Saturday, September 28, 2013

Apple's New iOS and User Interface Design Principles

I was thinking about the new iOS "flat look" and about product branding. That's really the point. Oh, there might be a small amount of usability or evolution of the computer suaveness of iOS users in the transition from a skeuomorphic design. Skeuomorph are objects that retain ornamental design cues to structures that were necessary in the original. For example, making an address book look like a book or a calendar icon look like a desk calendar.

In the early days of GUI design, skeuomorphic design was considered a good visual clue for novice users and often involved a "3D" look. Now Apple has gone to a "flat look" that some find more modern and pleasing to the eye, although many have complained that the new iPhone and iPad look with thinner fonts and other changes is harder to see and use. Of course, any change to a familiar item will raise doubts and concerns in users used to the old way. That’s human nature.

You know, some design changes are like the width of ties. They just change it to force you to buy new ones. I'm not sure what I think about the new look. It is cleaner and even more modern looking, but I didn't mind the old look. Appearance of a device is an important part of the overall user experience, and I like products designed by designers rather than just engineers — something Apple was very successful with in the past. So are these changes just changes for changes sake, or are they really useful evolution of an interface used by everyone from quantum physicists to my great aunt (93 years old)? Now that is the question.

Let me change the subject slightly and speak of branding. After all, the appearance of the user interface on a product that consists primarily of just a screen … be it a smart phone or tablet … is more than just a vehicle for data entry and output, but really the look and feel is part of the branding.

Years ago, when I worked for IBM Printing Systems Division, we had a brand for our printers: “InfoPrint.” That’s a neat name. After all, IBM was in the information business, where “information” was the new buzz word replacing “data” in the marketing consciousness. (There is a difference between “information” and “data,” with the former considered higher on the intellectual scale and therefore more useful to business customers.) Over the years computers had evolved from simple data processors to “information appliances.” Anyway, InfoPrint was a pretty good name for our printers which could print text and graphics and color and barcodes and all kinds of marks on paper. Actually, we did a lot more than marks on paper. Our systems could also fax and email and even push data to web sites. Our printers could even write to RFID tags. A lot more than the conventional understanding of the word "print."

So, at one point, our gallant leaders decided we would change the “P” in InfoPrint to a lower case letter to de-emphasize printing as we did a lot more with “Info.” So it was decreed in the PSD land that the “P” would become “p.” That involved several million lines of code that had to be scanned and have the term changed on everything from computer screen output to print output to even comments and statements in the code.

Let me explain briefly how computer programs work with words or text. It is usually called “strings.” That is, strings of letters like pearls on a necklace. The common computer data structure used is an array. Now for you non programmers, a computer “array” is like a mathematical “matrix.” And for you non-mathematicians, it is sort of like a crossword puzzle. At least a two-dimensional array or matrix is like a crossword puzzle. There are rows and columns and little squares each of which fits one letter or character.

These little squares are called “cells” and you can often identify them by a number. The first cell in the row might be called C1 and the second cell C2 and the twelfth C12. A string is usually a one dimensional array like one row in a crossword puzzle.

Now there are variable strings that store data that changes. For example, when you enter a userid or a password on a computer screen, what you type may be stored in a variable string. There are also “literal strings,” which are strings that don’t change. The programmer gives them a value and that is kept throughout the program. The literal string may have a title or name or identifier.

So our software was full of something like this: name = “InfoPrint”

Now it doesn’t seem hard to use a search and replace function to change all “InfoPrint” to “Infoprint,” but it was a bit more complicated. You see, any change to a computer program, especially a large program with over one million lines of code, which is what we had a bunch of, is dangerous. Even though this is about the smallest change you can imagine, the string length didn’t change, and it is just a literal string, so it should not have any dire consequences, but programs are very brittle and the smallest change can break something.

So even this little change required hundreds of hours of programmer time to make the changes, test the changes, verify the changes, and even fix a few things broken by the change. For example, the small “p” is narrower than the large “P,” so it can change alignment and line breaks.

So, we made the change as directed by the executives and, a few years later, all our software said “Infoprint.”

Then we were sold to Ricoh. IBM sold the Printing Systems Division, its 3,000 employees, all its patents and products, to a Japanese printer company called “Ricoh.” We needed a new name and brand since we could no longer be “IBM.” IBM would not sell the right to use that name. So, our new President (who used to be our division “General Manager” — his title was changed too) announced we would be “InfoPrint.” That’s right … the big “P” was back.

He said he had seen an old poster and knew that used to be our brand. Some snickered and asked him why. He said, “ ‘Infoprint’ is a word, ‘InfoPrint’ is a brand.” Oh. Alright everybody, back to your terminals. We’ve got some code to change.

So I am sensitive to branding and user interface changes and I’m also appreciative of design, especially user interface design … the “look and feel.” Is the new flat look more modern? Or is it just copying Microsoft’s new look and feel?

One issue with an interface is consistency. If the look is to be “flat,” then the entire look should be flat. Get rid of a “Notes” app that looks like yellow lined paper. Make the calculator look less like a business machine. Make the calendar look less like a paper calendar. Make an address book look … you get the idea. Consistency.

That means that, not only does Apple have to change the look of its OS, but also the look of all the apps. And most of the apps are not written by Apple. The change is under way. That’s one reason you see so many app updates.

A lot of work went into making the transition by both Apple and now by the creators of the popular apps on iOS. Would all that effort have been better spent on things like improving security or communications rather than simple look and feel items? That’s the question too.

I’ll conclude with a description of one of the nicest user interfaces I encountered in my early years of programming. It was a program from Lotus before IBM bought Lotus. It was called the “Organizer” and was a complete address book, calendar, to-do, etc. It was modeled almost perfectly after a typical portfolio or address book such as the Day-Timer or Franklin Planner. It looked like a book and the pages turned like a book, reminiscent of what Apple would do later. It had tabs like a book and even a cover.

Organizer also had a page for just “notes,” similar to the function of the Evernote app on a Mac. It also had a section of anniversaries that you could record birthdays and wedding anniversaries and it would pop them onto the calendar every year so you would never miss a celebration. I added the year to the anniversaries to keep track of the age of nieces, nephews, and parents. A very useful addition to any calendar. I don’t know if either Microsoft Outlook or Apple apps support that feature. I’ve never found it.

One interesting visual feature of Organizer was when you drug something to the trash bin, it would explode in fire and be incinerated. From a user interface design, although that was quire interesting visually and even had a “burning sound,” in fact the deleted item was not destroyed. You could restore deleted items if you wished. That's a misuse of a visual clue. Although it was pretty to see the wastebasket contents burned up, it implies that they are gone. Notice that both Apple and Microsoft's wastebaskets show the contents until you "empty" the basket and permanently delete the data. That is matching the interface action to the true program function. Pretty is nice, but accurate representations is best.

It was pretty and interesting and fun to use and — most important — it worked well and was easy to use. I used it during my entire time when Windows was my primary personal operating system. When I converted to Mac for personal computers in 2010, I switched to the MacOS apps of address book and calendar. Besides there being less visually exciting or downright “pretty,” they lacked important function. For example, in Lotus Organizer, I could link items together like related address book entries or calendar reminders with other data including a simple notebook page. This multiple linking was a superior function to anything else out there from Microsoft Outlook to anything on the Mac. I was even able to sync Organizer to my Palm Pilots and Palm smartphone. But, when I went to Apple for phone and computer, I was forced to change programs.

Fortunately it was easy to migrate the data, but now I’m using Address Book, Calendar, and even Evernote, where I used to just use Organizer … and they are not as pretty or “skeuomorphic.”

After reading the complaints from people about the new Apple flat look where people are finding the new font harder to read or my confusion with the “shift” key … understanding if it was pressed or not from the icon change … I’m not sure I agree with the new look.

Should Apple have invested more programmer time in new function, such as multiple links between items in various apps instead of keeping programmers up late at night changing the style of icons and screen? Well, that’s for the customers to decide … the way customers always decide … with their dollars.

Is Apple just being trendy or are they still leading the design wave? Did Apple substitute narrower ties for real functional updates? What do you think?

I think the answer will lie in what happens over the next year or two. Apple has always bragged that it doesn’t listen to customers but “leads” them. Are they leading them down a path that customers will ultimately embrace? Or is it a dead end that will boost the credibility of the competition? Time will tell?

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