iOS 7 and the iPhone’s Inherent Properties

Building interfaces that could only exist on a mobile device.

A big part of the experience of a physical object has to do with the materials. [At Apple] we experiment with and explore materials, processing them, learning about the inherent properties of the material.

Jony Ive

Apple’s move to a flatter design aesthetic is almost certainly a rejection of skeuomorphism, but I think it reflects Jony Ive’s focus on “inherent properties” more than just another example of flat design.

Ive is now required to think about processors and software when considering the inherent properties of the iPhone – not just metal and glass. iOS 7 uses some properties of the iPhone that enable it to have a very novel user interface, one with depth like we’ve never seen before. As Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan pointed out on Gizmodo, Instead of Flatness, We Got Depth.

Two inherent properties of the iPhone are that people usually hold it in their hand when using it and that it has an accelerometer. Because of this, it can create a parallax effect to mimic dimensionality based on the movement of the person holding it. Desktop computers and laptops usually sit inert in front of whoever uses them, so their interfaces have used highlights and shadows around windows and buttons to mimic dimensionality.

Dimensionality is useful. Even if you don’t have binocular vision, your ability to sense three dimensions lets you distinguish usable things like buttons, levers and switches. Discarding dimensionality in pursuit of a flat design trend may garner attention on Hacker News or Dribbble, but it’s probably not the best thing for the people who use your software.

Aesthetics are arbitrary and subjective. They can be as fickle as fashion. Design is about making things work. Aesthetically, there are many things I don’t like about iOS 7, but as a design, I’m very impressed by it. It shows that Ive and his team are not just following a trend or overcompensating for past errors. It shows that they’re thinking deeply (really, no pun intended) about how to make iOS more usable.

Now, if they could make every other app they produce more usable. iCloud too.