Redesigning Mailbox for iOS 7

Faster, lighter, and more focused on what matters.

Simplicity is not the absence of clutter — it’s getting to a place of almost naive obviousness, where what you need to do seems clear and inevitable.

Jony Ive

Creating the first version of Mailbox was a labor of love. We obsessed over every pixel, each transition, and every feature. The number of iterations it took to get us to ship-worthy bordered on excessive.

While painstaking, the process of creating the first version of Mailbox was also a joy. Mostly. The only exception: we regularly rubbed up against the heaviness of iOS 6 as a design paradigm.

One of our goals was to build an app that felt at home among its neighbors, and we often found ourselves wanting to go further in terms of simplicity than such a constraint would permit. Time and again we would back off of a clean design in favor of a more familiar-to-iOS one. And while the resulting app was good, it wasn’t as delightful and light as we knew it could be.

Enter iOS 7. Gone are the gradients and the drop shadows, the sheen and inner glows. No longer does the OS encourage skeuomorphism or reward pseudo-physicality. Instead, iOS 7 offers a true-to-Apple focus on deference: whereas the hardware has long deferred to software by getting out of the way, now the software defers to the content and function of apps.

Like many others in the software design world, my initial reaction to iOS 7 was one of shock and rejection. Early versions were riddled with obvious UX issues, and aspects of the design were just plain ugly. After complaining noisily, several people close to the project encouraged me to think of the OS more as a foundation than as a finished product, and indeed the design evolved heavily over subsequent months. But it wasn’t until Adam, Tim and I started rethinking Mailbox for iOS 7 that my opinion really began to change.

In short, if you value simplicity, designing for iOS 7 is a joy. Everything is faster and more focused: by removing the need to create artificial depth and texture, the designer is freed to focus on form that expresses function.

Much of our work in updating Mailbox for iOS 7 has been about taking things away. We’ve removed shadows, flattened textures, and straightened unnecessary curves. We’ve simplified transitions and replaced replica physical buttons with simple digital ones. The result is a cleaner interface that reduces cognitive load and feels faster.

But that’s just the beginning. Once we removed all the visual clutter we noticed lots of opportunities to improve the basic design. Suddenly we could see places where our existing UI was either unclear or inefficient. Left with nothing but the simplest of interface elements, we were more free than ever to iterate on them.

The result, we believe, is a substantial improvement over the iOS 6 version of Mailbox. More than ever, we’re building the app we wanted to build from the start: a mobile inbox that is faster, lighter, and puts the focus on your content.

With iOS 7 Apple has done something remarkable: they’ve made it easier than ever to create tools that are naively obvious. I can’t wait to see what the world does next.

Entrepreneur and designer

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