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Is Apple giving design a bad name?

Legendary user experience pioneers and ex-Apple employees Don Norman and Bruce ‘Tog’ Tognazzini recently aimed a broadside at Apple in an article titled “How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name”, linkbait calibrated to get the design community in a froth.

The article has some weaknesses (over-long, repetitive, short on illustrations and with some unconvincing anecdata), but on the whole I think they are right. Apple’s design is getting worse, users are suffering from it, and they are setting bad examples that are being emulated by other designers. I would urge you to read the article, but here is my take on it.

Before I continue, the following – seen on social media – are not valid reasons for dismissing Norman and Tog’s arguments:

  • they only focus on the bad, without acknowledging what’s good about Apple’s design;
  • they do not offer solutions (critics need to do neither for their criticism to be valid); and
  • the authors are just plugging their books (ad hominem).

The hidden cost of simplicity

At the heart of their criticism is this: simplicity has a hidden cost. Apple is often guilty of this.

This goes way back. Look at Apple’s one-button mouse – a powerful symbol of Apple’s simplicity compared with the multi-button mice of Xerox and PC competitors. But the cost of this simplicity? Apple may have had one less mouse button than the competition, but they needed an extra one on the keyboard. Getting a secondary mouse function required users to Control-click – a two-handed operation that’s ergonomically worse and makes the mouse button modal. Apple later added right-clicking to their mice and trackpads (with no visual or tactile cue), but have since eschewed it for obscure gestures like two-finger tapping.

The same pattern played out with the release of the iPhone. A stunning piece of industrial design and a radically easy to use new operating system – and a single hardware button again exemplifying Apple’s devotion to simplicity. Most of iOS was deservedly emulated by competitors, notably Android, but the single button wisely wasn’t. As with the single-button mouse, the iPhone’s Home button rapidly became overloaded. You can click it or double-click it, tap and hold it or double-tap it. Inadvertent double-clicks or triple-clicks are common. And it means that iOS has never had a universal, predictable Back button. App developers implement it inconsistently, usually – but not always – in the top left corner. As our phones became bigger, the top left corner became ever harder to reach, making iPhone users reliant on the back-swipe gesture – if it works. It, too, is inconsistently implemented by app developers, and error-prone (e.g. if your swipe doesn’t start at the very edge, you may find yourself doing something else entirely.)

The problem of gestures

Gestures are the signature feature of touchscreen devices, that make people look like wizards in product demos and the sci-fi user interfaces of blockbuster movies. Norman and Tog correctly single out gestures for particular criticism: undiscoverable, reliant on memory and error-prone.

I agree that gestures are an essential element of touchscreen interfaces, and a few truly become second nature for all users. But mostly they are an over-hyped disaster area making our devices seem not fully under our control, constantly invoked by accident and causing us to to make mistakes, with no reliable way of discerning what gestures are available or what they’ll do. I would love to see more innovation in ways of making gestures more discoverable and foolproof.

IxDA debate

When IxDA London met up last week to debate Norman & Tog’s article, Apple’s defenders outnumbered the critics.

Many asked “where’s the proof?” of the article’s assertions – is it based on user testing? But the authors were criticising Apple’s retreat from human interface principles – heuristic measures that improve usability grounded in humans’ cognitive and motor capabilities, such as:

  • Discoverability
  • Visibility
  • Recoverability
  • Feedback
  • Consistency

These principles are just as valid today, and UX practitioners are well advised to heed them. Humans have not “evolved” so rapidly for them not to matter anymore. (Nor are we designers “typical” users.)

Some IxDA members pointed to the legendary caliber of designers working at Apple – surely they have considered and tested their designs thoroughly? But this gets to the heart of the problem: Apple’s example is all-powerful in our industry – there is a perception that if they do something, it must be OK. But don’t assume all Apple’s designs are user-centred or vindicated by testing:

  • Some are probably ideological – Steve Jobs’ fervent hatred of the multi-button mouse, for example, or Jony Ive’s veneration for Dieter Rams that stripped interfaces of detail even at the cost of useful signifiers.
  • Some are the way they are due to “not invented here” syndrome or massive inertia – iOS can’t add a Back button, for example, without upsetting deeply-ingrained habits and design guidelines, or being accused of copying Android.
  • Some are blatantly branding – whizzy but clumsy interfaces like the Dock, for example, or the simple fact that “simple” sells products and gestures look good in demos. Users discover the costs of this simplicity later but will tend to blame themselves rather than Apple.


So my recommendations to designers would be: don’t assume that just because Apple – or Google – does something that it must be good. Study Norman and Tog’s design principles again, consider how they can be applied to today’s technologies, and be prepared to question and critique the interfaces you encounter. Ideally, use multiple operating systems in your daily work – from Apple, Microsoft and the Linux world. In your own interfaces, be prepared to follow these principles – even if it means going against Apple’s interface guidelines or what’s currently fashionable. Give your icons labels. Don’t make them hairline-thin. Use visual signifiers to make interactive elements clearer. Make text easily readable. Resist the temptation to bury frequently-used functions under hamburgers, sub-menus or gestures. Test your designs – and not just on your fellow designers. Strive for simplicity that is not only visual, but easy to understand and to use.