics were reminiscent of the spring-loaded locks on gym locker doors, which helped both convey the slider’s purpose and how to use it. On iOS 7, the obvious slider has been replaced by a tiny chevron on de-valued visual footing against many similarly-colored elements. There is no visual affordance for how the unlock gesture is supposed to work. The “slide to unlock” text label is still there, but a) it doesn’t specify what or where you are supposed to slide, and b) is so thin and glittery that it is often impossible to read. Try starting a turn-by-turn Maps.app session and then look at your lock screen. It’s incomprehensible.
We’ve all heard the old design adage that “form follows function.” Those of us who make apps for a living have heard it so many times that it’s easy to ignore it as trite. In reality it is very difficult to adhere to that principle. It is difficult because separating form from function is a messy exercise. It must be done delicately, and with respect for what our users think and feel.
On iOS, putting function before form is not as simple as paring down icons to a strict grid and color palette. There are functions beyond literal communication that iOS designers must balance. Making icons warm and inviting serves many deeper purposes. It builds your confidence in the device. It makes you feel in control. It sets your mind and thumbs at ease. It communicates through feeling and memory, and when done well, resonates with human experience in a way that PCs never could.
What is Overshare? It’s the answer to the pit I felt in my stomach when I contemplated writing sharing code all over again for Unread. Sharing is so common, and so important, yet there’s no library out there that covers both the easy and complex cases gracefully.
Overshare makes it trivial to add rich sharing options to your iOS apps. In a word, Overshare has everything:
Beautiful share sheets with pixel-perfect, full-color icons in a simple layout.
Lots of tweakable options, including a gorgeous dark mode.
Built-in integration with iOS Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Built-in integration with popular third-party services like App.net, Instapaper, and more.
Complete multi-account management, including authentication and storing credentials securely in the Keychain.
Killer text editing views with as-you-type Twitter syntax highlighting, Riposte-style swipe gesture cursor navigation, and automatic smart quotes.
URL scheme integration with 1Password, OmniFocus, and Things.
Head on over to the Overshare GitHub account and check it out!
Overshare will be shipping in the 1.0 of Unread, and will likely find its way into Riposte and Whisper, too. If you’re so inclined, we’d love for you to test Overshare in your development apps and let us know how it goes.
I dislike iOS 7 so strongly that I feel inclined to begin this post with a disclaimer about how much I admire Apple. Apple is my hero. They’ve always inspired me to be better at what I do, even when I was an ICU nurse. But they are not perfect. I can and should criticize their worst work when I find it — out of my admiration for their best work.
To understand the biggest design mistake Apple made in iOS 7, you have to acknowledge a fact so obvious that it can be easily overlooked: touch. The essential characteristic of iOS is touch. Skin against glass. A round, squishy, inaccurate little fat pad at the end of your finger. Unlike the PCs that iOS devices replaced, everything you do on iOS is driven by your thumb pressed directly against the screen. There is no intermediary device. Simply put, the importance of touch on iOS cannot be overstated.
Good iOS app design is obsessed with touch. Bad iOS app design takes touch for granted. We’ve all seen apps that look like they were designed by talented print designers, apps with beautiful screenshots and tasteful typography that nevertheless fall apart disgracefully as soon as you actually try to use them. These apps don’t fail for lack of talent. They fail because their designers have the wrong process. They’re beginning with aesthetics and squeezing in the interactions wherever they have room to fit. The right process moves in the opposite direction. A good iOS app designer begins with touch, and only afterwards chooses aesthetics that complement and enhance the underlying touchable structure. iOS 7 has been designed with the wrong process.
What makes something touchable?
For things that scroll or zoom, touchability means that the content under your finger moves with your touch, without any lag or jitters. iOS 7 does as good a job with this as with previous iOS versions. In some cases it does it even better, as in the new swipe-to-go-back gesture in apps like Safari and Mail, or the bouncy physics that you can see when swiping up the Control Center.
For buttons, touchability requires something different. Touchable buttons need borders. By “borders” I don’t mean outlines, (although outlines are included in my usage of the word). I mean borders in a broader sense. A button is a tappable area, clearly delineated from the un-tappable content around it by an obvious border.
Borders around buttons can be real or implied. A real border is like the roundrect shape around a “Buy” button on the App Store. An implied border is like those around the toolbar icons at the bottom of the Safari screen.
Implied borders are easy to get wrong. Care must be taken to make sure that aesthetic choices don’t obscure where one button ends and another begins. This is why iOS app designers make all toolbar icons fit into a roughly square shape. When set together in a row, adequately spaced, the eye can perceive the 44-by-44 point implied border around each button.
iOS 7’s designers have abandoned bordered buttons in favor of borderless colored text. I think this choice is unjustifiable. It is the root cause of my deep dislike for how it feels to use iOS 7. It introduces unnecessary tension and makes everything less usable than it ought to be.
Color alone simply cannot be the way to identify a button. You don’t touch a color. You touch an area. To activate a button, you must touch a spot inside of its boundary. Text floating in the middle of vast whitespace doesn’t define a boundary. Only borders define boundaries.
Compare the navigation bar buttons from the native Twitter share sheet with those from Tweetbot’s navigation bar:
In the iOS 7 share sheet, there are three text labels: Cancel, Twitter, and Post. Which of these three are buttons and which ones are not? Those of us who are lucky enough to have good vision might correctly guess that the blue ones are buttons, but what if we were color blind? Furthermore, how do we know whether or not the title doubles as a tappable button, like the title button in Tweetbot that can be used to toggle the source list?
The Tweetbot title button is obvious because it’s enclosed by obvious borders. If Tweetbot were redesigned to strictly adhere to the iOS 7 paradigm, it would be impossible to know whether or not the title was tappable. What if this fictional Tweetbot made the title blue also. Wouldn’t that actually make it harder to distinguish buttons from inert labels?
There are many other examples in iOS 7 of how the lack of borders creates a dizzying confusion. The Contacts app is a particularly strong example:
How do we know that “John” and “Appleseed” are editable? They’re not blue. They’re black, borderless, and floating some inscrutable distance from one another and from the other elements above and below them. How do we know that they are separate text fields, and not one big multiline text view? Is “Company” editable? If so, where does it’s tappable region end and the “add phone” area begin? Likewise, what about the empty region between “add phone” and “add email”? Are the cell separator lines defining a tappable boundary around the “add email” row? You’d be forgiven for assuming so, since those lines create the impression of a tall tappable row, but you’d be wrong.
I imagine that folks might argue that web page links are examples of buttons made solely from colored text. Aren’t people already familiar enough with links on the web that using the same paradigm on iOS is a simple change?
My counterargument is that web links are subject to the same visual risks as native buttons on iOS. Links can be just as confusing if not treated carefully. Links that use not only a different color but also some other means of differentiation, like a heavier font weight or an underline, are easier to use than links based on color alone. This is why Mobile Safari paints a dark grey roundrect over a link’s tap boundary when it’s pressed. It makes it explicit exactly which link you’ve tapped:
Apple’s goal of refining iOS down to its essential elements is a noble one. The video that they played again at the October Event yesterday is full of inspiring ideas. Unfortunately, much of iOS 7 suffers from an overzealous fixation on the reduction of visual flourish, ignoring the deeper functional roles that the previous visual effects performed. Buttons don’t have to be made from green felt or stitched leather, but they still need to look like buttons.
Horace Dediu once said, of the idea of a business disrupting itself, “You have to be completely psychotic about it.”
The same is true of creative work. Hate the past. Scrutinize the present. Obsess over the future.
I spent a few years of my life pursuing a theology degree. It didn’t stick, but if there’s one thing I’ve kept from my churchy upbringing, it’s the concept of Christian Perfection. For John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist church, being good enough isn’t good enough. Perfection is the only good worth seeking. Wesley was batshit crazy, but he was profoundly influential on the people his life touched.
Perfection, for Wesley, isn’t possible. Yet it is the constant goal towards which good people strive just the same. Good works are done, one gets closer to perfection, but never close enough. There are victories along the way. With each victory, the temptation is to become enraptured by one’s own successes. The dangerous irony here is that being a better person is itself the source of the temptation that can ruin it all. Pride cometh…
As creative workers, we have to learn how to do our best every day as if for the first time, forgetting what we did before as if it was someone else’s success and not our own.
If you are a revolutionary technology company, or a film production company with a perfect track record, or a preeminent blogger, then goddammit you had better be goddamn perfect, and that means perpetually acknowledging how far you have left to go.
Remember how quick Steve Jobs was to dismiss his past successes?
I’ll close this with the best words Wesley ever wrote (and he filled many volumes before he died; emphasis added):
Fire is the symbol of love; and the love of God is the principle and the end of all our good works. But truth surpasses figure; and the fire of divine love has this advantage over material fire, that it can re-ascend to its source, and raise thither with it all the good works which it produces. And by this means it prevents their being corrupted by pride, vanity, or any evil mixture. But this cannot be done otherwise than by making these good works in a spiritual manner die in God, by a deep gratitude, which plunges the soul in him as in an abyss, with all that it is, and all the grace and works for which it is indebted to him; a gratitude, whereby the soul seems to empty itself of them, that they may return to their source, as rivers seem willing to empty themselves, when they pour themselves with all their waters into the sea.
Instagram released their iOS 7 update today. I’m sorry to report that it is not good.
The previous Instagram interface embodied the ideal iOS app design. It had oodles of personality while still retaining a mass-market appeal. There was a consistent set of styles applied to every screen, in a palette that was restrained, yet identifiably Instagram.
Today’s update is a mess. It’s awash with stylistic contradictions, as if their designers were caught between a desire to kowtow to Apple’s new guidelines and their own internally-cultivated sense of taste.
The app icon is still the realistically-detailed little camera we’ve all grown accustomed to, suggesting that the rest of the app hasn’t changed, when in fact the opposite is true.
The navigation bar has been reduced to a flat Instagram blue, dropping all of the tiny details from the previous version. Strangely, the navigation bar is only blue on the main timeline. All the other screens use a system-default, blurred-white navigation bar. Swiping back from a detail screen into the main timeline creates some extreme disharmony as the status bar disappears on one half of the display.
Making matters worse, the status bar animates in a harsh manner from white-on-blue to black-on-white when you scroll down into your timeline. To be fair, this is as much Apple’s fault as Instagram’s for creating the problem in the first place. Instagram’s poor solution is a great example of why apps shouldn’t have to accomodate an overlapping status bar. The iOS 6 plain black status bar is still the best solution for most cases.
Square avatars have been replaced with circular ones, which have long since lapsed from cool to trendy to tacky. John Gruber makes a great observation about them:
And for Instagram in particular, it breaks a certain elegance — your avatar was the same thing as a post, a square image.
The camera interface is almost unchanged from the iOS 6 version, except for the removal of the subtle noise that provided texture for the large grey toolbar areas. Buttons have borders, shadows, and soft bevels (and they look great). The contrast between the stylized camera screens and the flat default look of the rest of the app is the most troublesome contradiction. As my friend Preshit Deorukhakar said on App.net:
Did Instagram designers forget there’s a Camera View in the app when designing the iOS 7 update?
Tim Van Damme, the primary designer of the iOS 6 interface, left Instagram this summer for Dropbox. I have no idea how much he was involved in the iOS 7 redesign. As an outside observer, the portions of Van Damme’s work still visible in the app look like splotches of blue-grey on a half-finished whitewashed wall. The spirit and unity of his work is gone. Those picking up where he left off need to either fully commit to the new flat style, or else strike out on a bolder tack. Half-assing a push into two contradictory directions at once is a sure way of getting lost in the weeds.