Many designers say Apple’s once polished software has lost its luster. Olof Schybergson, CEO of design firm Fjord, believes Scott Forstall’s departure could spark a new era of software innovation for the company and define Tim Cook’s tenure.


Much has been said already about the departure of Scott Forstall at Apple. The politics of it aside, with a refreshed executive leadership in place, CEO Tim Cook now has the opportunity to usher in a new era of discovery and transformational design at Apple. It’s an exciting and possibly defining prospect, but the question remains: If Apple’s current software design style needs an upgrade, where could newly installed design head Jony Ive and his team take it? Ive is clearly an extremely talented and passionate design leader, but his background is in hardware. Will his abilities scale to successfully lead all of Apple’s software design too?

Since the early days of Apple, their approachable design made digital software and interfaces accessible and usable, to the extent that even a child could use them. But their innovation since the launch of the first iPad has either been incremental (for example iOS or the iPad Mini) or flawed (for example Siri and Apple Maps). Their software design has also remained stale with many contending that a refresh is overdue. Arguably, Apple is now playing defense, giving competitors like Microsoft and Google space to innovate and set trends in interface design across devices and platforms.

Steve Jobs was—notoriously, to many members of the design community—a fan of skeuomorphism, a style that relies on real-world metaphors and textures in digital interfaces. Fake leather, wood, paper and glass became commonplace in Apple applications, in addition to real-world metaphors like bookshelves, paper shredders, and even casinos. While skeuomorphism might have been beneficial in the early days of computing in helping less-tech-savvy types navigate a user interface, it now feels out of place in a world where most people are using a host of digital interfaces throughout the day, and where younger people have never even experienced physical rolodexes, paper shredders or giant desk calendars. From a design perspective, when used excessively skeuomorphism is at best out-dated, at worst confusing and tasteless. More importantly though it feels at extreme odds with Apple’s hardware, which is designed with sophistication and constraint. So where might Apple’s designs go?

Image courtesy of Apple

Looking at competitors like Microsoft, its new Windows UI style, across operating systems, is at the direct opposite end of the spectrum from skeuomorphism. It’s a modernist Swiss style, where all excessive embellishments are removed. The life in the experience comes from content and transitions, not from visual UI ornaments.

The wildly successful Android OS lands somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, between skeuomorphism and the new minimalist Windows style. While visually Android is not leading the way (and here I include all of the Android licensees), there are now several interaction patterns and solutions that are better designed and more advanced than what iOS offers.

Microsoft has claimed the minimalist corner, and a radical Apple departure from their current UI style could be confusing to existing users, and would also admit defeat (which is not a very Apple-like trait as well). Apple has long had a human-centered design focus, and has gone further than most to make technology accessible to everyone. Apple’s challenge then is formidable: To retain the focus on simplicity, accessibility and ease-of-use, while at the same time refreshing their UI style and introducing design consistency across their increasingly wide range of software and services. It’s a tall order, and will need investment, focus and talent.

The most transformative devices today are ingenious pieces of software wrapped in desirable hardware. The Nike+ FuelBand or the self-learning Nest thermostat are examples of new software products that are wrapped in well-designed hardware. Apple has long been the master at this, but competitors are encroaching on their territory. Microsoft has gone against its hardware suppliers in creating its own showpiece for Surface—a move it had to make to ensure that the hardware maximized the potential of the software. But creating this combo is not easy, and Apple will have to work hard to stay on top. Various pieces of Apple software on a range of different devices connect to incredibly advanced services and algorithms in the cloud. Orchestrating this, and presenting the services to people in a way that’s easy and delightful to use, is very challenging. Not many companies do it well and consistently (which is why the relative failure of the complex Siri and Apple Maps services weren’t a big surprise for some).

With iOS, Apple showed the world how the graphical touch paradigm should work. Modern touch interfaces are now characterized by responsive, fluid and direct interaction, while tapping, swiping and pinching have become dominant gestures. Apple led the way in making touch interaction mainstream. Looking ahead, interactions will move beyond the screen into thin air, and both input and output will increasingly use voice. Apple now has an opportunity to once again lead the way and design the dominant interactions for what comes next in computing.

The wearables category will need great design to go mainstream, and Apple’s entry in the race could be inspiring. A radically redesigned iOS would be very interesting, and a confident Apple entry into “control point” services like search or commerce would be fascinating. If Cook and Ive are able to succeed with a bold investment in a service play, they will not only create immense value for Apple, but also demonstrate that they can pull off their own innovations, rather than just incremental changes to what Steve Jobs envisioned.

Om Malik’s recent piece here about the change-up at Apple highlighted an increasingly schedule-driven release culture under Tim Cook’s leadership. This might indeed become a challenge for software innovation. If the question “when do we ship” ever becomes more important than “what do we ship,” true innovation, risk-taking, and design excellence become hard.

A radical refresh of iOS, a category-defining entry into wearables, or a confident push into services like search or commerce could spell the real making of Tim Cook. Right now the jury is still out. For us designers, Jony Ive now has the chance to upgrade his status from mere legendary design Lord to design demigod. I hope he takes it.

Olof Schybergson is CEO and Co-Founder at the service design consultancy, Fjord. (Twitter: @fjord.)

Apple image courtesy of Shutterstock.

You’re subscribed! If you like, you can update your settings

  1. I think changing the UI on its user base is only going to alleniate the cult crowd. You correctly point out the 3 UI and a 4th UI is like bringing ‘New Coke’. Will not work.
    What they have to integrate much better is the UI to the cloud. Honestly iCloud, Itunes, Siri etc etc all of them that have a cloud dependency, Apple is way behind (even microsoft on that). Google by far us numero uno and if any the focus on that. A good example of that ease of use case is dropbox+cloudON. Beautiful and seamless. Too late to build it organically. Find a team that has been doing it and build around them.

    I do agree that seamless integration of wearables and home devices is also a big opportunity. There is atleast another $1000 to be had/household if they get it right (Nest, time machine, nike, azumio are all examples of these) which is another device + services in the home/person about $60B.

    1. Where’s the profit? changing the design for design sake, will not work satisfying a few geeks and artists will not work. And if Google is so good where the Q and more importantly where the profit.

      1. People were asking where the profit would be in a touchscreen device before the iPhone also. Turns out, it was there, people just hadn’t had a reason to spend money on it before. If you add value, people will pay more for it.

    2. What’s most interesting in this article are the suggestions about where Apple might go next, both in terms of style, and functionality. Unique angles, thank you. Agreed about wearables, too.

  2. Skeuomorphism is not necessarily “dead”. What Forstall and Jobs had been implementing of late was excessive and harmed usability in many cases.

    1. Usability in comparison to who? Linux, Windows, Android only geeks come up with that view iOS is useable by normal people from 2 to 92. Tiles or Ribbons isn’t going to get it done. Windows 8 won’t get done.

  3. The idea that skeuomorphism helps users understand interfaces by relating them to real-world objects is a myth that has been disproven many times over the years by usability professionals. What Ive can (and I would assume, would) bring to the iOS and OS X interfaces are some of the fundamentals of usability that Apple has lost in favor of nonsensical design glitz: consistency, discoverability and memorability.

    My most-used iPhone apps are the ones that forgo gimmicky glamour for elegance and a focus on usability and function— Mail, Camera, Calendar, Reeder, Instapaper, Calcbot.

    1. Ease of use out the window, Tiles perhaps?, Ribbon maybe?

  4. Michael W. Perry Saturday, November 3, 2012

    I won’t mind seeing skeuomorphism disappear. That’ll save me the bother of learning how to spell it.

    But aging, retro looks isn’t the only area where OS X is showing its age. Text services have added few new features since about 10.3, and most of those have been copying some of Microsoft Word’s more irritating features. And that lack means that text apps from all but the largest of developers lack many useful features.

    * Why, five years into the iPhone, can’t I easily send documents direct from any app to my mobile devices from the File menu. Displaying a document created in any OS X app on a nearby iPad should be as easy as it is with iBooks Author. Why are there all the kludges like email or a dependency of apps on both platforms that synch via Dropbox or iCloud?

    * Almost everyone in business depends on marking up text for changes. Why are they stuck with Word? Why isn’t correction markup built into text services? And even more important, why isn’t there a markup that works between apps and platforms, i.e. corrections marked oon one app on an iPad to can be used in another on a Mac? And why can’t colleagues easily share these edits without kludging with email or shared Dropbox accounts?

    * We’ve been able to create PDFs from documents for ages. Why can’t be do the same with ePub? Why isn’t ePub one of OS X and iOS’s native formats? Mobile devices like iPhones are terrible with PDFs. They need the wrappable text of ePub.

    * GREP S&R in InDesign is incredible. Why isn’t there a text service to add it to every text app, one filled with all sorts of clever scripts like auto-formating phone numbers.

    * Displaying documents intelligently on screen sizes from huge displays to iPhones requires that text to be marked for its meaning rather than its font size. Why is Apple still stuck in the era of Wordstar, with fonts and rulers. Why can’t we tag text as headers, body text and the like and move it easily between devices and platforms, with the layout and font size adjusting to display well on each.

    There’s a lot Apple could be doing with that $100 billion in reserves they have. Money they could use to leave their competitors in the dust. And much of that money should be spent on practical stuff rather than eye candy.

    1. i’m confused are you getting all these things in Android? Windows?, Linux? who is doing it better, sounds like you should stay in a specialize program like Adobe Indesign, or Quark Express.

      1. Nicholas Paredes Danox Sunday, November 4, 2012

        The iPhone is currently as powerful as a G5 PowerMac. Are you seriously saying that we shouldn’t have this functionality within the iPad?

        I absolutely disagree, and this is coming from somebody who is actually bringing some thing like Pagemaker/Quark/InDesign to market for the iPad in a matter of weeks.

    2. Each day on my Mac, I save Pages and Numbers to iCloud and then open them on my iPad or iPhone. I also save Pages documents as ePub books. I don’t understand your complaint about these functions.

      1. You’re confusing app-level functionality with OS level functionality. The argument here is that the OS should begin to tackle social and cloud functionality across all applications on the universal level the same way that it does finding and printing.

    3. Not sure about the others but to me the ONE missing feature in iOS is document handling.

      There should be a document vault, all documents go there, and all apps can access that and show the documents, and users should be able to go there and open any document with any installed app that’s compatible.

      Removing this made things “simpler” (and way more secure) – but it also made other things incredibly difficult. Sharing data is at the core of computing. A computer that’s bad at sharing data is unacceptable.

  5. Microsoft’s modern UI design in Windows 8 is admirable in its purity but dismal in its usability on non-touch hardware. Ergonomically speaking, touch screens are not sustainable for 8 hours of desktop use per day. The winner in UI design is not just about how it looks, but how usable it is.

    Apple would be well-advised to make small, incremental steps while keeping the existing user-base happy with a robust and productive computing experience. If they insist on doing something radical to catch up with the rather desperate move that Microsoft just made, they will lose.

    By all means, get rid of the leather stitching and yellow note paper, but don’t throw the user’s ability to get work done under the bus just so you can say “look who’s thinking different now!”

    1. I disagree. I’ve had MS Surface for a week and I absolutely loved the user interface. It’s simply stunningly intuitive. All would be perfect if they actually made it performant enough, Win8RT is bogged down by performance problems and unbearable lag.

      1. On a Surface, I agree the UI probably does make quite a bit of sense and could be fun. I was more talking about the woes inflicted on a desktop user who spends an 8 hour day at the office getting important stuff done. Corporate IT departments won’t let that happen, so we are good for the next year or two. I don’t think the touch paradigm works well for long desk-bound shifts manipulating spreadsheets and word processors. This shotgun marriage between the touch-driven world of phones and tablets and the world of desktop productivity is going to create all kinds of grief. Microsoft is ensuring that the future of business desktop computing on its Windows platform is all but untenable. Because, otherwise, we could ignore their brave new world which would cost them a market.

    2. I completely disagree with you mate .. I’ve a non-touch ultrabook and I can work on Win 8 as fast as with previous versions of Windows .. In fact I think Win 8 increases productivity in some areas .. agree there’s a bit of a learning curve .. half an hour for me .. but I’m loving it ..

  6. I think you have to be careful as there are degrees of skeuomorphism. The whole desktop metaphor of (well) desktop, files, folders etc is skeuomorphic and although the UI formerly known as Metro does away with metaphor, as does iOS, nobody is screaming about the Mac interface.

    What people sensitive to this stuff don’t like is the cheesy skeuomorphism that doesn’t do anything for usability or rationality or detracts from it. I think playful animations will remain.

  7. You didn’t get John Gruber’s memo that discussion of the skeuomorphism factor in the shakeup at Apple “has gotten out of hand”?

    Also, economic productivity has fallen dramatically over the past week due to Hurricane Sandy and all the time people are taking to figure our how to type out “skeuomorphism” correctly on their keyboards. You’re not helping.

  8. Tiles? The first Mac left 2D shapes behind – and for that reason, W8 looks like it’s designed for a kindergarten class.

    Shredders unknown to young ‘uns? Check Staples for SKUs aimed at SoHo. Don’t use a shredder you’re feeding the identity thieves.

    Makes me think the rest of the article is out of touch with designing and building stuff for sale. Geek therapy achieves little in the marketplace.

  9. I have used Apple products for years in spite of rather than because of the dopey looking UI of many of their applications. I tend to avoid using the ones that pretend to be some antiquated object. Decorative surroundings for ones like address book and photo booth are just distractions and quite off putting as well as taking up space on nice big screens which are effectively wasted.
    Where they are modelling a musical instrument it makes sense to look like an instrument for example but text based functions could have far more generic look, feel and behaviour

Comments have been disabled for this post