The dust has settled after Apple’s introduction of iOS7 at WWDC at the beginning of June. There has been a tremendous amount written about what is being heralded as the biggest change in iOS since its introduction, a large proportion of which is concerned with the new “flatter” UI. It’s not quite as simple as this – setting out to create a “flatter” UI was never the intention of Apple’s design team, and it would have made no sense as a goal. Instead, as Jony Ive explained in the iOS7 design video, simplicity, order, clarity and efficiency were the drivers behind the redesign. These represent the exercising that oft-forgotten aspect of design – the design of user interaction. This reasserts Apple’s position as the innovator in human interaction with technology and offers fantastic opportunities to app developers, but what does that actually mean?
A ‘NEW’ KIND OF DESIGN
Developers could mistakenly think that new iOS7 look will reduce reliance on UI design. Although the graphics are simpler, this highlights the other aspects of app design. A user’s interaction with an app has to be designed – fewer visual cues in the graphical interface require that the app be intuitive to use, by leveraging the paradigms existing users of mobile devices already understand. iOS7 has placed a greater emphasis on motion and animation, both of which require careful tuning to get right – it’s very obvious when these are wrong, but often not clear how to perfect. There is opportunity for us to experiment a lot here – evolving the next generation of app design.
Now that iOS is becoming more established we’re starting to see problems of legacy. We first saw this effect with iOS6, which dropped support for the iPhone 3G, but iOS 7 is now dropping support for iPhone 3GS, the original iPad and lots of the shiny new UI functionality won’t be supported on the iPhone4. These devices are in full working order and owned by users with little desire to upgrade – it’s unlikely that we’ll see the same level of adoption of iOS7 as we did with iOS6 (93%).
Developers of new apps can (and should) just decide to support the latest operating system – allowing them not only access to the latest APIs and features, but also avoiding the dilemma of 2 UI paradigms.
Existing apps might not have such a luxury and will therefore have to decide how to approach the difference in appearance of the two versions. One option is to ‘back port’ the iOS7 look and feel – an approach currently being led by UI7Kit, although an iOS7 themed app is likely to feel out of place on an iOS6 device. The far more attractive alternative is to design 2 different interfaces and have the app decide which to use at runtime. This is no easy option – the subtle cues and usability hints which iOS7 encourage simply won’t work on older devices or versions of iOS. This approach incurs significant overhead, but might suit existing apps well, and we’ll see some 3rd party support for this approach appearing over the coming months.
This problem for existing apps opens up a whole world of possibilities for new app developers to come and disrupt the ecosystem. The playing field is much more level – the new approach to design has yet to be fully explored, and for those of us with the skills and knowledge to take advantage, the opportunity to dislodge incumbents is very real.
SCREENSHOTS JUST WON’T CUT IT
In the past users have chosen apps on very few parameters:
The last 2 of these are really rather important – we’ve all had a quick thumb through the screenshots to determine whether the app ‘looks any good’ – a valid approach since visual design often went hand in hand with quality. However, with interaction design playing a more important role, and the simplification of the visual design it’s going to be incredibly difficult to differentiate between apps in the app store based solely on screenshots. Apple have implicitly acknowledged this on their iOS7 introduction page – replacing traditional screenshots with mini-videos of the device in action.
This isn’t a new problem – there are apps which already concentrate on designing user interaction over graphics, and they ‘hack’ their app store listings to attempt to convey the temporal responsiveness in their screenshots.
The difference is now that all apps which embrace the new interaction design approach are going to suffer from this problem. Hopefully Apple will allow this to be address within the app store, but until that point we’re going to have to continue to innovate to differentiate between apps.
THE ROAD AHEAD
Although iOS7 presents some specific challenges for app developers, it also offers a massive opportunity, and a very real chance for newcomers to disrupt the ecosystem.