is user interface design getting worse?

Hey everybody, sorry for the radio silence — I’ve been traveling, and will be traveling again soon, so I can’t promise regular posting for a while. But I’m hoping to get a few thoughts up here, starting with this: 
I’ve read two recent posts about computer interface design that really have me thinking. The first is this reflection by Riccardo Mori about using a first-generation iPad. Mori discovers that that original Apple tablet, despite its significant limitations in processing power in comparison to today’s machines, still works remarkably well. But he also, and this is the really interesting part, decides that some of the design choices made eight years ago (the first iPad came out in 2010) are actually superior to the ones being made today. This is true to a minor degree even with regard to the hardware — Mori finds the iPad 1 more pleasurable to hold than some later models, despite its greater weight and thickness — but he thinks that the design language of iOS 5, the last version of iOS that the original iPad can use, is in certain respects simply superior to the new language introduced in iOS 7 and largely persisting, though with some modifications, today.

when it comes to visuals it’s ultimately a matter of personal taste, but one thing iOS’s user interface possessed before iOS 7’s flattening treatment was consistence and more robust, coherent, stricter interface guidelines. Guidelines that were followed by third-party developers more closely, and the result was that under iOS 6 and earlier versions, third-party apps presented a user interface that was cleaner, more predictable, easier to navigate than what came afterwards, update after update. After iOS’s UI got flatter, when it came to designing apps, things got out of hand, in an ‘anything goes’ fashion.
There are apps today with poor discoverability, ambiguous controls, UI elements whose state or function isn’t immediately clear — i.e. you cannot tell whether they’re tappable or not simply by looking at them; whereas before iOS 7, a button looked like a button right away, and you didn’t have to explore an app by tapping blindly here and there. Spotify is the first example coming to mind: its early iOS and Mac clients were more usable and had a better interface.

Concluding this section of his posts, Mori writes:

During my trip down Interface Memory Lane these days with the iPad 1, I’ve stumbled on many other cases, and the result was always more or less the same: I found the old version of an app to have a more usable interface and a clearer interface language than its current counterpart. Despite all the pre-iOS 7 skeuomorphism, for many app interfaces of that time design was truly ‘how it works’. Today, more and more often (and it’s not only with iOS) I see examples where design is simply ‘how it looks’; attractive apps, but with ambiguous interface controls, poorly-designed UI architecture, and sometimes even with little to no accessibility, disregarding users with disabilities.

The second post is by Mark Wilson, who found himself using version 7 of the original Macintosh OS, issues way back in 1991 — and loving it. “Using an old Mac is pure zen.” Now, Wilson doesn’t suggest that that old interface could simply be implemented today; we ask too much of our computing devices today, and too many kinds of “much.”

But I do believe that the old Mac makes for a timely reminder that the digital age hasn’t always felt so frantic, or urgent, or overwhelming. And maybe, even if an old Mac interface isn’t the solution, we can view it as a subtle north star for its sensibilities, and how much it was able to accomplish with so little.

Few interface designers are indifferent to the needs of the user, but I can’t imagine that there are many for whom that is the first consideration. One way designers keep their jobs is by producing new designs, and in a corporate setting (like that of Apple) novelty helps get customers to update their hardware and software alike. And what kind of designer wouldn’t want the challenge of making the best use of increased processing power or display resolution?
So I don’t expect the desires and needs or users to be at the top of any designer’s priority list. But Lordy, how I wish it were a little higher than it is. Then perhaps the best elements of the work of earlier designers, people working under far greater constraints, could be recovered and redeployed. Because, as I never tire of saying, creativity arises from constraint and resistance. And it’s not clear to me that, from the user’s perspective, UI design for computing devices hasn’t been getting worse and worse for the past few years — with Apple leading the way in this sad category. 

capability and reliability

There is no question that the Macintosh is a far more capable device than the iPad or iPhone. BBEdit has a far wider range of capabilities than any iOS text editor; the Mac version of OmniGraffle is much more powerful than its iOS counterpart (this is true of almost every app that is available both on MacOS and iOS); on the Mac I can interact with the file system in ways that are impossible on the black box that is iOS; the power of Unix from the command line is infinitely greater and more flexible than anything iOS can do. Examples could be multiplied indefinitely. 

  • When I wake my Mac from sleep it immediately drops its wi-fi connection and takes 30-60 seconds to get it back, whereas when I wake an iOS device from sleep it connects to wi-fi immediately. 
  • When I stream music over Bluetooth from my Mac, the signal drops on average once per song, and often I have to open Activity Monitor to force-quit the Bluetooth processes to get it working again, whereas my iOS devices stream music flawlessly. 
  • Many websites feature video that plays immediately and smoothly from iOS but won’t play on the Mac at all. 
  • On my Mac I have my Dock set to be hidden and to activate when I mouse over to the right border of the screen. This works perhaps one-third of the time  —the rest of the time mousing to the right side of the screen does nothing — so I am gradually training myself to use command-tab all the time to change apps. On iOS the various ways of shifting from one app to another work the same way all the time. 
  • Relatedly, split view on the iPad works far more smoothly and consistently than the same feature does on the Mac. 

The Mac is a highly capable device, but it isn’t a consistently reliable one. By contrast, iOS devices are in my experience highly reliable, but are not as capable as I need them to be. The overall situation kinda stinks. 

back to the iPhone

A few years ago I set aside my iPhone and returned to a dumbphone. I liked it. The Punkt is well made and has an elegant design, and I might — might, I say — have switched to it permanently except for one thing: it’s a 2G phone and my carrier, AT&T, dropped support for its 2G network. So the phone was bricked.
I thought about changing carriers but that would have required me to shift my whole family over; and in any case there was no guarantee that any carrier I switched to wouldn’t drop their 2G network eventually. So back to the iPhone I went. 
It took me a while, but I have figured out how to use the iPhone in a way that works for me. Here are the key elements:
1. I deleted all social media apps from the phone, including email, with the sole exception of Instagram. Also, the only notifications I get are for communications (phone calls, texts) from my family.
2. My favorite recreational activity is hiking, and I have replaced those social media apps with some absolutely wonderful apps for spending time outdoors: AllTrails, PeakVisor, Night Sky, and Rockd. I really cannot overemphasize how dramatically these apps — along with Google Maps, which may be the very best app yet made for iOS — have increased my enjoyment of being out in the world.
3. I deleted most of my music from the phone, keeping only ambient stuff I listen to while working and trying to sleep — and also for the latter the SoundCloud app (there’s a lot of wonderful ambient music on SoundCloud) and Naturespace, whose nature recordings are the best I’ve heard by far. 
And that’s basically it. With this setup, the absolutely essential element of which is the deletion of social apps, I actually enjoy the iPhone. Turns out it’s a pretty cool device when you get rid of … um … people. 

the big impediment to going iOS-only

At Macdrifter, Gabe Weatherhead makes a vital point:

But Apple has a blind spot that I think might mean the iPad never has parity with the Mac. The App Store just doesn’t encourage big powerful app development.

The price point on the iOS App Store is too low for many indie developers to succeed. I look at the most powerful apps I use and they come from a handful of companies dedicated to craft but supported by Mac revenue. Omnigraffle, OmniFocus, and OmniOutliner are great. But there are few competitors in this space that can reach the same level of quality and still make a profit. I suspect that in an iOS-only world these apps would end.

Transmit and Coda by Panic are top-tier software, but even they seem to be struggling to justify their existence.

This doesn’t mean that great apps don’t still get released on iOS. They just don’t keep getting supported. My favorite text editors, the best personal databases, the variety of bookmark managers. They might keep rolling out, but the majority aren’t actively developed.

This is exactly right. Even the pro-quality apps that remain in development tend to be updated inconsistently and (in comparison to Mac apps) rarely. Every time I think about going iOS-only, I realize that too many of the apps I rely on are apps … I can’t rely on.

iOS users and meta-users

The most recent episode of Canvas — the podcast on iOS and “productivity” (a word I hate, but never mind that for now) hosted by Federico Viticci and Fraser Speirs — focused on hopes for the upcoming iOS 11. Merlin Mann joined the podcast as a guest, and the three of them went around and talked about features they’d like to see introduced to iOS.

Some examples: Viticci wants the ability to record, in video and sound, actions performed on the iPad; Speirs imagines having a digital equivalent of a transparent sheet to draw down over the iPad screen on which he could write with an Apple Pencil, thereby marking up, as it were, things that are happening in an app; and Merlin Mann, who has 450 apps on his iOS devices, wishes for the ability to batch-delete apps, for example, ones that he hasn’t used in two years or more.

Listening to the episode, I thought: These aren’t iOS users, not even power users, they’re meta-users. Viticci writes and talks about iOS for a living; Speirs teaches students how to use iPads; Mann makes his way in life talking about productivity, especially (though not only) on digital devices. Their iOS wish-lists make them the edgiest of edge-cases, because their uses are all about the uses of others.

As for me, a user neither power nor meta, many of my wishes for iOS involve things that Apple can’t do on its own. For instance:

  • I wish Bluetooth worked better, but Bluetooth is a standard Apple doesn’t control. No matter how well Apple handles its implementation of the standard, they can’t control how well device manufacturers handle their implementations. But in any case, given how long Bluetooth has been around, it really, really ought to work better than it does.
  • This site is on Blogger (sigh), and Google has withdrawn their iOS Blogger app and made sure that the Blogger UI doesn’t render properly on Safari for iOS — it seems that they’re trying to drive iOS users towards Chrome. (Also, there are no good blogging apps for iOS: some are abandonware, some have hideously ugly and non-intuitive UIs, and one, Blogo, demands that you sign up for an account and turn over your data to its owners.)
  • Many, many websites just don’t render properly on an iPad, and I expect will never do so. Which makes me wonder what Apple can do on its end (besides enabling Reader View, which is great) to improve poor rendering. E.g.: One of the most lasting problems in iOS involves selecting text, which can be extremely unpredictable: sometimes when you touch the screen nothing selects, while at other times when you’re trying to select just one word the whole page gets selected instead. But these problems almost always happen on websites, and are a function, I think, of the poor rendering in Safari for iOS. Is there anything that Apple can do about this, I wonder?

Among the things that Apple can definitely do something about, here are a few wishes from me:

  • When you’re connected to a wi-fi network and the signal gets weak or intermittent, and there’s another known network with a stronger signal available, your iOS device should switch to that better network automatically. Optimize for best connection.
  • Apple should strongly push developers to implement Split View.
  • Apple should strongly push developers of keyboard-friendly apps to implement keyboard shortcuts — and if they have Mac apps, the same shortcuts on both platforms (the people at Omni are great at this).
  • This is perhaps pie-in-the-sky, but I crave extensive, reliable natural-language image searching in Photos. But I expect we’ll get this from Google before we get it from Apple.


LiquidText, an iPad app for annotating PDFs and webpages, is a genuinely remarkable achievement — a delightful and useful piece of software engineering. Here’s what an annotated LiquidText file looks like:

You’ll see that you can highlight, but also comment in the margin on what you have highlighted, connect other comments to that, and pull out highlighted passages and keep them in the margin. It’s also possible to connect comments to one another in a mind-mapping sort of way, which could be very useful for visual thinkers. However, you’ll probably need a 12.9“ iPad to make that work — on my 9.7” model there’s just not enough room unless I shrink the document to the point that it’s unreadable.

Possibly my favorite feature of LiquidText is “Highlight View”: when you enable it, you can then pinch the screen vertically and see all the passages you’ve highlighted:

This is extremely useful. And in general I feel that LiquidText helps me to be a better reader: more active, more responsive, and able to make better use of my responses.

The shortcomings:

  • There are a limited number of file formats (basically PDFs and webpages) that you can import into LiquidText — it would be really cool if you could import, say, EPUB files. I would say that only about 10% of the reading I do is possible in LiquidText.
  • Your LiquidText files are just that, saved in their proprietary file format, and while you can export to a standard PDF and preserve much of your highlighting, in so doing you lose some of the most useful relations among notes and highlights. That’s not the fault of the app’s makers, but that’s the way it is.
  • LiquidText is iPad-only, which means that you need to be pretty invested in that device to make the app a central element of your reading life. But it’s a good enough app that it makes me give further consideration to the possibility of going iOS only.

coping with OS frustration

Alex Payne recently did what I do, in a less thorough way, from time to time: he re-evaluated his commitment to the Apple ecosystem. It’s a valuable exercise; among other things, it helps me to manage my frustrations with my technological equipment.

And frustrations there are — in fact, they have increased in recent years. You don’t have to look far to find articles and blog posts on how Apple’s quality control is declining or iOS 7 is a disaster. (Just do a Google search for those terms.) And I have to say that after a month of using iOS 7 I would, without question, revert to iOS 6 if I could, a handful of new and useful features notwithstanding. Moreover, even after more than a decade of OS X the ecosystem still lacks a first-rate web browser and a largely bug-free email client. (Most people know what’s wrong with, but I could write a very long post on what’s wrong with Safari, Chrome, and Firefox. Postbox is looking pretty good as an email client right now, but time will tell whether it’s The Answer.)

But in the midst of these frustrations and others I need to keep two points in mind. First, we ask more of our computers than we ever have. Browsers, for instance, are now expected not just to render good old HTML but to play every kind of audio and video and to run web apps that match the full functionality of desktop apps. And increasingly we expect all our data to sync seamlessly among multiple devices: desktops, laptops, tablets, phones. There is so much more that can go wrong now. And so it sometimes does.

Second, as Alex Payne’s post reminds us, every other ecosystem has similar problems — or worse ones. And that’s a useful thing to keep in mind, especially when I’m gritting my teeth at the realization that, for instance, if you want to see the items in your Reminders app in chronological order you must, painstakingly, move them into the order you want one at a time. The same is true on the iOS versions. It seems very strange to me that such an obviously basic feature did not make it into the first released version of the software, and frankly unbelievable that manual re-ordering is your only option two years after the app was first introduced (in iOS 5) — but hey, influential Mac users have been complaining about fundamental inconsistencies in the behavior of the OS X Finder for about a decade now, with no results. This is the way of the world: the things that need to be fixed are ignored and the things that don’t need to be fixed get changed, as often as not for the worse. So whaddya gonna do?

One thing I’m not going to do is to throw the whole ecosystem out with the bathwater — and thanks to Alex Payne for preventing me from doing so. Better for me to make the most of a system I know how to use than to start over from scratch with something utterly unfamiliar that has at least as many problems of its own. And one thing I most certainly will do: I’ll keep asking Why in the hell won’t this thing just work?