Joshua Topolsky: Apple is really bad at design

MacDailyNews Note: The MacDailyNews Takes in this post are written by SteveJack.

“The ‘notch’ on the new iPhone X is not just strange, interesting, or even odd — it is bad. It is bad design, and as a result, bad for the user experience,” Joshua Topolsky writes for The Outline. “The justification for the notch (the new Face ID tech, which lets you unlock the device just by looking at it) could have easily been accomplished with no visual break in the display. Yet here is this awkward blind spot cradled by two blobs of actual screenspace.”

“It is, put plainly, a visually disgusting element. One which undermines the core premise of the iPhone X’s design (‘all screen’), and offers a feature as an excuse which is really an answer in search of a question,” Topolsky writes. “Plenty has been written about the mind-numbing, face-palming, irritating stupidity of the notch. And yet, I can’t stop thinking about it. I would love to say that this awful design compromise is an anomaly for Apple. But it would be more accurate to describe it as the norm.”

Topolsky writes, “Once upon a time, Apple could do little wrong.”

MacDailyNews Take: Once upon a time, a guy who actually cared about and sweated over even the most minute details ran the company and forced his designers to keep going back to the drawing board until they fscking got it right or else got fscking fired. (Excuse my French.)

A perfectionist gatekeeper whom people feared would go a long, long way at today’s Apple.

Jony Ive or whichever underling is standing in for him while he dicks around for years with an office building: Your recent (post-Steve Jobs) work — from the iPhone Smart Battery Case to the Apple TV’s Siri Remote to the iPhone X’s notch — is embarrassing, amateurish, confused shit that is not worthy of the Apple logo.

In Apple’s iPhone X introduction video, Jony Ive (or the AI voice Craig Federighi whipped up to sound like Jony Ive) opens with, “For more than a decade, our intention had been to create an iPhone that is all display. A physical object that disappears into the experience. This is iPhone X.” Uh, Jony, if you haven’t noticed, I have: A black “notch” negates your “all display” goal. It also utterly fails to “disappear.” It does the exact opposite, in fact. God, I wish Steve Jobs could come back for just five minutes and provide a concise critique of your work. Without him here to tell you what to do, it is painfully obvious that you or your minions often don’t know what to do.

A team of people – talented people who actually get it and who are all on the same page – is an absolute necessity for Apple’s success, but it creates a problem: Jobs was a single filter. A unified mind. The founder. A group of people simply cannot replicate that. This is not to say that they cannot do great work (we believe Apple does, and will continue, to do great work) just that Apple is fundamentally affected by the loss of Steve Jobs and has to figure out a new way to work. — MacDailyNews, April 8, 2014

“The work was downright elegant; unheard of for an electronics company,” Topolsky writes. “Stretching perhaps from the introduction of the first iPod in 2001, through the release of the groundbreaking iPhone 4 (and subsequent refinement with the iPhone 5), Apple was regularly lauded as best-in-class when it came to hardware and software design and the synchronicity of those elements. Reviewers (yes, even me) fawned over designs that lovingly referenced ‘classic Leica[s]’ and boasted software that turned simple smartphone cameras into true photography tools. But things changed.”

MacDailyNews Take: Gee, wonder what happened?

“In 2013 I wrote about the confusing and visually abrasive turn Apple had made with the introduction of iOS 7, the operating system refresh that would set the stage for almost all of Apple’s recent design,” Topolsky writes. “The product, the first piece of software overseen by Jony Ive, was confusing, amateur, and relatively unfinished upon launch… Gone were the mock felt backgrounds and virtual dials of Steve Jobs’ iOS, but suddenly present was a set of gestures and layers purported to be part of a system that never quite clicked. Ive converted understandable buttons into confusing rubrics (the share arrow?), clustered controls into a context-free space (Control Center), and perhaps worst of all, made some really ugly icons that have never fully recovered… While this may seem like obsessive nit-picking, these are the kinds of details that Apple in its previous incarnation would never have gotten wrong.”

“Even John Gruber, the most evangelical of Apple bloggers, said this of the iPhone X’s notch: ‘It offends me. It’s ungainly and unnatural,'” Topolsky writes. “This is Apple’s biggest product of 2017?”

“And it’s not just the hardware, or the UI. The ecosystem is unwell. iTunes and Apple Music and the Podcasts app coexist on devices for reasons only Eddy Cue understands, your purchases and files floating somewhere in their digital ether, untethered to a clear system or logic,” Topolsky writes. “The ‘TV’ app maintains some awkward middle ground that attempts to lasso your subscription services, your purchased content, marketing suggestions, and the cable you probably still pay for. But none of these things seem to actually function fluidly. Example: you can buy movies and TV shows in the iTunes Store app but you have to watch them in the TV app? It’s fucking crazy.”

MacDailyNews Take: The absence of Steve Jobs grows ever more apparent with the introduction of each new Apple product, service, and app. At today’s Apple, the lack of an omnipotent arbiter of taste glares like a klieg light.

“This is not an argument about what Steve Jobs would have done; this is an argument for a central, cohesive vision that accounts for systems, not just nodes on a network. Jony Ive is clearly not providing that vision. Phil Schiller is not providing that vision,” Topolsky writes. “And Tim Cook, the all-time don of supply-chain management, cannot and will not provide that vision. So what happens now?”

MacDailyNews Take: Apple management, hopefully your eyes and ears are still open and you’ll listen to your most rabid fans/most avid product and service users, and realize that you have indeed slipped and you need to refocus not on your HQ’s 80-foot tall glass doors, but again on the most minute details of the products that you ship to customers.

For the dwindling number of you who were there when Steve was, ask yourselves WWSD: What Would Steve Do? Yes, do it! Further, ask yourselves WWSS: What Would Steve Say if I told him, for example, “For more than a decade, our intention had been to create an iPhone that is all display” and then handed him an iPhone mock up that wasn’t all-display?

“Pundits will respond to these arguments by detailing Apple’s meteoric and sustained market-value gains. Apple fans will shout justifications for a stylus that must be charged by sticking it into the bottom of an iPad, a ‘back’ button jammed weirdly into the status bar, a system of dongles for connecting oft-used devices, a notch that rudely juts into the display of a $1,000 phone,” Topolsky writes. “But the reality is that for all the phones Apple sells and for all the people who buy them, the company is stuck in idea-quicksand, like Microsoft in the early 2000s, or Apple in the 90s.”

Read more in the full article – recommendedhere.

MacDailyNews Take: By now, unless you’re Eddy Cue, you’ve likely gathered that I’m in near total agreement with Topolsky. In fact, we’ve been talking about the problem for years here at MacDailyNews:

Inelegant kludge.

As we wrote back in June:

“Again with that awful cutout… We doubt that Apple would execute the display in such a way as to draw attention to a black cutout containing the FaceTime camera, earpiece, etc. More likely, the thin top of the display on either side would remain off limits to anything but the deepest OLED black into which such a cutout would simply disappear. Also, why would Apple cram battery, carrier, Wi-Fi, signal strength into those areaa as it only works in portrait mode. What happens to those areas on either side of that cutout when the iPhone is in landscape mode?”

Unfortunately for those with taste and design sense, it looks like we doubted wrong. (Apple’s design “choices” as of late: Smart Battery Case, Apple TV Siri remote*, OLED iPhone notched cutout… can you tell that Jony’s either lost interest, is at Apple in name only, and/or has otherwise checked out?)MacDailyNews on iPhone X “notch,” August 30, 2017

With the Siri Remote, users can’t tell which end is up in a darkened room due to uniform rectangular shape. The remote is still too small, so it gets lost easily. All buttons are the same size and similarly smooth (the raised white ring around the menu button helps, but so barely it’s astounding that Apple even bothered; it’s a bandaid on a turd). The tactile difference between the bottom of the remote vs. the upper Glass Touch surface is too subtle as well; this also leads to not being able to tell which end is up. A larger remote, designed for hands larger than a 2-year-old’s with a simple wedge shape (slightly thicker in depth at the bottom vs. the top), as opposed to a uniform slab, would have instantly communicated the proper orientation to the user.

If Jony Ive “designed” the Siri Remote, he should forfeit his knighthood*.

*But we all know Jony has been obsessed with Apple Park for many years now and likely never even saw the piece of shit remote before they threw it in the box. — MacDailyNews, September 25, 2017

Some might say something about Apple brass being fat and happy after gorging on RSUs. Others might say that Apple has outgrown a management system from a time when they were much smaller with fewer product lines. Or that the company is distracted with moving into their spaceship or other issues that are, at best, exceedingly peripheral to where Apple’s focus should be: Delighting their customers and shipping high quality, dependable products.

Whatever the reason(s) for Apple’s seeming malaise, we’ve said it before, so we’ll say it again: From the outside, Apple, you look lazy and/or somewhat lost. Is that how you want to look to the world, Apple, much less to us “rabid fanboys?”MacDailyNews, December 9, 2016

Jony took one look at those reams of Mophie battery case patents and decided, “Yeah, I’ll delegate this one.” — MacDailyNews on Apple’s iPhone Smart Battery Case, December 8, 2015

“It just works.” That’s getting tougher and tougher for us OS X and iOS users to say with straight faces lately.

Apple, while certainly still the best when it comes to desktop and mobile operating systems, needs to do better. Our expectations, some of us as users of Apple products since the early 1980s, are not being met when it comes to the quality and reliability of operating systems, software, and services. Used to be, you could pretty confidently install brand new operating systems from Apple. Recently, we’re more inclined to wait for a few point releases than not. It’s downright Microsoftian. Lately, for the past couple of years, your software seems rushed. Is “rush job” really the impression you want to give your customers?

Some of those things lead us to wonder if perhaps you should rethink some aspects of the culture at Apple? Specifically, what really should constitute a badge of honor at Apple? Working all day, all weekend and all night in order to squat out iOS 8.0.1 and then have to turn around and do it all over again, in a panic, to get iOS 8.0.2 out the door in order to clean up the mess? Or taking the time necessary to do the job correctly the first time? — MacDailyNews, January 5, 2015

Apple has grown very quickly in recent years. There are now far more post-Jobs newbies than Apple employees who really understand the Apple mindset that made it insanely great. How well is Apple University working, really?MacDailyNews, November 7, 2015

As Apple CEO, Steve Jobs focused on two things – product design and marketing. He was a genius at both. His talents cannot be replaced with one person. In fact, his talents in either discipline cannot be replaced by one person. Jony Ive and Phil Schiller without Jobs cannot be expected to perform as if Jobs was still working with them.

A team of people – talented people who actually get it and who are all on the same page – is an absolute necessity for Apple’s success, but it creates a problem: Jobs was a single filter. A unified mind. The founder. A group of people simply cannot replicate that. This is not to say that they cannot do great work (we believe Apple does, and will continue, to do great work) just that Apple is fundamentally affected by the loss of Steve Jobs and has to figure out a new way to work. — MacDailyNews, April 8, 2014

It’s nice to say you strive to make “world-class products” for customers, Tim, it’s better to actually deliver them.MacDailyNews, September 28, 2012

SEE ALSO:
Open letter to Tim Cook: Apple needs to do better – January 5, 2015

93 Comments

  1. They are certainly bad at GUI design these days with the departure of Forstall. Flat, lifeless and confusing.

    Industrial design? No one does it better than Apple. My only quibble is light and thin may have gone too far removing valuable ports, headphone jack, etc.

    Still, the best designed products out there …

    1. “The best designed products out there.”

      That’s not hard and that’s not the proper goal.

      The goal should be to make the best possible products out there. That notch decision on the iPhone X was the wrong choice. The Siri Remote is far, far, far from the best-designed remote out there.

      1. MDN – you can’t keep your feet in both camps here. While it’s true you have criticized recent bad design repeatedly, you have mostly done so half-throatedly and schizophrenically. In the same day, you’ll complain about the terrible design decision of the day and then talk up that product like you’d have to be an asshole not to love / buy it.

        1. The notch can be bad design (because it is) while the iPhone X can be the best smartphone, by far. The two are not mutually exclusive.

          1. MDN take : “Don’t get us wrong, we’ll live with it.”

            Past MDN headlines:

            Millions of Android settlers are now upgrading to Apple’s iPhone

            Trashy Android settlers more likely to have sex on first date

            Apple will pay Android settlers to upgrade to real iPhones

            No iPhone user can even imagine what those who settle for Android are forced to live with

      1. Read my post again since it is both critical and praise where due. Hardly qualifies, for “settling” and certainly NOT an apologist.

        The industrial design is by far the best out there. You must be new around here. I have been criticizing the GUI design since day one of the release of iOS7 on this forum.

        Get a grip …

    2. Apple hasn’t been the best at design for a long time. It has been very successful catering to upper middle class yuppie design for those with money but not necessarily taste. It’s the App Store, not design, fueling Apple’s fame and fortune. The current design team has been coasting for 8 years.

      Proof:

      every iPhone sale Apple makes is accompanied by the attempt to sell you a case. Apples battery case might be the fugliest ever

      Dongles

      Years between hardware design refresh

      Total lack of ergonomics in many things

      Still pushing White accessories which don’t match anything anymore and look dirty grey in a week of use

      Insisting on putting a touch bar on mbp when anyone who buys one already owns an iOS device that STILL cannot be used as a Mac input device.

      To top it all off, Ive dials it in. He’s not at Apple events and clearly is more interested in extracurricular activities. Fire the dead wood already!

      1. I agree with most of your points.

        But you have to agree the sleek iMac, MacBook, Air and original iPhone are all brilliant hardware designs that everyone in the industry copied. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

        Software GUI, iTunes navigation and trash can MacPro still needs a design overhaul.

        You raise an interesting point about Jony. Since the release of his visual resume without captions called a book — yup, not very visible these days …

        1. Of course, but they were produced under Jobs who whipped his underlings until they got it right. They’ve been coasting on his legacy and have apparently become slower and more lethargic than at any time in the past decade. Fat and happy.

  2. This also happened under Steve Jobs. One button mouse for YEARS. No drawing stylus for iPads for YEARS. The hockey puck mouse that was simply stupid form over function design. So no, Steve Jobs was not infallible.

    1. Straw man. Nobody said Jobs was infallible. But he had taste and he was a perfectionist; Tim Cook does not and is not. And, Jony Ive without Steve Jobs is certainly, provably, reliably fallible.

      1. “Perfectionist”? Read what crisrod wrote about just a few examples that CLEARLY did not come from any perfectionist and were far more catastrophically awful than this little notch… e.g. one button mouse.

        1. Apple shipped its Macs with the substandard 1 button mouse but it was compatible with tons of great input devices. Apple’s choice to push USB 1.0 was brilliant and a game changer. I’ve been using a Trackball with Macs for as long as I can remember, even on laptops. The ever growing touchpad is still been less precise than I like. But, let’s focus not on personal preferences that once upon a time the user could easily customize. The problem with Apple today is often as not that designers have no clue how users want to use Apple products and then Apple makes it expensive or impossible to customize. That is lazy design. ATV remote. Sealed boxes with zero legacy connections. Power button directly opposite volume. And on and on. There are no fixes other than buying kludged 3rd party bandaids.

          Anyway, when Apple was the underdog, Jobs was personally involved. Today Cook and the executive team are do dissociated from details, the company doesn’t even act with the passion and user dedication that brought it to the front of the pack.

        2. One button mouse was intentional, well-though decision as regular people easily confuse the buttons and have hard remembering which button should be used when.

          The issue was that Apple should have also allowed two-button mouse from very beginning for those who are more agile with such things — as an option.

    1. I think it looks more unbalanced without the notch because you have a thicker bar at the top then the three other sides. I prefer Apples take better because all 4 corners have no thick edge, which to me looks better. The space is also put to good use. I am sure Apple tried both methods, and after some time using it, they preferred the current design. I don’t think it was overlooked.

      1. The renderings are better than rhe notch
        If Symmetry in your mind trumps having an unhindered screen view, Apple could have used the bottom chin for better speakers and mic.

        Apple was just looking for something unique that wouldn’t be covered by a case. It is a great opportunity for case designers to figure out a way to hide the notch

        1. “Apple could have used the bottom chin for better speakers and mic.”

          100% this. No matter how good quality the speakers are that Apple puts into an iPhone, in the end it’s wasted because most of the sound is projecting sideways instead of directly towards the viewer/listener.

          To this day, showing video to someone in any place with ambient noise means a choice of 1) watching video but can’t hear audio well, even at 100% volume; 2) put bottom of phone to your ear to hear it, but can’t watch video properly; or 3) awkwardly cupping the speaker end so distorted sound is reflected off your palm and towards the viewer.

            1. You’re not making sense. Maybe there’s a worthwhile idea you’re trying to put out there but you’re too lazy to articulate it. No iPhone case, even polycarbonate ones, cover over the cameras. Also, how would polycarbonate help “case designers to figure out a way to hide the notch”?

      2. I think you’re on to something with the balance. The top and bottom of every single iPhone has been vertically balanced. Apple clearly did not want to break with that. I think it was the right decision. The notch, while initially disconcerting, speaks to function by saying that something is going on in this space. The protruding camera lens also says that part of the iPhone is doing something special. They are both forms that at some level speak the function.

    2. They were thinking that the renders without the notch look like any other generic phone from any other competitor. Why do people think Apple would possibly do that? The notch has created so much publicity that it has guaranteed that it will never be mistaken for another brand.

          1. The imitators in this case have ample history showing they copy good and bad design indiscriminately. So no, copying the Stupid Notch is not evidence to show that its a good design.

  3. SteveJack needs to get back in his coffin – together with Steve Jobs. Sadly he’s gone and nothing willl bring him back – unlike the other SJ.
    IPhoneX won’t be as good as iPhone11 etc etc.
    How up and get over it.

  4. They are HORRIBLE at remote control design on all of ANY Apple TV made to date, just HORRIBLE. OH the Apple iMac remotes suck too.

    Dude you will get use the phone .

  5. I hate the notch. It rubs me the wrong way aesthetically. But I’m not the primary target audience.

    The iPhone X is exactly two things: an experiment, and a status symbol.

    As an experiment the iPhone X will help Apple figure out how to build and use non-rectilinear screens, which they clearly feel is important to the evolution of computing. Many of the new form-factors they want to pursue in wearables, automotives, in-home, and beyond will benefit from the technical and social adoption of this new display model.

    As a high-visibility status symbol that’s not easy to copy, the notch will be the biggest must-have since those stupid Louis Vuitton da Vinci bags. It’ll be bigger than the Land Rover Discovery in 1990s LA. Bigger than The Beatles.

    “And yet, I can’t stop thinking about it.”

    And that, may be exactly the point.

    1. By Faux News I take it you mean the New York Times. Which is the world leader in Fake News. Ever since it’s “man in Moscow” Walter Durant bragged about what a humanitarian Stalin was.

  6. Jony Ive is good at making things round, square, flat and unobtrusive, which is good for hardware but really bad for a UI.

    The UI itself is three-dimensional. There is a z-index. Things can be on top of other things, but this is not represented in the UI at all. Open a second window in an app it’s a Where’s Waldo game to find it.

    We now have cryptic symbols. You don’t use the color-sample stick app at Home Depot to choose paint, it’s supposed to be photos, and the three popsicle sticks don’t represent an arts-and-crafts guide, but apps, and I recently saw an symbol that looks like a Texaco locator.

    It used to be that if you had an icon on the desktop, the text would contrast with the background, and would change as you moved it around. Today, if you have a symbol on a light background, good luck reading the text.

    And we are freed from the terror of skeuomorphism, which means “things look like what they are.”

    But what can you expect from flat stick-figure man who lives in an abstract mural?

  7. MDN, you are bipolar. That said, criticism can be good. They can always sue the notched area for the status indicators as mentioned. Chill everyone. SJ is gone. Give the “new “ Apple some time to find itself and keep evolving. And yes, it will involve making mistakes…

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