Neither First Nor Right

Apple usually takes the time they need to release products that work well. They are seldom first, but as John Gruber succinctly put it years ago, they are usually "first to do it right". With their move to minimalist design, they were neither first, nor, unfortunately, did they do it right. So while I'm griping about fundamental usability issues in iOS 7, I may as well let loose on some other problems:

Weather

  • Have you ever tried reading the forecast when conditions are hazy? White text against a gray background sure looks pretty. Hope your eyes are as sharp as a 6-year-old's, instead of half-blurry as you wake from sleep and try to figure out how to dress for the day.
  • The weather forecast in Notification Center is now written in conversational language rather than being represented with numbers and iconography. Good thing you weren't trying be quick by using the Notification Center shortcut to check the weather, right? Right?!

Music

  • Do you play music wirelessly using AirPlay or Bluetooth? Great! Switching to wireless speakers now requires navigating a couple levels deep inside control center, rather than having a toggle directly in the music app. It's far less discoverable and far more cumbersome to use.
  • Do you rotate your phone sideways to browse your music by album cover? No? Is that because you always see the first alphabetical albums no matter where you are in your music collection? Well, iOS 7 has done nothing to fix this, but the design is now flat! Oh, and Music.app likes to switch into this view much more easily than in previous versions of iOS. Lay your phone on a slightly uneven surface, and chances are Album Wall will take over.

Safari

  • Did you forget the Reader feature exists? It probably doesn't help that the redesign gave the button the same look and location as a website's favicon. Oh, and it doesn't look like a button.

Reminders

  • Switching between lists in Reminders requires a tap or swipe up from a narrow area at the bottom of the screen. Careful you don't invoke Control Center instead! You only have a few millimeters of space to get this action right.

Maps

  • I almost feel bad for kicking Maps while it's still down, but not quite. If I look up a street address without specifying my city, don't show me a location in another state. My phone knows exactly where I'm standing. Use this basic piece of contextual info.

Control Center

  • Do you use your phone as an alarm clock every day? That shortcut to the Clock app in Control Center sure is handy huh? Wouldn't it be nice if it didn't switch you into the countdown timer tab every time? Apparently you should be timing things more often. Maybe this was an internal shortcut the design team at Apple used to stick to the deadline that made them ship a major interface overhaul in too little time.
  • Isn't it great how Apple overloaded the swipe-from-bottom-of-screen gesture on the lock screen? If you try to bring up Control Center you sometimes launch the camera instead. And vice versa.
  • Speaking of swiping up from the bottom of the screen, turns out Control Center doesn't always like to pop up. Usually when there's a keyboard on screen. Ever tried invoking it from the Messages app and ended up with a string of gibberish letters in the message field instead?

App Switcher

  • The redesign of the app switcher now lets you see just 3 apps at once on an iPhone, instead of 4. And best not to think about how little you can see on the iPad compared to the old design. The bigger problem is that navigating the app switcher requires far too delicate a touch. It used to be possible to fling that set of apps to the side to see the next set. No matter how much momentum you swiped with, the app switcher would always scroll and stop at the next discrete set of apps. Now there is no stop boundary, so a quick swipe will send 20 icons flying by before the scrolling slows to a stop. So you must slowly, delicately swipe, then tap the screen to stop too many apps from sliding by, then do the same. Tedious. Time consuming. Concentration-heavy.

Global Problems

  • Animations. Slow, interaction-blocking animations. Turning them off is not a good solution. They provide important context. There is no good reason for them to take so long, or to stop you from interacting with your device until they've finished.


And if you're hungry for more, plenty of others have weighed in as well.

When Platform Design Goes Bad

Here's an interesting design iteration in progress. Apple has added an option (currently in beta) to turn button shapes on in order to restore some semblance of usability to iOS 7.

Notes app with button shapes turned on
Calendar app with button shapes turned on

There's no other way to say this: it’s ugly. It's good Apple is aware that iOS 7 has usability problems and they are looking at fixes. But this is obviously a programmatic hack. And this goes to the root of what made iOS 7 such a frustrating release for those who have always held Apple in high regard because of their dedication to ease-of-use.

Jared Sinclair nailed it in a post a few months ago:

We’ve all seen apps that look like they were designed by talented print designers, apps with beautiful screenshots and tasteful typography that nevertheless fall apart disgracefully as soon as you actually try to use them. These apps don’t fail for lack of talent. They fail because their designers have the wrong process. They’re beginning with aesthetics and squeezing in the interactions wherever they have room to fit. The right process moves in the opposite direction. A good iOS app designer begins with touch, and only afterwards chooses aesthetics that complement and enhance the underlying touchable structure.

Apple can fix this with a well thought out design refresh for iOS 8. Unfortunately, because they have set the design guidelines that hundreds of thousands of apps are based on, any true fix will come at the expense of each of these apps needing significant updates. That's millions of hours of time wasted because Apple set out a visual framework in iOS 7 that is fundamentally flawed from a usability standpoint.

And the thing is, Apple usually excels in creating frameworks that get the basics absolutely right. Which is incredibly important when you are creating a framework for others:

If you’re designing just an app, you can fix many design errors later; if you’re designing an app platform, though, it’s hard to fix system-wide design errors without breaking existing apps.

From a technical and functional point of view, iOS 7 is a great successor to iOS 6. From a design point of view, I consider it a big step backwards.

As Marco says:

It’s easy to design something attractive that’s not very usable, and it’s easy to design something usable that’s unattractive. The challenge is striking a balance, and iOS 7 made too many usability sacrifices to achieve attractiveness.

Apple Talks

There are two important aspects to Apple's notice regarding the lost functionality in the new iWork suite:

  • On the surface, it commits to reintroducing some of this functionality within the next 6 months.
  • Implied is that there is a team working hard on iWork.

Apple rarely talks future plans, and for the most part this serves them well. That said, the level of outrage over the new iWork wasn't surprising. Most people don't know how much effort has been going into iWork, or even if there was ongoing major development now that a new version has been released. Those using iWork on the Mac only had a long gap between major releases, followed by reduced functionality, on which to base their reaction.

The limited announcement in the notice doesn't cross into the questionable territory of vaporware. Instead, it provides reassurance that this is only the start of the new iWork and that there is more to come.1 Having watched the same scenario of outrage play out across three product reboots, it strikes me that communicating plans like this immediately would have have prevented a lot of ire and criticism in each case. Let's hope Apple uses this as a model for future product transitions.

  1. And with AppleScript getting a couple shout-outs, maybe there won't be so many "Apple is dumbing down its software" comments.

Whither iWork?

There's lots of talk about the fact that iWork has lost a significant amount of features on the Mac. Many people attribute it to Apple being blind to the needs of pro users. I think the reason is far less condescending.

The phrase "the same file format for both Mac and iOS" is used on the pages for all three products. It was highlighted in Apple's keynote. It's important.

Without all versions of iWork using the same data format, true interoperability is impossible. In the previous versions of iWork you would lose some formatting & data when moving from Mac to iOS.

When you create multiple apps that use the same data format, it is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent data loss when editing files unless you have feature parity between versions. To make up a fictional example, imagine that Pages on the Mac could include images in a document while the iOS version could not. What happens to the complex text wrapping around an image when you edit the document on the iPad? What happens to page layout, and links, and your table of contents, if large chunks of content are missing? You'd end up with serious formatting errors at best, or data loss at worse.

The fact that iWork on the Mac has lost functionality isn't because Apple is blind to power users. It's because they're willing to make a short-term sacrifice in functionality so that they can create a foundation that is equal across the Mac, iOS, and web versions. It will take time to bring these new versions of iWork up to parity with what the Mac used to have. In the meantime all platforms have to live with the lowest common denominator.

Whether this tradeoff is the right call is up for debate. As someone who uses iWork a decent amount, it's frustrating that the first update major new release in over 4 years is a regression in functionality. But if iWork is a key piece of Apple's software platform going forward, it's easy to see that interoperability across versions is an important baseline requirement for them. I just hope that they continue heavy development of the software and iterate quickly.

Caveat: this is all hypothesis based on my experience designing cross-platform software. I could be wrong.

Update: It was pointed out to me that the new iWork for Mac is not the first update to the software in over 4 years. There were many updates to iWork 09 over the years. The first "major new release" is more accurate.