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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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