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The Post-Apple WWDC Icon Obsession Belies An Appreciation of UX Design

By Brian Prentice | June 18, 2013 | 0 Comments

The series of tubes we affectionately know as the internet has been abuzz over the last week with talk of Apple’s flat design detour with iOS7. As with anything aesthetic, there’s bound to be be the highly positive views and the highly critical. We’ve seen psuedo-conspiracy theories emerge along with some trending memes.

So does all this discussion of colour palettes and iconography point to an appreciation of UX design by IT’s digerati?

Nope! Not as I see it.

In fact, I’d argue the week’s icon madness indicates that too much of the IT world is still entrenched in the view that great UX is synonymous with great graphic design.

The man himself, Steve Jobs, once said, “Design is not just what it looks and feels like. Design is how it works.” Missing from most of the post-WWDC conversation has been much insight into the way these design changes fundamentally make individual apps, collection of apps, or the devices they operate on work better.

I’ve been spending a bit of time going through the presentations from the WWDC. I must say, there is some impressive stuff that Apple is doing for the design and developer community. The new system font is beautiful and the dynamic type capability in UIKit is some serious goodness. There’s the new App Switcher and it’s relationship with the improved multitasking capabilities. The motion effects, in my opinion, are a marvel of engineering.

What’s much less clear is how Apple’s new objectives of clarity, deference (which Microsoft describes with their Modern UI as “content over chrome”), and depth – design themes that the new UIKit is being engineered to support – enable a new style of app experience. Experience, mind you, in the how it works sense…not the look and feel sense.

When I search for clues in Apple’s own apps, the feeling I get is that the upholstery on the furniture has changed, but the room’s purpose and layout is the same as it always was. Adding depth as a new dimension to app design seems to me to have profound long term potential. But if it’s primarily demonstrated at the top level of the operating system by floating icons above your wallpaper, then we have something which will rapidly descend into ho-hum ornamentation. Maybe Calendar and Notes isn’t the right place to highlight this stuff…but surely there’s something that can.

My intention is not to be critical of Apple. After all, Microsoft is having the same issues with Windows 8.

Their Modern UI pre-dates Apple’s drive towards a typographic experience. It’s one thing to tell designers and developers to clear out the chrome. It’s another thing to articulate how content itself becomes the engaging, interactive raison d’être of an app. Here again, when we look to compelling examples from Microsoft’s own apps, we’re left wanting. Semantic zoom is a great UX innovation. But isolated in a handful of included apps it’s difficult to sense it’s potential.

As a result of all this, the conversation about Microsoft’s new design language has been derailed. Like Apple, it’s largely about icons, which in Microsoft’s case are their Live Tiles…along with how users must lurch back-and-forth between the new Start screen and old desktop.

The point is that UX is too easily seen as the look and feel stuff. And the more time we spend on colour palettes and icons the less nuanced our understanding of what these design languages can and should do to  software and services.  Ultimately, the onus is on all mobile operating platform providers to offer some steak along with the sizzle. They need to show us how their UX vision translates into a new experience with practical examples. In Microsoft’s case, they need a much bigger commitment by their own product groups outside the Windows team to embrace and deliver solutions that take full advantage of their Modern UI. In Apple’s case, I’d love it if they’d apply clarity, deference and depth as one part of a strategy to re-inflate their cloud service offerings.

Ultimately, I’m hoping that we can all shift gears and ignore the icons for a while and think about what will happen when we tap on them.

To paraphrase William Shakespeare, “what’s in an icon, that an app by any other should work as well.” Indeed!

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