Samsung Galaxy S8, iPhone X, Xiaomi Mi Mix

In defense of a good user experience

or how Apple has abdicated their position as an advocate for the end user

Alex Benson
Sep 14, 2017 · 10 min read

I’m a product designer. I’m also a proud Android user. If you look around the industry it would seem in this day and age those two statements are at odds with each other. Its no secret designers are biased towards Apple products.

There’s an entire artboard collection for Apple devices in Sketch, all the best mockups are for iPhones and Apple watches, and there’s an outsized push for iOS apps to be designed and developed.

I posit that this adoration and fandom is unwarranted from Product and UX/UI designers.

Our job as designers

Its our job to advocate for the best user experience. Its also our job to push the industry forward. We are supposed to be the standard bearers for whats good in this world. We read and applaud articles that argue for accessibility and design ethics, yet we succumb to the snares of consumerism without so much as a second thought when it comes to our phones. We critiques designs for being outdated, yet our phones still have design paradigms from 4 years ago.

The frosted glass feels so outdated next to the clean typography of Material UI

Its fine for the masses to be drawn to ooohs and ahhhs and flashy stuff, but we’re educated in this stuff. We should be able to see through the smoke and mirrors and point out flaws where we see them. Instead we’ve accepted whatever Apple throws our way as the new standard for UI design and let an OS dictate the direction of our products.

I think the one thing Android has taught me from a design perspective is to ignore the device, and just give a good overall experience, regardless of what phone or OS the user is on. The device isn’t our customer, the user is. When we tie things to a device, we’re handcuffing ourselves to those limitations, and risk obsolescence when a new phone or feature comes out. Layouts should be flexible, and so should app features.

Failure to support the user

Its been something you can set your clocks to, every June and September people will simultaneously praise the “revolutionary” new iphone (even though they are just slight iterations on the last design) and lament about how feature X didn’t make it, but maybe next year.

The mac was built originally for the artist, the designer. Though the market has changed, the dedication of this group to Apple has remained unwavering. If we’re priding ourselves on standing up for the end user in our products, why are we comfortable in accepting these assaults on our own user experience by Apple, is it because they’re Apple and they can get away with it? Why do we allow that?

The Lie

We’ve been told Apple is just easier for the user. This is not true.

We’ve been told they’re easier to design for. This is not true.

We’ve been told Apple is more user friendly. Someone please tell me why.

We use the argument that more people use iPhones, and this is not true.

Its the ecosystem! Apple’s ecosystem is just so much more integrated and cohesive, that must be it, right? No.

We’ve been told Android is a dumpster fire that we should avoid if we’re a respectable designer. This is just not true.

The Truth

The truth is a lot more grey than black and white. One platform isn’t 100% bad while the other one is 100% good. There are somethings that Apple does better and somethings Android does better. The problem is the arguments I hear repeatedly in defense of Apple are just plain outdated.

Apple is easier for the user to understand and user friendly: Is it though? If the user is used to iOS sure. Thats true of any design paradigm. If the user has used it, they know how to use it. Its why we can rely on cards and tooltips and don’t need to tell people to scroll down a page. But that should not be a reason to shy away from Android. They have a lot more alike than they are different.

Apple is easier to design for: I don’t even know how to address this one. I’ve actually felt the opposite. That designing with iOS overlays and component elements actually keeps me closer to their UI style, or I have to reject that and design in spite of that. I’ve found Material UI to be a lot closer to a newer style and useful framework than anything else I’ve used.

More people use iPhones and we should design for the market accordingly: this is so blatantly false, though I don’t fault people for not knowing it. Apple will tout that they have more market share than any other OEM, but when you look at OS market share, you see a different story: 2014(right after the famous Nexus 5, and Android KitKat were released), 2015, 2016, 2017 all show Android on top in terms of total users in the United States with about 53% going to Android and 44% going to Apple.

And those samples favor Apple considering most Android phones have traditionally been released in the spring, whereas Apple releases their’s in the fall, which is when these stats were collected. But we design for a global audience sometimes, and the stats get even starker when you look beyond the borders of the United States. Android commands a whopping 65% of the global market share compared to Apple’s 34%.

The Ecosystem: True, Apple has a tight grip on their ecosystem and has kept things unified by doing that, but to what extent does that iron grip actually benefit the user. Google has been building up Drive, Docs, Photos, Keep, Assistant, and a plethora of other services I see many Apple fans using. The ecosystem argument was relevant in 2014, not today.

Dumpster Fire Argument: I’m not even going to debate this one. It ultimately comes down to preference when you’re considering a UI, but the argument that Android design is antiquated or unintuitive is just not true. If you’d like to think so, I need only point you to this.

The Assault on the User

The Headphone Jack

The headphones have been around since 1910, and been a standard for people listening to portable music since the Walkman. Apple claimed their decision was courageous, that they were pushing the industry forward for wireless headphones.

Removing the headphone port was hardly courageous, in fact many say it was foolish, an assault on the end user, taking away a cellphone standard that many people relied on. I’m sure there were considerations about how this makes the phone waterproof, and sure, they sold a lot of AirPods, which people promptly lost. The truth is they cut overall production costs and made more money on Beats and Airpods by giving the user less.

The Dongles

Oh the dongles. Apple famously removed the ports from the sides of the latest MacBook, prompting many professionals to either not buy a newer Mac or cave in and purchase dongles, sold by Apple at outrageous markups. What was the reason for removing functionality from a powerhouse machine like that? Simplicity? All the people I know who’ve gotten a new MacBook have not said the process of switching over is easy, or simple. This one still confuses me, and I’m not sure I’ll ever buy another MacBook until I have my ports and SD card slot back, because thats what I use to do my job.

The NotchPhone X

And now with Tuesday’s announcement of the iPhone X, we got another disappointing development, the notch. This isn’t like the dimple on the Moto360, where the reason for not using the whole screen was functional. They didn’t need to go all the way to the upper edge of the top screen to declare themselves bezel-less. And it clearly wasn’t to say they had a larger screen to body ratio.

Source: GSM Arena

I don’t fault them for trying to go bezel-less. It is the new trend, and one I am fully supportive of. I’m frankly surprised they kept it on the 8 and only released it on a phone they marked up to an insane new high of smartphone prices. But what blows my mind is the obvious issues inherent in the new design, the ridiculous notch that will now be visible on all of your videos and games, the

Lamenting for the death of innovation

But this isn’t unusual for Apple. They’ve been on a slow decline since the iPhone 5s and 6, the last phones Steve Jobs worked on. Since then its been a slow crawl of design tweaks and spec bumps, marked by shock moments like the ones listed above.

I want to take a moment to talk about the good things Apple does, because they’re not all bad. They still make one of the better desktop OS’ out there. The cameras on their phones remain one of the best on the market. And things like tap to pay have been made better because of Apple, Samsung, and Android competing against each other.

They can be trend setters for good things when they use their power for good. But when their actions are motivated by money or by a need to get a new phone out and say they have something “new”, they relinquish the brand of innovator they wear so proudly.

They’ve held the top spot for so long, I believe they became complacent. Apple is no longer the place where the best new features come out. That has long been taken over by the likes of Samsung and LG, Motorola with their shake to launch camera and on screen gestures, and Google which pushes forward the standard all Android phones should aspire to and has unified a once fractured market.

When I talk to my friends about their phones, its clear they don’t see any other phone as an option. Apple has them by the balls. And that worked for a long time. Android was seen as this unpolished UI that nerds and developers used, where they rooted their phones and swapped out SD cards for storage.

But Android has made huge leaps and bounds in the last 4 years. Pick up a Pixel, an S8, or an LG anything, and ignore for a second the learning curve that comes from using a new operating system (which, in the grand scheme of things will take you all of 5 minutes to learn), and objectively consider the usability of it. The design is more polished than ever, both from a hardware and software perspective.

The features Google has built into Android, like Google Photos, Drive, and the power of Google search. The ease of use that Google Assistant provides, and has been ahead of the likes of Siri and Cortana for years now, even back when it was Google Now. Cameras on the flagships are just as good as ever, and the wide selection means a user can actually choose the phone that fits their life, and not try to fit their life around their phone.

And for those who want flagship experience without the price tag of a Samsung or a Google Pixel, there’s budget phones that work just as good like the One Plus 5 or the Xiaomi Mi Mix 2(sequel to one of the original bezel-less phones). I love the Android tagline, Be Together, Not The Same. Its not about using your phone as a fashion statement, its about using your phone to actually improve your life.

Its not you, its… ok, well its sort of you

This post is not to convince you to go out and get an Android. As a consumer you should pick the phone that you like the most. Thats how Capitalism works. And I’ll say here what I say to all the Apple friends I get into arguments with: “If you really like the iPhone, then get it.” It doesn’t affect me one way or the other in the long run. This post isn’t for those people.

This post is a wake up call to my industry, and industry particularly vulnerable to Apple fandom. We buy up the newest phones, dream of that fully integrated life thats always just a little out of reach, and we fear if we get a phone other than an iPhone, we won’t have the same apps or features like Sketch Mirror we love so much.

But that really isn’t the way it should work. We should demand companies like Sketch and Adobe make products for both platforms. We should dictate what the decisions the companies we rely on give us, we’re the consumers.

Again, I’m not here to preach the virtues of Android. I’m not here to be another Android user demonizing Apple. Android has it’s own issues, its own problems and I’m not afraid to call them out. And I’ll keep poking them until they figure it out, its how a true friend shows they care.

I’m here to ask all of us to do our jobs and objectively look at the state of our industry, because I truly believe Apple has left our demographic behind. The temple of Apple used to espouse all that was good in Minimalism, Simplicity, and Usability.

It was Steve Jobs who famously said, “Design isn’t how it looks, its how it works”. We owe our jobs to that line. And that is not lost on me. But continuing to worship a company that has past its prime because its what we’ve always done isn’t the answer. We are the consumers. We are the experts. We can demand better from these companies.

Maybe its not Apple that’s abdicated their position as an advocate for the end user. Maybe its us.

Maybe it started when we started accepting the fact that there’s only one good phone out there and it has a piece of fruit on it.

Maybe it started when we embraced Material Design as genius but rejected anything else coming out of Android world as antiquated and pedestrian.

Maybe we can’t change our ways and this is the world we live in.

Or maybe we can, each one of us, start looking at the devices that we work on daily with objective eyes. Maybe we can redeem ourselves.

Alex Benson

Written by

Prouct Designer at Facebook in Seattle. Originally from Minneapolis/Kansas City. •

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