Forever Young

Some iOS 7 commentators have brought up the idea that we don't need visual cues like buttons, bevels, textures, and shadows to tell us what we can tap. Watts Martin asks, "Do we really still need buttons?" Matt Gemmell says,

[…] we’ve grown up. We don’t require hand-holding to tell us what to click or tap. Interactivity is a matter of invitation, and physical cues are only one specific type. iOS 7 is an iOS for a more mature consumer, who understands that digital surfaces are interactive, and who doesn’t want anything getting in the way of their content.

I appreciate some of their other insights, but I call bullshit on this specific point. Who, exactly, has grown up? In the past 30 years of traditional desktop GUIs, no one questioned the need for basic visual cues to demonstrate interactivity. When it comes to smartphones specifically, billions of people around the world have never used one. To take an example of a particularly smartphone-happy country, almost half the population in the U.S. has yet to buy one.1

Visual affordance is one of the fundamental keys to usability, and veering away from it is a sure way of creating something that is difficult for non-techies to understand. "We've grown up" is logic I've seen used many times to justify pretty designs that suffer from basic usability flaws.

This isn't meant as a criticism of the visual overhaul in iOS 7.2 It's an argument against the notion that usability should be traded for beauty. There is a lot of hubris involved in the assumption that the "we" in "we've grown up" applies to anyone outside of a tiny number of developers and designers. It's a big world out there. Let's continue creating tools that are usable for as many people as possible.

  1. According to numbers cited by Horace Dediu, U.S. smartphone penetration crossed the 50% threshold only at the end of last year.
  2. Michael Heilemann already shared some great comments on the designs of the lock screen and music app in beta 1. I'll refrain from anything further as the new design is clearly a massive job and still a work in progress.