Looking Back on iOS 7

It’s been six years. Let’s compare notes.

Jon Bell
Jon Bell
Jun 5 · 5 min read

The beta of iOS 7 was very controversial back in 2013. According to every designer I knew, it was ugly, incoherent, and “horsey” as one friend called it.

I was confused, because while I didn’t love some of the visual treatments, I considered those more surface level concerns that could be addressed in the beta. Whereas if you looked at the real heart of iOS 7, it showcased some truly next-level interaction design. Which is far harder to get right.

This article was written a day or two after the first announcement and the resounding chorus of boos it inspired from my fellow designers. Reading back now, it’s incredible how many great leaps foward were packed into a single release … and how no one noticed because the font weight was too thin.


iOS7 and the Visual/IXD Divide

I like iOS 7. A lot of designers don’t. But let’s not start with that. I’d like to talk about the divide between interaction and visual design.

We all agree visual and interaction design have to work together to make truly great products.

But what if you had to choose? Would you rather have a great visual that’s hard to use (many portfolio sites) or a plain visual with real value (craigslist, Quora, the old Facebook)? No one likes this question, because no one believes they have to choose. But you do. Software design is an endless list of tradeoffs, and the better interaction will always trump the better graphic design. People spend more time using your product than hanging it above the mantle to admire.

The same designers who hate iOS 7 (“ugly flat!”) also hated iOS 6 (“ugly skeu!”), while overlooking that both releases had some truly fantastic user experience… even in the face of brushed metal, wood panels, leather, and now an inconsistent visual language.

Here are a few things I consider far more important (and harder to ship in a corporation) than gradients going in an unsuitable direction.

Auto-update

One of the biggest annoyances with modern devices is the perpetual update badge. I know from experience that auto-updates are what passes for a “wicked problem” in software. Apple addressed it and it will have a big positive effect on how it feels to use an iPhone or Mac.

Control center

Yeah, there are a lot of buttons. On the other hand, there are a lot of buttons. The “unlock your phone and then search for the app you you need, then launch it and get to work” model is super clumsy in certain scenarios. Overlook the visuals for a moment; Apple is addressing a real need here.

(if they make it customizable, this is going to blow up even bigger. Imagine being able to put Evernote in there for quick notes.)

Notification center

iOS 6’s Notification center is a big dumb list. iOS 7 lets you focus only on things you missed since last time. This is a welcome step forward, and the “today” tab is Apple penciling in a response to Google Now. Expect them to expand on it.

Multitasking

It doesn’t take an interaction designer to know that people would rather look at screenshots of open apps than the icons. Apple has caught up to its competition here, making it more visually compelling and easier for novice users to understand. (and easier to quit stalled apps)

Photos

Apple has always had the best grouping of photos with its desktop version of iPhoto. (the mobile version of iPhoto is … not so delightful.) They’ve brought similar technology to the phone, including the “show me my entire year” view, which is borne from an insight that people are better at recognition than recall. Put another way, it’s easier to say “that photo was somewhere in this series of blue photos” than “I’ll just bring up May 17th to find my photo”.

Airdrop

This is a very, very big deal. It may finally transcend “Sneakernet” or saying “here, I’ll just email it to you”. And combined with Airdrop on Mac OS, this opens up a lot of possibilities. Not theoretical “wouldn’t it be cool if” stuff, either. Actual, daily, mainstream user needs are addressed with it.

Safari

So you’re going through your reading list. You’re done reading an article, so you’re at the bottom of the page. Keep swiping and the next article loads automatically. Yes. Of course. But don’t expect a commercial about it. It’s just good, subtle, smart interaction design.

(And really hard to pull off. Trust me on this one.)

Queueing stuff

If you always check your email at 6am, the phone makes a point to check it for you at 5:59am, so it’s waiting for you. This kind of thinking has been dreamed up by every mobile interaction designer I’ve ever worked with. Apple actually shipped it, and it is a hint towards how we will use software in the future.

Blocking people

SMS and phone spam is getting worse. Apple now lets you block people, similar to how you can “bounce back to sender” on Mac mail. I’ve been waiting for this since the 2008 election season. It’s actually a surprisingly tricky design problem; I’m glad to see it shipping.

iCloud Keychain

Another “of course” that probably caused a lot of heartache for the development, QA, PM (and legal!) teams. But it’s just strong design. And its complexity is invisible to the user. Kudos for making another obvious improvement look easy, Apple. It’s not.

Visuals? Yeah, About Those…

I remember the hue and cry when Apple moved to Norman Rockwell photo-realistic icons in OS X. I remember the gnashing of teeth around Garageband and iCal. I remember when brushed metal made me wonder aloud if Apple actually employed talented visual designers, or just texture-obsessed Photoshop monkeys.

And each time I came back to the same thing: Apple makes the best overall experiences in the industry. I don’t always love the visuals in their software, but they’re a tiny part of why they’re so successful.

Icon design may well be iOS 7’s weakest link, but it’s also the easiest thing to fix, the easiest thing to criticize in screenshots, and the most superficial part of the design. It’s literally the skin of the experience, not the core of the experience itself.

Real design, with a capital D, is much more about, well, everything else other than the pretty icons. Everything else is harder to get right, and they have the biggest impact on overall user satisfaction.

99% of shipping a vision happens outside of Photoshop. And this time, even though you wouldn’t know it listening to most designers, Apple nailed it.

Jon Bell

Written by

Jon Bell

I love building things.