What Apple needs to do now

Update, 10 June 2013: Vindicated!

I’ve been in San Francisco for a day or so, on my way up to O’Reilly’s Foo Camp. This in itself is already happy-making, but when I found myself jetlagged and wide-awake in yesterday’s dawny gloaming and realized where I was (three blocks from the flagship Apple Store) and what day it was (!!), my schedule for the day was foreordained.

I performed quick ablutions, picked up a tall coffee to go, and met free-at-last Tom Coates a little after six in the morning, on what was already a nontrivial line. Lots of free energy drinks, doughnuts, and burritos and eight hours later, I was ushered into The Presence; after the usual provisioning and activation hassles, I left the store with a gorgeous, brand-spankin’-new iPhone 4.

And it truly is gorgeous, y’know? In its formal qualities, this Mk IV represents a significant advance over the last iteration — which I never cared for, as it looked and felt cheap — and a return to Jony Ive’s long-term effort to reinscribe a Ramsian design ethic in the market for 21st century consumer products. As an object, it just about cannot be faulted. Mmmmm.

Oh, but that interface. Or more particularly, the design of applications and utilities. The worrisome signs that first cropped up in the iPhone 3G Compass app, and clouded the otherwise lovely iPad interaction experience, are here in spades. What’s going on here is an unusual, unusually false and timid choice that, in the aggregate, amounts to nothing less than a renunciation of what these devices are for, how we think of them, and the ways in which they might be used.

I’m talking about the persistent skeuomorphic design cues that spoor applications like Calendar, Compass, iBooks and the truly awful Notes. The iPhone and iPad, as I argued on the launch of the original in 2007, are history’s first full-fledged everyware devices — post-PC interface devices of enormous power and grace — and here somebody in Apple’s UX shop has saddled them with the most awful and mawkish and flat-out tacky visual cues. You can credibly accuse Cupertino of any number of sins over the course of the last thirty years, but tackiness has not ordinarily numbered among them.

Dig, however, the page-curl animation (beautifully rendered, but stick-in-the-craw wrong) in iBooks. Feast your eyes on the leatherette Executive Desk Blotter nonsense going on in Notes. Open up Calendar, with its twee spiral-bound conceit, and gaze into the face of Fear. What are these but misguided coddles, patronizing crutches, interactively horseless carriages?

Lookit: a networked, digital, interactive copy of, say, the Tao Te Ching is simultaneously more and less than the one I keep on my shelf. You give up the tangible, phenomenological isness of the book, and in return you’re afforded an extraordinary new range of capabilities. Shouldn’t the interface, y’know, reflect this? A digital book read in Kindle for iPad sure does, as does a text saved to the (wonderful, indispensable) Instapaper Pro.

The same thing, of course, is true of networked, digital, interactive compasses and datebooks and notepads. If anything, the case is even less ambivalent here, because in all of these instances the digital version is all-but-unalloyed in its superiority over the analogue alternative. On the iPad, only Maps seems to have something of the quality of a true network-age cartography viewer.

I want to use the strongest language here. This is a terribly disappointing renunciation of possibility on Apple’s part, a failure to articulate an interface-design vocabulary as “futuristic” as, and harmonious with, the formal vocabulary of the physical devices themselves. One of the deepest principles of interaction design I observe is that, except in special cases, the articulation of a user interface should suggest something of a device, service or application’s capabilities and affordances. This is clearly, thoroughly and intentionally undermined in Apple’s current suite of iOS offerings.

What Apple has to do now is find the visual language that explains the difference between a networked text and a book, a networked calendar entry and a page leaf, or a networked locational fix and a compass heading, and does so for a mass audience of tens or hundreds of millions of non-science-fiction-reading, non-interface-geek human users. The current direction is inexplicable, even cowardly, and the task sketched here is by no means easy. But if anybody can do this, it’s the organization that made generations of otherwise arcane propositions comprehensible to ordinary people, that got out far enough ahead of the technology that their offerings Just Worked.

Application interfaces as effortlessly twenty-minutes-into-the-future as every other aspect of the iPad experience? Now that truly would be revolutionary and magical. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for, or to expect.

107 responses to “What Apple needs to do now”

  1. Fred Stidston says :

    What’s your argument to back up the assertion that the design of these applications should not use traditional references?

    • AG says :

      Do you steer your car with reins?

    • Fred Stidston says :

      That’s not an argument. The traditional aesthetic cues don’t interfere with the actual function of the ap. The wireframe is the same, it’s just decoration, adds comfort and sex appeal. All styles are valid.

    • AG says :

      Sure it’s an argument. “I refute it thus,” right?

      Anyway, if cheesy woodgrain and brass accents constitute “sex appeal,” then I’m Maggie Cheung in a leather catsuit.

    • Fred Stidston says :

      When I say there’s no argument I mean there’s no reasoned argument, or, substance. You view seems interesting on the face of it but it’s unsubstantiated.

      Basically you don’t like wood grain and you write a post called ‘What Apple should do next’.

    • AG says :

      Fred, I remind you: You’re reading a blog. This isn’t Oxford Union.

    • Andy Lee says :

      I don’t have anything substantive to add. I just want to say, Maggie Cheung + leather catsuit = mmm.

    • Jay Harlow says :

      surely you’re not suggesting that form has nothing to do with function?

  2. Timo says :

    The arcane visual languages being used (even encouraged in the HIG) are an over-reaction against the slick, affordanceless hardware. It’s a phase I think, and actually quite visually pragmatic.

    The challenge of new visual languages for glowing rectangles that are intimately tied to the physical world… Sounds like my next research project.

    • Philip van Allen says :

      “slick, affordanceless hardware” is perfect. Ultimately we’ll transition to some more apt visual cues and interactions, but we still need to establish the affordances that make these touchable slabs usable, rich, and understandable. And old forms rightly influence new forms. My car doesn’t use reins, but it has about the same track as a horse carriage! Acknowledging history in design isn’t inherently bad, and it’s often smart.

      Could it be done better? Yes, and I really don’t need to see another use of Comic Sans, ever. But I tire of the assumption that new is a blank slate. I agree with Timo that research and experimentation is needed, and that takes time. Until then, I’m fine with the pragmatic use of skeuomorphs.

  3. Matt says :

    I’d take a pinch of leatherette over Ive’s po-faced wrangling any day. More Peggle in everything FTW

  4. Jay Harlow says :

    Apple’s had this tendency ever since the OSX era began. Remember Aqua? Shudder.

    I think this is a natural early phase that necessarily precedes the evolution of a unique language of affordances for iPad.

    See Jay David Bolter’s “Remediation” for an excellent analysis of the phenomenon.

    • AG says :

      Great point, Jay.

    • abu says :

      Hehe, Apple had a penchant for this even before OS X.
      Do you remember the snazzy and ankward QuickTime 4.0?

      http://bit.ly/9XTbDQ

      Really, the whole situation seems a bit like time travelling to the late ’90s, when excitement about better graphics and multimedia buzz gave birth to a lot of pseudo-real interfaces in desktop OSes.

      As Jay says, this is probably just an early phase.

      Media publishing for iPad register a similar trend, with publishers enjoying the comfort zone of mimicking printed media without reflecting to much on the implications.
      The Wired app for example…

      http://bit.ly/9706ul

    • dete says :

      But here’s the thing: Was Aqua a mistake? Is this current design direction a mistake?

      All people with taste (i.e. people like me!) would agree that it’s artistically a mistake, but Apple doesn’t aim to create “just art”. “Crossroads of Fine Arts and Technology” don’t you know.

      As a business strategy, creating something garish and jarring, but which nonetheless fits in with the Zeitgeist, is a brilliant strategy.

      Was Aqua ugly? Sure! But would have anything less outrageous garnered the same attention?

      They’ll tone it down in a few years, just like they did on the desktop, and we’ll ALL look back on this era and laugh…

  5. David Sleight says :

    Well put. But pragmatically speaking, I suspect the sort of fundamental interaction innovation you’re seeking is more likely to come from third-party developers. At this point Apple is too incentivized by broad market reaction to go the “safe” route on this one. Maybe they’ll do something with that audience once they get them solidly in their camp (and in larger numbers).

  6. Daniel says :

    This use of nostalgic metaphor has bugged me for a while. Sometimes I don’t mind, because they seemed to put some effort and taste into the symbols they used (e.g. the entirely Rams-ian calculator icon … which has unfortunately now been replaced).

    But the quality has recently dropped significantly, most notably with iBooks. Those shelves! If you are going to go with a book-on-shelf metaphor (even though iTunes manages perfectly well without trying to look like a box of old vinyl), then at least going for some nice looking shelves. These ones look like they’ve been fished out of a skip.

    And then today I noticed something just as bad: I added a PDF to iBooks and it very kindly added a little black plastic comb-bind to it! Why put that extra effort into making something look cheap and nasty?

  7. Francois Jordaan says :

    Apple’s HIG states:
    “Add Physicality and Heightened Realism — Whenever possible, add a realistic, physical dimension to your application. The more true to life your application looks and behaves, the easier it is for people to understand how it works and the more they enjoy using it.”

    http://uxmag.com/design/ipad-user-experience-guidelines

    But in Jakob Nielsen’s really quite good review of the iPad, he warned against the lack of consistent affordances caused by the trompe l’oeil interfaces:

    http://www.useit.com/alertbox/ipad.html

    “Worse, there are often no perceived affordances for how various screen elements respond when touched. [...] The iPad etched-screen aesthetic does look good. No visual distractions or nerdy buttons. The penalty for this beauty is the re-emergence of a usability problem we haven’t seen since the mid-1990s: Users don’t know where they can click.”

    Soulver, as Instapaper’s Marco Arment loves to point out, is an excellent example of rejecting skeuomorphism (which plagues all calculator apps), and shows how a calculator app *should* be designed:

    http://www.marco.org/441168915

    “Nearly everything about a real calculator is faithfully reproduced, but with the good comes the bad: nearly every limitation and frustration has also been reproduced. There’s very little reason to use the software facsimile over its real-world equivalent, and in some ways, the physical object is better.”

    • abcxyz says :

      I tried soulver for a while, and think I should like it better. If I used it more, I might learn to. But I still prefer pcalc for quick calculations.

      The physical object may be better in some ways, but even a skeumorphic calculator has advantages: the keys can change their labels, the display stack is bigger, it can store more constants and conversions, it is updatable, and most importantly, it’s always in my pocket.

  8. Mike Cane says :

    A great and necessary post.

    Think back to the original iPhone 1.0 intro, tho, speaking of visual cues. Would anyone have thought to use their fingertip to scroll since the screen lacked scrollbar visualizations that everyone expected? Someone just bumped up against this problem with the Category menu in the iBookstore on an iPad. The menu choices seemed to end abruptly, leaving out many categories, and there was no indication it was scrollable.

    Also, pinching-out and in on a photo to enlarge/shrink. Who had ever considered doing that before we were shown it?

    It could be every time a new feature is used for the first time, a quick anim cue is run to illustrate.

    But even “knowing” something can FAIL. I forgot all about the Gesture Area on a Palm Pre when fondling it in a Sprint Store and found myself someplace with no cue to Go Back.

    The future is hard work!

  9. James S says :

    I agree the Apple stock apps are less than ideal. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, the App Store market is filling that void quite nicely. I’ve never found the “stock” apps on any smart phone great to begin with.

    Of course the down side is that you have to spend some $ to get a better experience, but I think the same applies to other platforms as well. Perhaps our expectations of Apple being the “ultimate” UX company are to high?

  10. Dude says :

    The times, they are a changin’… But not over night. Give it time.

  11. mwiik says :

    Perhaps these iconic analog predecessors remind us that the digital is not the real, not the social. Despite retina displays, slack is obliterated in the snap-to-grid quality of anything digital. Once every digital object becomes a law enforcement device, we may well wish we had waited for a higher-resolution world before jettisoning such reminders of a more liberal time.

  12. Jonathan says :

    This is an interesting post and I agree with most of it. I do not share your bafflement about Apple’s direction though because in much of this lament there are strong parallels with Microsoft and the inevitable distortion of market economics. Apple exists not to create wonderful UX, they exist to maximise profits. Since they are doing that quite nicely now, there is no incentive to do anything but be timid and safe. Your lament is an example of something that I often do: thinking about what should happen instead of what will. In that, I think, the future is bleak.

  13. Jamie says :

    cf. Mumford’s remarks about the work of Louis Sullivan, e.g., “[T]he architect must abandon the tedious and unmeaning symbolism of older cultural forms; a modern building could no more wear the dress of the classic than the architect would wear a peruke and sword.” (The Brown Decades, 1935)

    cf. John Ruskin on the “uses of ornament”: “Will a single traveller be willing to pay an increased fare on the South Western, because the columns of the termimus are covered with patterns from Nineveh? He will only care less for the Ninevite ivories in the British Museum.” (from “Lamp of Beauty” chapter of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849)

  14. Jin says :

    “…and does so for a mass audience of tens or hundreds of millions of non-science-fiction-reading, non-interface-geek human users.”

    But they already do. They don’t design to aim to please people like you or me. All my non-techy friends and family love the interface. Yes, those “Tacky metaphors.”

    • Matt says :

      This perhaps gets to a truth at the heart of it. Do the awkward, corny, skeuomorphic design elements help introduce a wary, neutral/hostile audience to this new system?
      For a user who is shy or lacks confidence when exploring technology, perhaps the blatantly identifiable is a means of opening an otherwise impassible door (or, at least, one the user is much less likely to open). How many smartphones came before the iPhone, with their sleak, forward design and saw only limited penetration past the bleeding-edge folks?
      At some point it will change, but I see that decision being made in a symbiotic way, when the majority of users express their rediness and eagerness for something new.
      E.g., the progress from a single button clicker to the swipe-able, zoomable “no button” Magic Mouse.

    • AG says :

      Honestly? There was no such thing as a “smartphone” (stupid term) with “sleek, forward design” before the iPhone. There were science-fiction-inspired, plasticky gadgets aspiring to be that, but not a one of them came close.

      I’d actually given up on phones — and explicitly, on this very blog, on brand loyalty where phones were concerned — by the time the iPhone was announced. They were *that* commodity-ugly, that clumsily detailed. I can see where it might be easy (already) for some to forget now, when every other HTC or Samsung phone ships with a halfway-attractive form factor and interface, but the iPhone was utterly unlike anything that had come before and hit with the force of revelation.

    • Jeremiah says :

      Well put. My wife and I were puzzling last night over why an in-law who routinely wrings the longest possible use life out of the cheapest possible phone was hostile to his wife’s interest in getting him an iPhone. Finally I remembered that *I* had felt the same way – had absolutely hated phones – before I got an iPhone. They never did quite what they promised, and they always did it badly, and made you wonder if you should be bothering to do it at all.

    • Matt says :

      I’m much too young to forget the gadget culture of three years ago, but perhaps not so young as to not remember the fervor of of the CrackBerry addicts, Erickson’s P900. Certainly these can’t hold even a match, let alone a candle, to the iPhone. But compared to what was available then? What about a decade earlier, when Nokia launched its 9000 series. QWERTY keyboard, scrolling screen, email, imaging, photos. For 96/97, that thing was a mobile computing beast.

      I part we’re arguing the same point here – the smartphones before (and, stupid or not, it’s the common moniker so, ya know, deal) just didn’t appeal to the general consumer. Whether people were ready for it, didn’t need the features, didn’t like the form-factor, whatever, they didn’t catch like the iPhone.

      But the iPhone was not “utterly unlike anything that had come before.” The applications were not novel. Email, calendars, contacts, photos, web browsing, all had been done. Not a spectacular device, but the P900-series was built on Symbian OS, ran java applications and was “open”: lots and lots of applications existed and were widely distributed. It also used a touch-screen interface, albeit requiring a stylus (it was 2003).

      Now, one thing the iPhone did was take all these tasks and do them _well_, which is a big thing. And it is an Apple product, which means it had a quality fit-and-finish and an established market with a low-threshold of required influence. But let’s not wax hyperbole on the success of a product that was as much a marketing and timing success as it was technological.

    • Jeremiah says :

      One key difference is the smartphone as a data storage and retrieval device (I burned through plenty of Palm Pilots, and assume most of the features of smartphones back in the day tacked email onto this and that’s about it) versus a phone that actually enables you to do remarkable things using the data of others. It’s really like night and day as far as I’m concerned.

    • Matt says :

      “Remarkable” as in “That is something about which I would remark”, or “remarkable” as in “a synonym of ‘amazing'”?

      Previous smart phones were not simply Palm Pilots with email. Again, the iPhone really is a great device with an enjoyable UX, which I’d wager is a big reason it’s been so successful. And, unfortunately or fortunately, the skeuomorphic details of many of the standard apps are attractive and important to a vast many people who are uncomfortable with using what I’d call “nerd-approved” forward-facing design attempted by most of the smartphones that came before.

      But, please, there’s very little Apple did with this device that was really revolutionary. The capacitive touch screen was huge, the build quality was huge, but the features were pretty standard. Some 3rd-party apps are arguably stunning, no doubt, but that’s as much Apple’s doing as the clean-up efforts in the Gulf are the FEMA’s doing.

    • Jeremiah says :

      Matt, although your exacting use of language is remarkable, I will refrain from remarking.

      Yeah, I’m talking about the apps. Apple created a device that smart people created remarkable things for, given the parameters and capabilities of the device. It is markedly worthy of remarkable remarks.

    • matt says :

      Touche sir, I submit, and remark that your remark is remarkably remarkable, requiring a response to remark to such remarkable quality.

      (I wasn’t trying to be a yahoo about it, really; I just wanted to understand what you meant, and with such information do therefore second your initial statement.)

  15. abcxyz says :

    I, for one, like the visual references. Black helvetica on a white screen without adornment to provide context is just too boring.

    I especially like the visuals in Notes better than most other note programs I’ve tried. The yellow paper, and felt font give instant context to what is written: this is my grocery list, and not someone else’s writing. (Courier, as used within your comment box, serves much the same function. Why else would you pick Courier, if not to remind us of a typewriter?)

  16. Marc in Chicago says :

    Every time I want to turn the “page” in my calendar, I try to swipe it. Of course, nothing happens. If you’re going to use a metaphor, then USE THE METAPHOR APPLE!

    • Andrew Harrison says :

      Yes!

      It drives me nuts! Especially because the pages flip when you do navigate between them with the annoying arrows.

    • Matt says :

      Definitely agree. Hokey and “cutsie”, while a bit annoying, are perfectly acceptable if they’re used consistently.

      Like, how some applications allowed you to operate them in landscape as well as portrait. Never could tell which was which. That one’s mostly fixed now, but it still bugs the crap out of me when, for example, I select the search bar in Safari and then turn the phone, only to find it won’t let me.

    • Jeremiah says :

      Is that “cutsie” as in, “a little cut,” or “cutsie” as in, “I cannot spell”?

  17. James R Grinter says :

    The iBook bookshelf was Mike Matas, I thought? Maybe I’m mistaken.

  18. Wayne says :

    What the author describes and the commenters discuss is nicely packaged, metaphorically speaking, in the ‘Trash’ icon of the OSX interface. That icon in some form or another has been around since the original Mac (I think) and could be disposed of itself with some, more accurate, description of what actually happens to a file when the trash is emptied. But why bother? Yes it is a completely unnecessary affectation; a sort of faux trash. But millions instantly understand its use and meaning. If it offends in its simulation of an actual thing, then imagine the confusion and the addenda to the user’s manuals without it. We live with this phenomenon daily without complaint. Fake ‘buttons’ to push on the ATM screen (without the image of a button, would it be obvious you should touch them?). And where would cartography be with out its plethora of faux rivers, streams, mountains, trees, railroads and their crossings, etc. This language of the unexplained has levels of tackiness and I think all the author wants is for Apple’s attempts to be less tacky; because we couldn’t do away with it altogether, could we?

  19. Ben says :

    I like the article a lot, and you make some good points, but I’m stuck on the word “spoor.” Near as I can tell it means to track an animal from traces it leaves behind. Are you using it to mean marking the application? As in, “These skeuomorphs are spoors that clearly mark the apps as created by Apple?”

  20. melgross says :

    “Fred, I remind you: You’re reading a blog. This isn’t Oxford Union.”

    I’m not sure if I understand here. Are you depreciating your own work?

    I live in a Tudor home. I suppose I could have gotten a modern one instead. The point is that people are comfortable with familiar surroundings. Modern often seems cold and impersomal.

    I understand the digital esthetic very well. But that doesn’t mean I want to be using it all of the time. So yes, paper that looks like paper is great. Looseleaf binders look great.

    I don’t understand why some seem to think that their sense of esthetics trump everyone else’s. We seem to have the guru’s (self appointed, of course) of the new age telling us what we should like, and designers what they should design, because, according to them, it’s “right”.

    It isn’t right! It’s just another form of snobbery, and I wish it would stop.

    • Christopher Fahey says :

      That’s just your personal opinion. Not everyone feels that way about whether it is “right” to actually open a debate on matters of personal taste. Some of us feel the opposite, that debating aesthetics and taste is good in every way imaginable.

    • AG says :

      As I’ve said repeatedly here: This is a place where I express my own opinions. I make no warrant whatsoever as to their empirical validity, utility, or fitness for any purpose whatsoever. I specifically disclaim any authority or aspiration to “guruhood,” whatever that means.

      You’re more than welcome to disagree with the views I express here, even strenuously, but you’re fundamentally misunderstanding what I imagine and intend this blog to be for if you’re asking for evidence to back up an assertion.

  21. Andre Richards says :

    I don’t really see this as the design problem you do. Those varying styles simply act as visual cues for whatever app you’re in, making it immediately clear. I doubt that it’s coincidental that the more plain-looking an app is, the more obvious the visual cues are. Notes is just a plain blank page so it gets the most visual cues (yellow background, lines, font, etc.) This happens across all apps in the iPhone. Some of those visual cues are skeuomorphic and some are not.

    Take for example the back-and-forth cartoon balloons of the SMS Messages app. You could argue that speech bubbles are just as bad a design decision as skeuomorphic elements, but those elements act as unique visual cues for each app. Think about what those two apps would look like stripped to their barest elements. Not much there to differentiate the two.

  22. Randy Willoughby says :

    I design pictograms for a living, and I can tell you it’s super difficult to maintain consistency across the board with regard to comprehension. In this sector of design, many techniques are used to help the user understand what is trying to be communicated. Often, the STYLE you use can heavily influence certain design decisions. Most of the time I am obligated to use the familiar DOT/AIGA/Parks Department-looking style to create new pictograms, because there are legacy pictograms that are still in use and clients want a visual cohesiveness.

    Much of the Apple HIG seems to be a carryover from the Aqua days; the super-glossy-looking items look good enough to eat. But, I suspect, they get sorta caught up in the aesthetic, and render the artwork very slickly, but fall back on skeuomorphism because it’s usually the easiest way to describe something in such limited space.

  23. Eric Perlberg says :

    I’m not pleased by Apple’s design incongruity and this recent turn to cheesy digital imagery in their apps but neither am I baffled by them. I think I can summerise by citing points from 2 running Apple commercials. Watch the iPhone 4 advert that Apple just released, this is a new and huge target audience for Apple. Compare it to the new DroidX advert on youtube and you’ll see immediately who Apple is marketing to.

    The second ad that brings home the point is Apple’s iPad advert which begins where they say the iPad has no up or down and go on to say “you already know how to use it”

    I think the compass and the bookshelf bookstore etc are aimed at the above audience and support the statement that “you already know how to use it”. When Apple conquers this audience I think we’ll see a return to a less cheesy approach but in the meantime I think they have their marketing spot on, at least from a business point of view.

  24. Richard Lubbock says :

    Interesting. I’ve learned a bunch of new words today: “affordance,” “skeuomorphic,” “Ramsian.” What next? Perhaps @Jamie’s reference to Ruskin was a bit misplaced. Did the old boy not argue for the Gothic revival? And I’m not sure I ever approved of Mumford. Give me a fair dose of good old-fashioned retro ornamentation, please. I’m with Prince Charles on this kind of thing. Sorry. So far as I’m concerned Apple can skeuomorph as much as they like.

  25. Butt-head says :

    Heh, heh. He said “skeuomorphic”

  26. Mark 2000 says :

    There will come a time in the future the iPhone will be used as a skeuomorphism to help people understand more advanced technologies. It’s the cycle of life.

  27. Charles says :

    First, yeah, I’m with Ben, that word “spoor” doesn’t mean what you think it does. You meant “spawned” in this context.

    Secondly, this “skeuomorphic” thing is encoded in Apple’s DNA. Except they called it “Real World Metaphors” and basically goes back to the original Mac interface and apps like MacPaint. Remember the pencil in MacPaint? People knew what it did, when they wouldn’t have known what a cross-hair cursor was. Even today, Adobe Photoshop offers the pencil tool with two cursor options, the pencil, and the crosshair cursor (IIRC labeled the “advanced cursor”).

    The problem here is that you guys are computer geeks and understand what’s beyond the metaphor. Your Grandma doesn’t. So Grandma loves the page flip and other anachronisms because they are familiar and comforting. iOS devices aren’t targeted at computer geeks, they’re targeted at the mass market. Yeah, I know it’s galling when you know the device is dumbed down for Grandma, and you know you could use a more complex GUI. That’s what laptops are for.

    • AG says :

      Charles, it’s not such a great idea to tell someone “what they meant” by way of word choice. I meant “spoor,” though more loosely and allusively than it seems a few of you are able to handle.

    • Charles says :

      Words have a precise meaning, independent of what you think they mean. Claiming your usage is “loose and allusive” doesn’t excuse your poor writing.

    • AG says :

      I’m sorry, Charles, but this is my house, and I’m going to write in rhymed Esperanto couplets if I feel like it. There are just about a bazillion other places you could go to share your thoughts if it’s not to your taste.

    • MK says :

      In Dutch, a language that has more in common with English than you may think, “spoor” means track. If you read the sentence again, it’s clear what AG meant and it most definitely wasn’t “spawned”. The word works, it is not an example of poor writing. Nitpicking over the use of a single word, however, demonstrates poor manners.

    • Matt says :

      The meaning of a word is no more and no less what meaning a community of users assigns it. Meanings evolve all the time; new words and meanings are created, old ones are forgotten.

      To the word in question, however, give the OED (which must pass even your prescriptive standards) a crack before calling such a question of someone’s vocabulary:

      Spoor, n(1):
      1. The trace, track, or trail of a person or animal, esp. of wild animals pursued as game.

      “1823 in Pringle Eng. Settlers Albany, S. Afr. (1824) 84 Soon afterwards the spoor (foot-prints) of three Caffers was discovered, and of course we then knew where they went.”

    • Jeremiah says :

      Pick those nits, Matt. Pick them until they scream for mercy.

    • Matt says :

      Dude, take a breath.

      “Serenity now”?

  28. sun yen says :

    you won’t believe the number of people I know bought an iPhone because of how the Notes app looks like compared to those from nokia and android, and how the YouTube app icon that looks like a really old tv instead of the YouTube logo you see everywhere else. just look at the top best-selling apps in the app store, those ‘beautiful’ todos and notes apps. I think apple knows very well they need something like this to attract the masses..I personally have no problem with this style, much better than any other offerings out there today..but do find it refreshing looking at those UI elements from windows phone 7 :)

  29. Stephen Moore says :

    Why not provide some examples of a path you think Apple should take from a UI design standpoint? You suggest that it’s a difficult problem, and ask Apple to lead us all to a solution. Well, they gave us the app store and SDK, why not show them how it’s done instead of complaining.

    • Jeremiah says :

      1. Adam works for Nokia.

      2. Designers design by profession. They are paid for their work.

  30. His Shadow says :

    I get what you are saying, I honestly do. But I just don’t care. These elements, like the brushed aluminum theme that was the standard on Mac OS X for a while, will go away or be designed in a way that is more visually pleasing. And seriously, I love Notes. It’s a great app, and the torn pages always makes me grin.

  31. Hamranhansenhansen says :

    I disagree because I don’t want “apps” at all, I want devices.

    I used to carry a pocket 4-track recorder but now I carry FourTrack(.app) in my iPhone and it speaks to me in the visual language of music and audio, not the language of apps or computers. It has sliders and meters and peak indicators I already know. When I use it, iPhone stops being a phone and becomes a 4-track recorder/mixer.

    A daytimer also has a language, so do a thousand devices. Considering how much computer interfaces have sucked, I want to see these devices bring their interfaces with them as they travel from outside the screen to in, and then let’s improve them gradually.

    The lack of an “iOS interface” is a key feature. It’s agnostic and morphable. It isn’t computery and that is awesome.

    • abu says :

      I see what you mean – and btw, many desktop audio apps share the same visual philosophy.

      Which I happen to like in the end, I wasted most of my time as a student on Propellerhead Reason, and I loved all that pseudoreal knobs, and the fact that to connect the devices you had to get to their backpanel, grab jacks and route pseudoreal cables. It was part of the fun.

      Anyway, FourTrack.app has a simple interface which makes sense for a touch device, and the real object mocking is a decoration which gives functional cues with an attractive look.

      But when this goes to far, it actually hinders usability.

      Take the ielectribe app, for istance.

      Why has the pattern selection interface to be a replica of the real thing, with a huge rotary knob and a faux lcd display with few chars? Sure it’s familiar, but it’s ankward, and a waste of space, as an UI element.

      Why do they have to waste a big chunk of the screen estate for the pic of the tube valves, just for glowing them when you pump up the “analogue phat” effect?

      Yeah you can fire the app and go “Wow”, it’s just like the real thing, but the real thing interface is how it is because of the limitation of a physical interface. And its forte, the feeling of knobs and tiny buttons, is lost in the ipad replica.

      Sure, it is a toy (as you wouldn’t get a 499$ tablet with no midi sync and 1/8 stereo jack for real work), and as a toy it’s more fun this way, and surely sells better.

      So no point in criticizing it, but I think you can get the critique of the limitations of this kind of interface design philosophy.

  32. Jeff Barbose says :

    They don’t make Ivory Towers out of ivory, either, but you sure do like to keep your ass parked in one.

    A version 1.0 of anything has a dual responsibility: to function as the thing it is and also to instruct the user on how to use it. The Compass.app accomplishes all it needs to by replicating a real world compass. The screen real estate is there. It instructs the iPhone users that the device comes with compass functionality. You’ll notice that quite rightly the compass functionality within the Maps app does not present a pocket-fob compass rendered in gold.

    Opting for skeuo—oh, I can’t even say it without my anus clenching up—and I do loves me my big words—*real world* replicas on the iPad help to instruct the user on a completely new way of interacting with the device, because there’s no cursor, no hover-over, spare persistent chrome.

    To strip all of reality away and present something stark and unanchored while also presenting a new UX is ridiculous and offensive to anyone who would want to make life better for users.

  33. Stormchild says :

    Sorry, I don’t agree at all. Apple’s user interface design continues to delight and invite.

    Perhaps you’d like to share some of your own work as examples of good design? (Hopefully you didn’t design this website…)

    Jeff Barbose is right on the money.

    By the way, it would be much easier to read your articles if you weren’t always trying to sound smarter than you are by using obscure words. Especially when you don’t use them correctly.

  34. airmanchairman says :

    An Almost unreadable farrago of nonsensical effusion.

    Suffice it to quote Benjamin Disraeli in his comment about his great arch-rival William Gladstone in describing you as a man “intoxicated by the exuberance of his verbosity”.

  35. JohnK says :

    I suspect the reason is because Apple wants people to feel perfectly comfortable using each app, by presenting it as something they’ve always known, whether it be a calendar or notes or address book. But there is a greater problem: each app may look like the physical object it replaces, but it doesn’t work like it.

    More than once I’ve caught myself flicking pages in the calendar app to go from day to day — but it doesn’t work. It works in iBooks, but not calendar. Why is this? It’s presented to me as a paper diary, why doesn’t it work like one? And the notes app, it uses a font that looks like a marker, but I can’t scribble a quick sketch like I can with a real notepad. So both apps, by presenting itself as the real physical thing, fools me into using it like the real object, and fails because it doesn’t work as well as what it mimics. That I think is far worse than any purely visual annoyances.

    (for what it’s worth, I like the look of the calendar app, but it drives me nuts I can’t flip pages)

  36. Cantoni says :

    I’m real new here, but I like Adam’s attitude (and testiness re: spoor).

    The big problem with the Calendar app for iPad is, as others state here, that it doesn’t use gestures or take advantage of the interface. At all.

    I am very comfortable with skeuomorphic interfaces being used to provide a comfortable, hospitable environment wherein new interactions with the device can be innovated/modeled. But that is sadly lacking in some of Apple’s offerings. The skeuomorphic addiction might be another symptom of that problem, though it is a secondary concern.

    On the other hand, interacting with Reeder on the iPad is incredible. Third parties will put to use the tools that Apple has provided, and do so quite well. Apple’s interfaces will lag behind.

    In the meantime, a slick third-party calendar app would be great.

    • AG says :

      And I think that’s the crux of it, really. I wouldn’t be nearly so worked up if you could both (a) download free alternatives to all the apps/services in question and (b) delete the originals.

    • William Hund says :

      I like that apple uses skeuomorphic elements in their design. While not always applied in a way that is tasteful, it is effective at reducing the cognitive demands by providing a familiar context for the different experiences.

      It is also interesting that a skeuomorphic design can seem familiar and nostalgic even if the original product has never been used. A good example is the compass. While most of us haven’t actually used a compass since cub scout days, anyone under 30 has unlikely ever used a timber compass that looks better suited on a 18th century ship. Our exposure to this kind of compass is likely from movies. It is that the ‘idea’ of a compass hasn’t changed that is important, and is what apple is trying to tap.

      I do support having ‘skins’, so that if you dont like your brown timber shelves you could change them to white formica shelves instead.

  37. Jot says :

    The metaphors don’t scale across either. All the iBooks look like a 100 year old book dredged from a secret book stash hidden during the war. Purchasing a near future sci-fi book from the ibookstore and reading it with that look doesn’t translate – the source doesn’t align with the ‘page’ its on. Kobo gets it right, stark but themed shelving, plain black text on clean white ‘page’ while reading.

    • Jeremiah says :

      I remember this criticism in Nicholson Baker’s lengthy attempted takedown of the Kindle. No font or layout will suit every book.

  38. cool gadgets says :

    Well I for one prefer good old fashion books. I think I look cooler reading a book than holding my iPad.

  39. Charlie says :

    Speaking as a 50-year-old computer scientist and experienced parent…

    There is no such thing as an intuitive interface. Not even the nipple! It’s all learned.

    Bad design inappropriately carries over useless, misleading patterns.

    Mediocre design relies on existing knowledge to give interface clues.

    Outstanding design jettisons old baggage and implements something that is sufficiently “better” that it’s worth learning to use.

    You can find examples of all three in Apple’s history.

  40. Rudiger says :

    Unfortunately, these cheesy-as-fuck user interface designs are what sells the iPad to middle-America. The majority of people are too dumb to realize it’s worse when your calendar app has leather buttons. And for every person with the taste and sense to know what good design is, there are ten fat, lazy Americans who think it’s awesome that their ebooks pages flip like the physical books they no doubt never read.

  41. Ewan Lamont says :

    For computer users, digital experience is largely about metaphors: my “notebook” is not a book with blank pages for writing upon with a pen dipped in ink, my “desktop” is not a desk’s top, a digital “file” is not a file, nor is the “folder” in which it resides a folder, and the ubiquitous computerese noun and verb “support” does not denote resistance to the force of gravity. All these entities have been given metaphorical names which we can eventually grasp the meanings of.
    Thirty years ago, “skeuomorphy” was a learned word we encountered in works on architectural history, archaeology and art but it is now gaining wider currency through “web” design as it is one way that intangible entities can be made understandable and recognisable to the general public. In “Apple Land” skeuomorphy does visually what metaphor does verbally. Currently, I have thirty three “icons” in my “dock” ; as I add more they dwindle in size, and I find the allegedly “corny” skeuomorphs easiest to spot. What could be better for representing “security” than the bunch of keys (“Keychain Access”)? Perhaps some Chinese ideograms could be adapted to function as “icons” and there is always text (the security programme could be called “Security”) but Apple’s customers are happy with the current style which mixes sophisticated hardware with laid back, down home corn and kitsch. I think that what users find easy to recognise quickly is best; I don’t want to have to learn a new iconography just when I am finally at home on my “Mac” after ten years.

  42. Ewan Lamont says :

    I realise that I might be confusing emblems (the key icon) and redundant features (the leather-look calendar) but both types of design are for recognisability, enabling us to make quick choices as we “navigate” our computers.

  43. swalshy says :

    I agree with this article. While part of good design is an emotional resonance, which may be achieved partly through reference to real world counterparts, this should not be at the expense of functionality.

    The Apple voice recorder app has a lovely picture of a microphone which takes up most of the screen and a tiny little record button which is inconveniently placed for one hand use. Why not skip the pretty picture and have a big functional button? Form has triumphed over function here.

    I couldn’t work out why I enjoyed reading an ebook so much more in Kindle than iBooks until I noticed the silly pages. It’s more of an annoyance than a comfort.

    I think they need to think things through a little better. I don’t think it’s going to happen though.

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