Could the iPhone Sales decline be attributed to the new iOS design?
Just last April 2016, Apple announced its worst quarter in over a decade marked by a 16% drop in iPhone sales. iPhone sales have sunk for the first time ever since its release back in 2007.
The Reasons Behind Sales Decline
While the cause is not clearly known, it could be argued that growth in developed markets has been leveling off, which is why Apple is now considering reselling used iPhones in emerging markets. It is worth mentioning that smartphone subscriptions are increasing globally, and it is projected that by 2020 there will be 6.1 billion smartphone subscriptions, compared to 2.6 billion subscriptions today.
Other reasons why iPhone sales have declined could also be attributed to too many product lines, incremental innovation, or loss of talent; however, what I am particularly interested in discussing here is the loss of intuitive, simple design.
The Loss of Simplicity
The loss of intuitive design has been discussed by many experts, like how it appears in Forbes’ article, “iPhone iOS 9 Proves Apple Has Lost The Magic Of Simplicity”, or this article from The Guardian, “How Apple lost its way: Steve Jobs’ love of simplicity is gone.” Whether you agree or disagree, the mere fact that this argument exists is proof that Apple has indeed lost its magical simplicity, at least to some people.
Too Simple Yet Too Complex
Do you remember the days when everyone talked about how simple iOS was? I vividly remember my grandpa joking about its simplicity saying these devices are for old people who don’t know how to adjust settings. He was right! The iPhone was very simple to everyone, it reduced the type of customers to one type: the “everyone” type. It balanced between a tech-savvy teen and a tech-illiterate old person; it struck a balance between the rich class and the lower middle class: for they could all afford the same phone. Everyone was carrying the same phone, regardless of their social status or their income, and most importantly everyone knew how to use it. Apple then created the perfect balance amongst all its users.
While some may have viewed it as too simple and lacking many features, others viewed it as just super easy to use. The spectrum of difference of iOS design ranged between minimalism and simplicity.
The worst complaint I heard of during those days of simple design (pre-iOS 7) was “using iPhone makes me feel like a handicapped who cannot do a lot of things with it,” referencing user’s control limitations that were imposed on pre-iOS 7.
This was the reason why hackers who felt this way about iPhone limitations developed a system to remove the software restrictions to give them the liberty to customize their iPhones, and download rejected applications through AppStore. Apple tried rigorously to stop jailbreaking, but ultimately lost the case. In 2010, the U.S. court declared iPhone jailbreaking to be legal. In response to the legality, Apple said in its warranty that jailbroken iPhones would lose their warranty.
iPhone was too simple for those who wanted simplicity, yet too complicated for those who loved complexity. It takes a fair amount of work and savviness to jailbreak an iPhone.
Complexity was only exclusive for those who were savvy enough to jailbreak their iPhones, and you wouldn’t have to worry much about them for not liking the simple phone. You have to worry about current iPhone users who cannot “reverse jailbreak” their phones to make it simpler by reverting to a much simpler iOS.
A Brief History of Apple Design
Apple was, and still is known, for great designs and perhaps easy to use platforms. It all started with Steve Jobs, who worked closely with designers to build the interface for the Macintosh operating system. Jobs championed a concept of design known as Skeuomorphism or Realism.
Skeuomorphism is style of design elements represented to resemble their real-life counterparts, with a three-dimensional look and feel.
Here are some examples of products that used skeuomorphism as style of design:
These items were designed using the concept of resembling reality. Their design was profoundly inspired by natural surroundings, wood or cow skin. This is exactly how skeuomorphism was (and still is) used before it was introduced into software interface design.
Xerox Star is credited with introducing the first simple interface as we know it today; it built this interface for commercial use, which was later stolen by Apple and Microsoft.
In 1984, Apple introduced its first Mac OS, and as you can see the interface is not too different from Xerox; in fact, Apple enhanced the use of skeuomorphism and built elements resembling real-life trashcans.
From there onward Steve Jobs worked closely with designers to bridge the gap between real life and tech products until his death in 2011.
In this article, “The Untold Story Of How Steve Jobs Reintroduced His Signature Design Style To Apple,” Carlson discusses in details how Steve Jobs notoriously gave Apple’s designers a hard time to come up with designs that mimicked real life items.
In brief, the team was working on the new version of QuickTime, and Jobs was very finicky that it should look like a real stereo.
According to the article: “The team kept coming up with designs. Jobs hated them all,” ‘No, no, no, you just don’t get it!’ Then, one day, Jobs came into a meeting with the design team with a piece of paper in his hand. It was a ripped-out page from a magazine. It was an ad for a Breitling watch, which had a brushed bevel finish that Jobs really liked. He put the ad on the table. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘Just make it look like that.’”
I did a search and I found those two ads for Breitling watch from 1999 on sale at EBay.
The team finally got it and designed QuickTime as you can see here:
During this golden era of embracing skeuomorphism, Apple resembled a real TV, a real yellow notepad, a real newsstand, and a real camera lens.
Flat design, in contrast to Skeuomorphism, is a style of design that emphasizes minimalism; it eliminates the use of shadow, textures, and all that gives it a three-dimensional look.
Flat design limits the design to two-dimensional illustrations. It focuses on simple elements, typography, and flat colors.
The design concept is popularized by Microsoft and enhanced by Google’s introduction of material design (flat design with several geometric pieces and offer depth effects), making it a trend to reduce elements designed to be flat and basic. It emphasized minimalism, sharp edges, bold colors, simple typography, and little shadow if needed at all.
Microsoft first used flat design in 2006 with its Zune MP3, and Google introduced material design in 2014.
Hey Apple! It Is Okay to Be Late to The Party!
Apple continued to use skeuomorphism until 2013, then radically decided to shift to flat design. Here is iOS 6 vs iOS 9 juxtaposed with each other.
Skeuomorphism vs Flat Design:
The general perception of skeuomorphism is that it’s viewed mostly as tacky and old fashioned, whereas flat design is hailed as modern and simple. Forasmuch as design is a matter of taste, it is hard to be subjective; I will not impose my opinion here on which one is better or looks nicer, I will only argue from a usability point of view.
Judging from user experience, several researches acknowledged many issues with flat design. Although it looks clean and nice, users struggle to recognize what is really clickable. According to Nielson Norman Group (Evidence-Based User Experience Research), it asserts that the major issue with flat design is that “the strongest clickability signifier,” the three-dimensionality one, is removed from the equation, making it difficult for users to determine what is clickable and what is not.
Combined with this evidence, loss of sales, and the articles I introduced earlier in this post that argued for iOS’s complexity, I believe we can conclude there is something wrong going on with iOS design to say the least.
In the end, whether we like it or not, it will always be mentioned that when iPhone hit the sales record, it was using the skeuomorphism design, and the revenue continued to double for 7 consecutive years. Whether this is the reason or not, it’s a fact.
Coincidently, the iPhone eventually experienced a drop in sales only after it shifted to flat design, and if it hadn’t been for China in 2015, Apple would have experienced a major loss that year. Thank you China for saving Apple that year!
Copying Jailbreak Features:
For those who jailbroke their phone it is not a secret that Apple has been copying jailbreak continuously. It seems as though people inside Apple monitor jailbreak so closely to copy many things like LiveClock: prior to iOS7, the clock was static, and jailbreak offered a clock that was actually functioning like a real clock; another feature was the ability to view notifications on a locked screen, and many more. You can read more about it here, and here for detailed information.
Most of these features are complex for an average non-tech savvy user. Perhaps, the most complex one is the search function inside the setting. Yet, Apple introduced it in all post-iOS7 upgrades.
But Why Did Apple Switch to Flat Design, and Copy Jailbreak?
From my initial research, I believe there were many factors that made Apple decide to switch. These are the ones I concluded:
i. Loss of Talent:
In 2012, the departure of the Leading Designer, Scott Forstall was the talk of the valley. Forstall, who was a Senior Vice President, a Leading designer, and who many referred to as mini-Jobs, was pushed out of Apple arguably because of clashes between him and Jonathan Ive, the industrial designer at Apple. Bloomberg reported that they were rarely in the same room. While Forstall was responsible for software design, Ive was responsible for product design.
Forstall, like Jobs, advocated for skeuomorphism and his departure marked the death of this golden era and the start of a new era with Jonathan Ive leading the iOS design.
ii. It Is Nice to Be Hip:
As discussed earlier, it is the trend that everyone switched to, flat design, and Apple must join the party.
iii. Less jailbreaking:
It would not be surprising to see Apple working harder to stop users from jailbreaking their iPhones. They went to court, and lost. Apple seems to be working to give some of their users what they want.
iv. Jonathan Ive’s rationale:
In an interview in 2013 with USA TODAY, Ive said:
“When we sat down last November (to work on iOS 7), we understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits,” says Ive. “So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally. We were trying to create an environment that was less specific. It got design out of the way.”
What Is the Problem with Ive’s Rationale?
I think Ive’s statement is very implausible and arrogant. In his argument he states, “that we understood that people had already become comfortable.”
WAIT! Which people? Current users?
If Ive’s target market is “current users,” no wonder iPhone sales have plummeted for the first time in history.
Apple is going to emerging markets and will be selling used iPhones there. For Apple to assume that people in emerging markets, who never owned iOS devices, have already become comfortable with it is evidence of their gross arrogance.
What about children and elderly who make sense of their surroundings by relating to things? and NO NO NO you do not have “an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally.” There are hundreds of millions of people of different ages on this planet who are tech-illiterate, and many of Apple’s users are children who are under the age of 13. Apple knows this because on their support page they mention “With Family Sharing, you can create Apple IDs for children under 13.” Is Apple assuming again that those children had already become comfortable with their devices?
Creating an environment that is less specific is going to be a disaster (if didn’t already happen, like losing $60 billion in iPhone sales) for first-time iPhone users, of all types and ages.
Furthermore, by focusing on current users, Apple is limiting its horizon as it addresses global customers. With this approach of product development, I predict that the technological disparity will increase dramatically. Most of the efforts that Steve Jobs put to “push the human race forward,” by making tech products easy-to-use to everyone, will be wasted.
When it comes to design, who is really speaking on behalf of the user? Who is representing the customer?
For those who enormously criticized Steve Jobs for not being a technical developer, not really knowing how to design anything, being just an entrepreneur, and sales person: I will say Yes! that was true. Although Jobs didn’t design anything, he did heavily influence the design and fixed what we perceived as “correct” because he represented our voice as customers. He saw things from our perspective and thus pushed everyone at Apple to create something that resonates with us as non-technical users. Those designers and developers who are in charge of everything at Apple perhaps represent less than 1% of the population, and their knowledge definitely influences their perspectives, which is not the perspective of the 99% of us.
This is the reason why Apple designers/developers see things differently from us, differently but not too different to challenge the status quo anymore, differently enough to only follow the trend, differently enough to only be stylish, differently enough to produce redundant products and focus on revenues, differently enough to imitate the Galaxy’ phone size, differently enough to ignore what it once made it a great company: “simplicity.”