The New Apple Interface

I am an ‘old Apple guy’ so I feel a little leeway to chime in on their latest product demos.

The iOS 7 and OS X Mavericks previews have some neat new features but perhaps the biggest change is a basic design one moving away from what we’re calling ‘skeuomorphic’ design elements and toward a more abstract and minimal design. There were apparently some corporate politics behind all of this, you can read about that elsewhere. What I wanted to comment upon was a long-range view of Apple’s software design, what made Apple ‘Apple’ in the first place was the use of the desktop metaphor, making files and folders look like ‘files and folders’, the trash can, and just about every other element of the Macintosh interface. The Macintosh interface is a metaphoric one, that was part of the ‘ease of use’ angle to its success and of course also part of the ‘toy computer’ criticism made for so long. Sure, it looked like a cartoon, but cartoons are easy and making the computer itself easy let us get on to the work we actually wanted to do.

I basically accept this premise, that the tool itself can be goofy if it makes it easier for users both new and old to jump in and start using it. The power-user argument is that once you internalize, using the desktop metaphor, how the system works you can dispense with the training wheels (just to throw in another metaphor.) What I’m hearing from Apple now is that enough users are powerful enough and the iOS has become a thing in and of itself, that it is no longer representing something else and so can skip the metaphor and just concentrate on looking nice. That isn’t unreasonable, the system has been around a long time, there are large numbers of users, perhaps the metaphor element of design isn’t necessary anymore.

Where I have pause is in the self-seriousness of the design-centric contingent. Apple products have always had a bit of useful whimsey, they could be a little like cartoons, but it was always done to a purpose and for a use. In watching users on virtually every Apple platform since the first Mac 128k, Newton, OS X, and iOS there have always been those moments of learning the interface when a user sees something they recognize: a folder, the trash can, had their hand writing or touch recognized, when they smile and seem to ‘get it.’ Those little triumphs of understanding are essential elements for convincing users they can use the machine and get past having to understand it to getting some work accomplished.

No nostalgia here and I’m really looking forward to Calendar and others being more efficient with their interface elements. I just hope we aren’t going down a precious path to an interface too beautiful and streamlined to use intuitively, too beautiful to love. I have found it helpful with a new tool, workbench, piece of sporting equipment, really anything intended to be used, that it go ahead and pick up a few dints, dings, and scratches as quickly as possible (and deliberately so sometimes) so we can get past the moment of precious perfection and on to the job at hand.