How Apple is giving design a bad name

“Once upon a time, Apple was known for designing easy-to-use, easy-to-understand products,” Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini write for Fast Company. “It was a champion of the graphical user interface, where it is always possible to discover what actions are possible, clearly see how to select that action, receive unambiguous feedback as to the results of that action, and to have the power to reverse that action—to undo it—if the result is not what was intended.”

“No more. Now, although the products are indeed even more beautiful than before, that beauty has come at a great price,” Norman and Tognazzini write. “Gone are the fundamental principles of good design: discoverability, feedback, recovery, and so on. Instead, Apple has, in striving for beauty, created fonts that are so small or thin, coupled with low contrast, that they are difficult or impossible for many people with normal vision to read. We have obscure gestures that are beyond even the developer’s ability to remember. We have great features that most people don’t realize exist.”

“Apple’s design guidelines for developers for both iOS and the Mac OS X still pay token homage to the principles, but, inside Apple, many of the principles are no longer practiced at all. Apple has lost its way, driven by concern for style and appearance at the expense of understandability and usage,” Norman and Tognazzini write. “A woman told one of us that she had to use Apple’s assistive tool to make Apple’s undersize fonts large and contrasty enough to be readable. However, she complained that on many app screens, this option made normal fonts so large that the text wouldn’t fit on the screen. It’s important to note that she did not have defective vision. She just didn’t have the eyesight of a 17-year-old… What kind of design philosophy requires millions of its users to have to pretend they are disabled in order to be able to use the product?”

Read more in the full article – very highly recommendedhere.

MacDailyNews Take: Some might say this is what you get when you make an industrial designer the final arbiter of user interface design. If so, the fault lies not with Jony Ive, but with Tim Cook, the man who gave Ive a job for which is not well-suited. “This guy’s a really good designer and software design is design, too, so…” is something you might think an operations guy-cum-CEO might say to himself in late October 2012 amidst a rather existential crisis.

If you do say things like this, we concur that there is a modicum of truth somewhere in your statements, but that things of late are actually getting better. Let’s face it: Ive was forced to learn a new discipline after the Maps/Forstall fiasco blew up and the responsibilities for basically, oh, everything were plopped on his lap. (No one person could actually do Jony’s job as assigned by Tim Cook).

Now, with Ive moved up into the “Chief Design Officer” position, Richard Howarth becoming the new vice president of Industrial Design, and Alan Dye becoming the new vice president of User Interface Design, we suspect usability to improve.

Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini each led projects in the early-1980s that resulted in their extracting and codifying the principles that underlay the then-new generation of user-centered visual design, as embodied in the Xerox Star, Apple Lisa, and Apple Macintosh computers, as well as the experimental systems that preceded them.

We hope the powers that be at Apple read Norman’s and Tog’s full article and takes what it says to heart.

Jony Ive promoted to ‘Chief Design Officer’ – May 25, 2015
Open letter to Tim Cook: Apple needs to do better – January 5, 2015
Usability, not ‘flat’ design, key to Monday’s iOS refresh – June 10, 2013
Tim Cook takes full control of Apple: John Browett and Scott Forstall out; Jony Ive, Bob Mansfield, Eddy Cue and Craig Federighi get expanded responsibilities – October 29, 2012

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “Tom R.” for the heads up.]


    1. This is the Steve Jobs factor. He was relentless in emphasizing simplicity — but it’t one of the hardest things in the world to accomplish. Function and form must integrate, but function can never be sacrificed for beauty. It has been Apple’s secret sauce for decades and very difficult for the competition to understand. Their products were genuinely simple to use… and beautiful. The beauty is still there, but the simplicity is giving way to complexity. A dangerous trend.

      Right now, the problem is just beginning… if this trend continues, Apple will eventually be in serious trouble. My hope is that Tim Cook sees this and makes a change. It’s not easy. It takes an extraordinary vision to cut through all the complexity to a purity of function and design. You need someone with Steve’s vision to draw a line in the sand when it comes to simplicity.

      This is a good article if it wakes up a few people at Apple. I think it’s more than valid and strikes at the core of what made Apple great — and I, for one, want to see Apple remain great.

    2. Go into Apple Music in iTunes on Os X and look at the font kerning of the headings and subheadings. It’s terrible. Just like the god awful Youtube App for iPhone: horrible font kerning. Terrible usability.

      Amateur night.

    3. yogi, sorry to say, read the actual article and could not agree LESS! Apple is not prefect but those guys wanted to go back to a whip and buggy … cause… it was better!! Everything was better years ago….. Wow,

      Can Apple do better? Sure. But tell me just who is doing it so much better RIGHT NOW?? Android and its 57000 varieties ??

      1. “Can Apple do better? Sure. But tell me just who is doing it so much better RIGHT NOW??”

        Irrelevant. The standard is: how well can something be done? Then: DO IT AS WELL AS IT CAN BE DONE!

        Not just better than poor competition.

        Go back to the original interface standards, and soon!

      2. Reading the article is actually rather difficult, and is perhaps trying to prove its case for bad design: jumping quickly between and is annoying. Once I went to Safari and went into and searched around until I found the article, I read it.

        I believe it does make good points, and I didn’t see much “horse and buggy”. The authors are obviously not minimalist, and, perhaps somewhat incredibly, don’t understand why minimalism is necessary on a very small screen.

        Overall, I perceive iOS 7-8-9 as advancement at “getting the UI out of the way”; however, an intuitive way to get to that UI might be necessary. The interface needs to be a bit more fluid; the phone should “learn” how much the user comprehends about its operation, and better “supplement” those who are less proficient.

    4. Yo Jimbo!

      You have a Goldeneye for detail … 😉

      I have been on MDN record since day one constructively criticizing visual disaster when my eyes were insulted by the debut of iOS7.

      Years later, the cancer has now spread to OSX.

      I have tried to point out industrial design and graphic design are two ENTIRELY DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES in the professional world to no avail.

      Like you, had hoped someone in Cupertino would replace crayon outlines with Illustrator professionals.

      Repeat: Tim and Team … RU listening?!?

  1. Apple, in their last iOS iteration has been trying to follow a faux fame raised by Android where minimal design was the only option to fully support the majority and diversity of phone coming up. Minimal CPU and GPU intervention for maximal UXUI…

    Apple has been following the trend without re-inventing it… Yet…

  2. Oh, boo-hoo. I have eyesight FAR from that of a 17-year-old. I have no difficulties with my Mac or my 5s. It would be impossible to utterly satisfy every single person.

    If only Apple would learn from wonderful interface designers like Microscum and Googlethieves.

    Seriously though,
    – If you have a pile of gestures available, some will be obscure,
    – And when you have a pile of functions, the average user will never know about most of them… partially because they’ll never need most of them.

    By all means, let’s give feedback and let’s have Apple improve things. But PUH-lease let’s stop talking about every detail of what Apple doesn’t do perfectly like it’s a solar-system ending disaster.

    1. I am a power user an small-time in-house OSX developer.
      Recent iterations of iOS (and a few features in OSX) are indeed hard to discover, hard to undo or not at all.
      The fine lettering on my brand new iPhone 6s, even after it was set to bold, is hard or impossible to read with anything less than 120/100 eyesight. In front of my computer, I sometimes use a second set of glasses, and this works for my iPhone too, but one can hardly expect people to do this when they are on the move.

    2. John, totally agree. I read the article. Boy, just whine, whine.
      Yes, Apple can do better. But lets look at Android with 99.5% of the malware… Should Apple copy?
      As Apple adds features like Connect, it makes the systems more complex, but the pretty much get it right.

      I say, Hate Apple, then buy Android and bitch about Apple on their site. Apple seems to be doing pretty good in my book. Perfect? no. But better than everyone else.

      Just saying,.

      1. Constructive criticism is not a form of hatred. If used properly, it doesn’t even matter if it is meant hatefully. Apple should listen to the criticism and evaluate if any part of it is accurate. If so, then that criticism could bring about changes which make Apple better. Putting on your defensive armor when criticism comes about wreaks of vulnerability.

    3. I must say I agree philosophically more with you or eldernorm on this topic; although I also sympathise with those who were shocked and dismayed by the Crayola atrocities introduced by acolytes of minimalism in iOS 7. But I myself was hardly shocked or dismayed since this had been telegraphed by the media, who predicted that Apple would follow the industry GUI trend embodied by Android and exemplified by Microsoft’s Metro. I suppose I overestimated the forbearance of old-school Mac users who had ridden out previous periods of design fads with less grumbling. Sorry but I just don’t see Apple getting worse. Maybe the rest of us are all getting older and crankier.

    4. I thought one of the reasons a user manual is not packed with iPhones was that the gestures were simple to learn and discoverability was high.. Now iPhones are getting complex enough so perhaps rethinking the decision to include a manual now would be prudent.

  3. I also don’t like the new font. Old one was much easier to read and I think “easy to read” is the most important factor for a system font.

    While everyone seems to love force touch, I have found it requires a pretty large learning curve. I’m not a fan, but I may be the only one who feels this way.

  4. Sadly, this is true. I’ve been a huge champion of Apple just for their prowess in UI, but several things just grate on my every nerve about Apple’s UI.

    1. Rearranging icons in iOS. Seriously the worst UI Apple has ever done.
    2. Focus theft in Mac OSX.
    3. Anything to do with iTunes UI.

    Those three alone make Apple’s claim to the UI crown seem laughable.

    1. Focus left on osx… What do u mean?

      As for number 1… U want to see the worst ever? Go to itunes and try to use the ui to rearrange app icons using iTunes..
      A two year old will do a million times better ..

      Some of this UI choices are so obviously inefficient and unergonomic that i cant for the life of me understand how and who gave the green light forthem… Its mind boggling.

      Heavy reliance on keyboard shortcuts.. Come on, not everybody likes to memorize or use all this stuff. Some like to point and click.. Give the option at least !

      Back delete.. Why should I use two keys to do this.. Just put a freaking back delete key on the keyboard. Same in ios.. Give us forward and backward arrows ! . It wont kill u.

      Emoji.. Three keys to activate in osx.. Why not have an icon on menu?

      The centrlized top menu bar.. Grrrrr. Give us a switch in setup so we can have window centric menu… If we choose.
      When mutiple windows are open the centrelized top menu becomes confusing and easy to get off sync… And requires too much eye and mouse movement on big monitors.. It becomes very tedious on repetitive tasks….

      Contextual menues are not consitant.

      Ios low contrast fonts..WHY.. Its hard to read on small screens .. Why make it worse with low contrast screen elements??

      Some actions and processes dont have clear indicators..

      Just a few more examples… There are a lot.

      Annnnd……That pink font color on ios… Grrrrrrrr

  5. The word “skeuomorphic” sounds bad, but all it means is “things look like what they are.” Making things look like what they are is the whole point of a GUI, so people don’t have to guess what things are. Now we have to do a lot of guessing.

    Jony Ive has replaced buttons with words in filled rectangles or circles, words in unfilled rectangles or circles, underlined text (which looks cheap) or just text with no indication that it does something. Some give visual feedback, others don’t.

    Everything is flat, circular, or rectangular, removing a lot of visual information, and sometimes the actual symbol is crudely drawn and too small. Jony Ive isn’t good at GUIS, but he can draw a mean circle! The GUI is also inconsistent. Apple used to base its GUI on research and testing, but now it is just Jony’s whim.

    In the past, Apple based its GUI on research and testing, not on the whims of someone who esteems himself an artist but isn’t one, giving us OS X Hanna Barbera. If it is not Jony Ive’s fault that he got this job duty, it is his fault that he didn’t pass it on to someone who knows what he’s doing.

  6. “Apple has, in striving for beauty, created fonts that are so small or thin, coupled with low contrast, that they are difficult or impossible for many people with normal vision to read.”

    Yea, okay . . . he has a point there. 😕

  7. This article makes some valid and foundational points about UI design.

    However, I find some people wanting to go back to cruder high contrast black and white interfaces (granted, the color blind may be thankful) because that’s what they’ve become used to over the last couple of decades. I’m left with the suspicion that many are simply uncomfortable with change. The graphic designers at Apple are well versed in how to display and separate information on a screen. They’re well versed in contrast and color (with apologies to the color blind). I’m 53 and I don’t have a problem with reading the displays. I suspect that younger generations are not going to have the same negative reactions as those who have been using computers for several decades.

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