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Former Apple Design Gurus Criticize Apple’s Current Designs

Back in the days before iOS, Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines, colloquially known among developers as “the HIG,” were gospel. The HIG, created by Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini in 1978, outlined how Macintosh applications should look to an extent, but was more about how they worked, specifically, how users would interact with the apps. Notably, it promoted key principles that had emerged from the nascent human-computer interaction (HCI) community such as discoverability (no feature should be hidden), feedback (which makes it clear what has happened after you perform an action), and recovery (the capability to undo any action). Even more specifically, the HIG leaned heavily on the work done by Don Norman and his students at the University of California, San Diego. Norman would later go on to join Tognazzini at Apple as well.

Although this resulted in many Mac applications sporting highly similar interfaces, there were exceptions, notably Kai’s Power Tools, which wouldn’t look out of place on an iPad today. Regardless, for the most part, interface similarity was a good thing, since it meant that lessons learned in one app would carry over to others — for instance, the File menu always contains common commands like New, Save, and Quit.

Now, Norman and Tognazzini, two of the people in part responsible for Apple’s early interface design leadership, have collaborated on a criticism of Apple’s current design trends, both as promulgated in today’s Human Interface Guidelines for OS X and iOS and as evidenced in the company’s own apps. They say, “although the products are indeed even more beautiful than before, that beauty has come at a great price. Gone are the fundamental principles of good design.” Published in Fast Company, their article is well worth reading for anyone who has struggled with interface discoverability problems and how aesthetics so often trump usability in today’s apps. (Norman and Tognazzini are both principals, along with Jakob Nielsen, in the user experience firm Nielsen Norman Group.)

The article is a damning indictment, coming as it does from some of the leading voices in the user experience field, and frankly, it has the best chance of any criticism of being heard at Apple. (That said, these points aren’t new — back in 2010, Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen wrote a more general criticism of gestural interfaces in the ACM CHI magazine Interactions.) The situation is similar to that of the emperor’s new clothes — although many in the Apple community have pointed out interface problems in Apple’s recent software (cough iTunes cough), the impression one gets is that Apple’s executives can’t hear any nay-saying because of the continual sound of money rolling in. Alas, usability is no more defined by corporate profits now than it was in the 1990s when Microsoft dominated the computer industry.

These interface issues aren’t just a matter of academic complaint — in writing and editing TidBITS articles and Take Control books for everyday users, we constantly run across tasks in Apple apps that are difficult to document because they’re dependent both on multiple levels of context and visual controls that have no names — without an interface vocabulary, communication about interfaces is limited to pointing and monosyllabic grunts: “Click there!” and “Tap that!” And when helping less technical friends and relatives solve problems, we’re increasingly resorting to “Let me fix it,” because we dread trying to walk someone through a series of steps over the phone.

Missing from this Fast Company article are specific solutions to most of the problems identified. Suggestions for improvement would seem relatively easy with something like iTunes on a large-screen Mac, where desktop software conventions could be used to rescue the app from its interface morass. But with the gestural iOS, and particularly on small screen devices like the iPhone, I worry that some of these interface goals may be nearly impossible to achieve. For those looking for such advice, Tognazzini does offer more examples in his 2014 Web article “First Principles of Interaction Design,” and Raluca Budiu of Nielsen Norman Group just published “Basic Patterns for Mobile Navigation: A Primer.”

Regardless, if you’re interested in the field of human-computer interaction, and in the usability of the interfaces we all rely on every day, the various articles linked here are useful food for thought.


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Comments about Former Apple Design Gurus Criticize Apple’s Current Designs
(Comments are closed.)

John Cooper  2015-11-13 19:50
I still have my copy of the 1992 Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines, which was my bible as I learned about good design as a user-interface tester at Aldus and Adobe. Unfortunately, I noticed significant and baffling departures from the principles in these guidelines starting with the introduction of Mac OS X. Given the timeline, it's difficult not to assign responsibility for the abandonment of these principles to Steve Jobs.
Mark Chaffin  2015-11-14 03:35
Very good article, and absolutely true. Add factors such as El Capitan's failure to be anything like the "bug fix" release as Snow Leopard was, with Mr. Cook's comments about how the iPad Pro is all the computer anyone needs, and it appears that for the serious Mac users and developers among us, Apple may be drifting away a bit from the Macintosh base.
Bertrand Morin  2015-11-14 10:24
When I did stumble on this article, my reaction simply was : « How correct are they in their analysis, now mine » Having seen and been present at the beginning of Apple as I was a student at Stanford, their evolution is present in my mind. All machines and software were in my experience and daily life, of which LISA was essentially tone of the most significant, but $. No books required (although Tidbits came along...), all applications were similar in operation, human interface were human and designed for the user, etc. But, overs the years, much of this has gone or volatized..
Now, one needs pile of ducuments, user lists, and a long depot of Tricks&Tips, because so much is unavailable to the regular user and hidden somewhere. Sure, the products are nice, but newcomers are essentially lost or manage to use so little of them. For one, now aged 70+, I do need specialities to read and work on Apple materials: reading glasses, find and use hidden or unknown road…
Ken Cooper  2015-11-14 12:00
I couldn't read the article. Every one or two paragraphs I would get the "an error has occurred on this page so it is being reloaded." Message followed by 45 seconds reloading the page. This is the current state of Apple user experience. Still, where am I to go? Windows and Android are no better.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2015-11-17 05:56
If you're having that kind of trouble accessing this page, the problem may be more serious than Apple's design issues, as the web design here (unlike other places like Macworld) is pretty basic, on purpose. Did you try it with another web browser? If two or more browsers are having the same problem, then it could be an Internet connectivity issue—or something is seriously wrong with your system. Further troubleshooting is called for.
Tom Gewecke  An apple icon for a TidBITS Benefactor 2015-11-17 09:55
The page is unreadable on Safari for iPad for me as well, because of the constant reloading. This is known problem for lots of people with certain pages, which can be fixed at least temporarily by deleting all web data in Settings.
Jesse the K  2015-11-17 16:35
I have no magic answers, but not fixing a fault so fundamental is the worst example of the abandonment of human interface design. Infuriating your users (when they've paid a premium to become users) seems to be a no-win strategy.
Joshua Lauer  2015-11-14 15:02
The points in these articles are primarily subjective.. Surely, if millions of people couldn't read the font on the iPhone, Apple wouldn't be able to break sales record every quarter. While reading the article, I found myself disagreeing every time the authors said that Apple missed the mark. I've never needed a manual to use any of their devices, and over time there programs have become increasingly easier to use. The gesture controls become a muscle memory very quickly. iOS 9 brought a new back button to return to the previous app and it is separate from the back gesture. You always know whether you will go back in your current app or go back to the previous app. In contrast, the dedicated Android back button is broken, leaving you to wonder if you will return to another app or go back within the current app. User interface goes hand in hand with user experience. Apple has the highest customer satisfaction rates in the industry. This would be impossible if their designs were so bad.
Craig J  2015-11-14 21:06
There is a big difference between being the best simply because your software is the best, and being the best because your software doesn't suck as bad as your competition. Apple is moving in that direction. The decline almost always starts well before revenue starts to drop...
Craig J  2015-11-14 21:02
I've been having this very discussion since iOS 7 shipped. This is what happens when you put a derivative designer (Jony Ives channeling Dieter Rams, but not getting the actual point of Rams) in charge, and he puts the guy that designed the packaging in charge of UI. They both know how to make things beautiful but they really don't seem to know the first thing about making things usable.
Don Funk  2015-11-15 00:20
The problem I have with these articles is two-fold: (1) people embrace the HIG as some sort of bible; wake up people...that was 20 years changes (2) Norman and Tog ought to retire; they haven't contributed anything groundbreaking in decades and certainly hasn't shown anyone anything new. What's the point of whining about things you think are wrong if you're not willing to put in the work to show how it ought to be done. These guys sound like a pair of armchair quarterbacks..
John Cooper  2015-11-15 01:30
(1) Technology changes, but the principles of human-centered design remain. The principles set forth in the 1990s HIGs were as well thought-out as any before or since, and are technology-independent. (2) Critics have a place when they're extraordinarily qualified, and when the leaders are falling short and not listening. That's true even when the critics don't have the solutions in hand. Great criticism serves as a wake-up call and as a corrective.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2015-11-17 06:04
Right—shoot the messenger. That's know in technical circles as an ad hominem argument wish is aulty or incompetent logic.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-11-17 09:09
And just to expand on one point, not only do the fundamental principles of human-centered design not change, the reason for that is that people don't change, not in deep ways. We have the same biology that we did 20 years ago, and that's what underlies those design fundamentals.

I'm still amazed when I encounter a door that needs to be pulled instead of pushed or vice versa, with no visual hint as to which action is necessary. That's one of the big examples in Don Norman's "The Design of Everyday Things" and is perfect example of how we're still making basic design mistakes.
phoenix  2015-11-17 09:43
Exactly. I call it a design "philosophy" because it's based on how humans learn: we look for clues what we should do next; we learn and remember action and result as "the expected result." Like the old "Chinese trick puzzle boxes," one learns eventually how to open them, but each box is different and the learning experience is valueless for the next box. An amusing pastime for those who like puzzles, and completely useless for those who want to accomplish the task and get back to the business of producing real work.
Martin Zeichner  2015-11-15 08:49
I read this article as a curmudgeonly "good old days" article. I disagree with almost every point in it. The HIG served Apple well from about 1985 to 1995 but it led Apple astray after that. In the late 1980's and early 1990's this was Apple's strategy to sell computers to people who wouldn't normally buy a computer. So they packaged it as an appliance like a refrigerator or a stove.

Apple enforced the desktop metaphor in the HIG because they thought that people would be able to understand the functions of a computer by relating them to what people had been trained to think about how to get work done. You have a big hulking desk with a desktop that has a phone on it along with other stuff. The desk has drawers with stuff in them. You type on a typewriter and doodle on the ink pad.

But eventually, when a new generation of college graduates enters the work force, computing is no longer served well by being viewed as a metaphor for past technologies. It must be its own technology.

John Cooper  2015-11-15 12:30
Discovery, recoverability, and feedback don't have anything to with the desktop metaphor.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2015-11-17 09:05
The desktop/filing cabinet metaphor/analogy was adopted to a large extent by Microsoft as well as by Apple—quite possibly because it was designed by Apple. And, simple as this meme seems to many of us, in my experience many people don't get even that. In point of fact, the majority of computer users, even today, are not college graduates. Further, even college graduates would have a hard time navigating their computer systems without that tried and true file structure design which, after all, only mimics the directory structure from DOS and UNIX, without all the confusing syntax. Now there are other ways of organizing data that may be more useful to some, but most of these are even more difficult to use and require far greater expertise.

Apple hasn't replaced its HIG with better ones. They have just drifted off in random directions that serve Jony Ive's ideas of design (no longer as inspired as they once were) rather than the needs of users. At one time Steve Jobs described the Mac as the computer for the rest of us. That standard quite clearly no longer applies at Apple. These days design (and bad design at that) trumps usability, both at Microsoft and at Apple, as the same design paradigms seem to have influenced them both, and not for our benefit.
John Cooper  2015-11-17 11:07
"Apple hasn't replaced its HIG with better ones. They have just drifted off in random directions that serve Jony Ive's ideas of design (no longer as inspired as they once were) rather than the needs of users." Perfectly stated!
Randy Spydell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Angel 2015-11-20 19:44
As a colleague curmudgeon of Adam's, can some one please enlighten me, or point me to the blog or book that can, on why Save and Save As… are "better" as Save and Duplicate. I don't get it.
I don't.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-11-25 13:37
Sorry for the delay in responding to this Randy, but I needed some time to check things.
Jeff Carlson wrote about the problems with Duplicate in

Matt Neuburg explained the modern document model (which affects the entire situation) in

And the thing I needed to check is that there's a trick for bringing Save As... back to nearly any application. Just go into the Keyboard preference pane, click Shortcuts, click App Shortcuts, and add a shortcut for Save As... (three periods, not an ellipsis) set to Command-Shift-S. Forcing the keyboard shortcut like that makes Save As appear when it would otherwise be available only by holding down Option when the File menu was showing. You can even hide Duplicate by assigning it the Command-Shift-Option-S shortcut.

I should write an article. :-)
Stuart Hertzog  2015-11-15 12:19
It's not just Apple that is destroying the computer experience. I went to the original article site to read it in full. Besides one "there was a problem on this page so it was reloaded" error, a succession of ads appeared to cover a portion of the column of text. These ads could not be dismissed, although a complaint box appeared allowing feedback, but, unfortunately, this box obscured the text and could not be dismissed without having reloading the page... Producing another page reload error. And so it goes.... Sigh....
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-11-16 12:24
Nielsen Norman Group had a useful post today discussing the pros and cons of different navigational approaches for mobile apps and sites.
Jeff Hecht  2015-11-16 20:50
The root problem may be that Apple has attracted a much more diverse set of users than designers realize exist. Many of the design problems comes from assumptions that everybody does things the same way and knows what certain conventions mean when in reality many people don't. What about people who don't use iPhones? Or who need the fine positional control that is damnably hard to achieve with touch screens or gestures.

But the saddest example of design run amok is the widespread use of tiny low-contrast type on the web. More than a decade ago, a major effort was made to make the web accessible for people with visual handicaps. Now new designs are making web pages hard to read for those of us with mildly impaired vision.
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2015-11-17 06:31
Robert Allen  2015-11-16 22:56
"… key principles … feedback (which makes it clear what has happened after you perform an action) …" This is the basis for one of my major complaints about Apple's Calendar — poor feedback. Use the month view in Calendar and then click on a day other than the current day. There is no visual feedback to show you what day you've selected. You proceed by faith that you've clicked correctly.
William Prall  2015-11-17 00:19
Wow! I thought I was getting dumber with every new upgrade to the OS. Having been a MAC user from the beginning (1984 Mac 512) I had always found the aps to be very intuitive.
Thank you for writing this as has removed my self doubt.
Ron Smaron  2015-11-17 02:37
In my early Mac years with my new SE30, I had always considered myself ahead of the adapter curve. But since Snow Leopard, I'm finding myself lagging behind by one or two operating systems. The prep time prior to upgrading, along with the downtime after for the inevitable current and future bug fixes, application software upgrades and especially Apple Mail (my second database) repairs is discouraging. I'd love a solution to it all.
Randy Spydell  An apple icon for a TidBITS Angel 2015-11-18 10:16
Agreed. I am now struggling a bit -- finally moving on from Snow Leopard, primarily because the lack of security updates is kicking me in the ass to move on. While I realize new people with new habits and new tasks may lead to new solutions, the round-pointed shovel is still a wonderful device for digging a hole. I support Adam's comments about iTunes, OMG what a mess! And please, don't get me started about Apple's change of "ID" to "e-mail address" without properly conceived warnings and advice. I hope they never abandon the notion that a button is a comfortable item for invoking an action . . .
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-11-18 10:40
They sort of did abandon buttons in iOS 7, by styling everything as plain text. On the one hand, I approve of text because then you don't have to interpret inscrutable icons, but there's often no way to know if a word is a button, or just a word. :-(
B. Jefferson Le Blanc  2015-11-17 09:04
As Adam knows I've been bitching about Apple's loss of focus on the real user experience—usability and accessibility—for some time now. I won't rehash all my objections here. Suffice it to say I'm glad to see some people with actual standing in the industry calling Apple out for their failures. Not that Tim Cook or anyone else in a position to do anything about it will pay any attention, even now. They live in a world far removed and well insulated from everyday users. Tim is essentially a glorified bean counter and his misguided design team has been leading him around by the nose. The bottom line is still great and that's all he really cares about. Our opinions count for nothing. As has been said, where else can we go?
Christopher Plummer  2015-11-17 10:08
I miss Apple's leadership in applying the HIG, which I regard as timeless. The "new generation" wants to claim their own accomplishments, but trashing decades of proven functional quality is foolhardy. Is this a button? Is that a link? Flat design isn't even unique: Google and Microsoft had it first. The argument that "millions of people use iOS, how can it be wrong?" is the Windows argument. It was the lowest common denominator, not the best OS.

Soldier on.
Charles E Flynn  2015-11-17 15:51
I knew that the Macintosh interface was in trouble the first time I encountered a nameless interface element.

The original Human Interface Guidelines had a multi-page bibliography of sources, citing serious research, which made it clear that the interface was not simply the result of someone's opinions.
Tim H.  2015-11-18 06:00
I see it as a real problem, for years, once you'd become accustomed to the interface, one could feel fairly confident with the machine, now, not so much. I barely open iTunes anymore, and most of the new features that are talked up with new versions of the OS, I'll never bother with. The basic Mac experience is still good though. BTW, no problems reading the article in Safari 9.01 or in Internet Explorer 8.11 mobile (Apple doesn't compete much in the phone slums.).
Reinking  2015-11-22 13:41
"So you pull back from Park to go into
> Reverse, and then back again to go into Drive. One action makes sense, the next doesn?t."


In her Toyota it makes perfect sense. In the garage the car is in Park.
Then comes Reverse, she backs out of the garage making a 90 deg. turn, then pulls forward (Drive )continuing with another 90 deg turn. PRD works for her and as a bonus is an abbreviation for her business "Patricia Reinking Designs".

In my car I follow the Modified "H" pattern (6-Speed tranny) and thats a lot more engaging! I would not trade that for anything.

R. M. Reinking
Sam Reichberg  2015-12-06 00:12
The biggest irony for me is the Fast Company article itself: multiple meaningless huge graphics, one of which is a portrait of somebody. Without a caption we are left to guess (he looks German, it might be the Brown designer....or is he Don himself?). There are several references to a "Figure 1", which I could not find (is it actually the unlabeled table?). I could almost believe the authors wanted to demonstrate the impact of poor or absent "signifiers" with their own article!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2015-12-06 19:36
It was too bad that Fast Company's editing and presentation was so poor, but that's not something the authors would have had any control over.