Apple’s Magic Bar of Excellence

Apple is no longer the poster child of design and product excellence. Sorry, Tim Cook, but the pedestal that took Apple many years to build is showing signs of wobbling. Almost everything that Apple has touched in the last few years is somewhat flawed, problematic, and often broken. Don’t believe me?

  • New iOS 10 Home button functionality is confusing and often brings you to the Today view, Siri, or the Apple Pay screen unexpectedly.
  • New 3D Touch makes it nearly impossible to move or delete apps.
  • New iOS notifications are too tall and disrupt normal interactions.
  • New Maps and Music apps violate most UI conventions and guidance that Apple has provided.
  • Control Center has made audio controls harder to use, and has split AirPlay functionality across two screens in exchange for a giant Night Shift button that rarely gets used. It has also introduced a non-obvious and highly problematic modality for users who don’t notice the paging dots.
  • The new Bedtime timer UI is confusing, and it sticks out like a sore thumb amongst all the other UI that has been there since the original iPhone.
  • 3rd party keyboards often fail or flash onscreen. It’s been two years of bug fixing and they’re still not right. 3D Touch as part of the keyboard design leads to further typing errors, and long press for accents and punctuation are often confused for 3D touch gestures to move the cursor.
  • The majority of the Apple Watch user experience works poorly in conjunction with the phone. Managing settings, notifications, and Apple Pay doesn’t feel intuitive. I don’t always get notifications that I expect and often get notifications that are unneeded. When I don’t wear my Apple Watch, I don’t miss it.
  • Apple Pay works very poorly in the wild of retail stores. Most commonly, it’s difficult to know which stores support it and how/where you’re supposed to tap.
  • The new Messages UI (stickers, message apps, etc.) is difficult to use and unnecessarily complicated. There are text modifier actions including audio, photo, apps, location and effects. All of these have different ways to access, invoke and interact with text messages. These features were not designed together; they were each designed independently, and it shows.
  • And don’t get me started on the headphone jack. The issue for me is less about the iPhone 7 and more about the inconsistency of Apple’s cable strategy across devices. They replaced something standard with something proprietary, preventing an industry shift. If the jack had become USB-C, that would have shown courage. Yes, if you have an iPhone 7 you won’t be able to charge it or use the headphones that came with your phone on the new MacBook Pro. It feels like the right-hand doesn’t know what the left one is doing.

Alone, each of these is a small miss. It’s not a big deal that the keyboard sometimes doesn’t work. I can excuse the AirPlay UI getting messed up in Control Center. It’s OK that the snooze function on the timer no longer works reliably. Each detail is just that, a detail. But taken as a whole, it’s clear that Apple isn’t as good with the details of complex product design as they used to be.

Software is Hard

Apple has been building software for many years and there’s no doubt that building software is hard. It often has bugs and this has been true forever. The issue for me isn’t bugs or software quality, it’s that these problems are designed into the products. UI and UX decisions are being made to change something with less attention to human factors than previous versions. The Apple Human Interface Guidelines have changed dramatically over the years, not only addressing new guidelines but removing the rationalization and intent of the original design. Guidelines that formerly told designers to make buttons clearly and visibly pressable to minimize user confusion now explicitly guide designers to avoid borders without explanation.

Why?
The initial thought I had was “Steve.” He’s no longer at Apple, and he had spearheaded or at least vocalized much of Apple’s design approach. Steve Jobs can be described as the Chef Gordon Ramsay of software. He would relentlessly chastise his teams to push them to greatness. Gordon is able to do this because he has great taste and a sense of excellence. Jobs was the same.

A lot has been written about this particular management style, but the point isn’t leadership technique — there are far more effective ways to lead— the point is that there was someone who wouldn’t let poor product decisions ship. That isn’t the case anymore. Tim Cook is a brilliant operator and Jony Ive is a fantastic industrial designer. With the resources of Apple, they should be able to get their software excellence problem figured out, and if not, I hope they give us a call.


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