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Apple has become a design follower instead of a leader — and it may be just fine with that

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For a long time I’ve been bored by iOS. While the competition has continually innovated and improved the design of their platforms, iOS has gradually come to feel stale and even a bit clunky. With this week’s official announcement at WWDC, my first reaction was that finally, we’re moving again. The design looked fresh and contemporary, there’s bold typography, smart use of transparency and layering, and nice transitions to replace the dated visual chrome and  fairly clunky behavior of prior iOS versions.

Yet quite quickly I felt myself longing for more.

Yes, Apple is still moving forward. But the competition is so much more aggressive and innovative than a few years ago, that Apple will need to speed up if it wants to be seen again as a leader in innovation and design. The question is whether it can move from being a fast follower to a faster follower, and eventually return to being in a leader position again – one that changes the game and disrupts. Then again, perhaps the bigger question is whether it even needs or wants to do that.

Credit where due

Much of what Apple aims to do with iOS 7 is laudable. The layered transparency is a positive improvement, as it offers continuity and context in a simple way. iOS 7 also uses space better, and there are fewer superfluous boxes within boxes (for example in utility apps like Calculator and Stocks). The transitions also help bring the experience to life, and make the OS feel more contemporary. In Safari it’s great to see the interface play a subservient role to the page content.

On the functional side, it’s nice to see Apple replacing the clumsy graphical back button with a swipe to go back. The multitasking view is also clearly improved. But the most positive improvements for me are found in the Photos app, where the smart clustering and grouping help users organize and make sense of all their photos, and in the location-aware app suggestions offered through Apps Near Me.

And importantly, the new design of iOS 7 is also truly comprehensive – nothing is left untouched.

Major missed opportunities

As iOS 7 continues to rely on a grid of icons at the top level of the OS, the iconography of the native apps feels surprisingly rushed and sometimes amateurish. Since Apple in its WWDC communication so clearly emphasized the need for “perfection,” it should really deliver on that too.

In some places where translucency is used the text contrast is rather poor, and it’s tricky to read the text quickly – it’s the very opposite of glanceable design. And while the Control Center is a good idea, it’s a very busy screen – and that’s the first iteration. Imagine how it will look after a few more generations and many new functions are added!

The parallax viewing on the home screen feels like a gimmick, as does the cheesy background animation in the Weather app. The photo filter fad is also given too much prominence in the camera mode. These all feel like populist design choices (a decidedly un-Apple approach.)

A course correction, not a sea change

Overall, iOS 7 feels just a bit too predictable. The first thing Apple apparently wants users to feel is delight and surprise (followed by love and connection). But iOS 7 doesn’t offer much cause for surprise because hardly anything in iOS 7 feels new. Instead it feels familiar, and that’s because many of the design approaches in iOS 7 have been lifted from other platforms.

For example, Windows 8 makes use of bold typography and uses smooth transitions to bring the experience to life; WebOS had a multitasking view remarkably similar to what was shown in iOS 7; and Nokia’s innovative MeeGo OS made swiping gestures central to the smartphone experience (while it also placed great emphasis on consistent and meaningful iconography). In iOS 7 Apple has clearly adopted these and others’ designs, and have aimed to further improve them. And so amazingly, in design Apple now finds itself in the role of a fast follower.

Cursed by the Innovator’s Dilemma

When I last wrote about design at Apple, I was asking for more fundamental changes: “a radical refresh of iOS, a category-defining entry into wearables, or a confident push into services like search or commerce.” Yes, iOS was refreshed this week, but if you look beyond the surface level, it was hardly radical. Perhaps the fact that iOS now has hundreds of millions of active users is both a blessing and a curse for Apple. With that size, its priorities have moved from disrupting others to scaling and protecting what it has. As things unfold over the next few years, Apple will probably become a new textbook example of the Innovator’s Dilemma.

In the 90’s, when Apple was in crisis and had little to lose, its “Think Different” campaign celebrated gutsy innovation. That tune has changed dramatically, and the opening video at this week’s WWDC instead celebrated patience and perfection. “If everyone is busy making everything, how can anyone perfect anything? It takes time.” Apple rose to prominence as a company that brilliantly anticipated customers’ future needs. But today Apple focuses mainly on serving their existing customers’ current needs.

When Jony Ive says that “iOS 7 is defining an important new direction,” and Tim Cook says that iOS 7 is “the biggest change to iOS since the introduction of the iPhone,” it tells me that Apple will be quite happy to continue as a fast follower. And so I will continue to admire how Apple adopts and improves the designs of others, and how it gracefully evolves iOS over time. But it seems I will have to look elsewhere for game-changing design and innovation.

Olof Schybergson is CEO and co-founder of the service design consultancy Fjord. Follow Fjord on Twitter @fjord.

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29 Responses to “Apple has become a design follower instead of a leader — and it may be just fine with that”

  1. fredhstein

    disclosure: fanboy and investor in aapl.

    Yes, they have work to do. The next big opty is “context” using the sensors and analytics of your behaviour to anticpate what we need to see. This is the next step in ‘ease of use’. An ideal platform to demo this is a wrist mounted device for notification.

    The re-org (departure of Scott Forstall) is a factor. Fixing the plane while in flight is a big challenge. I’m confident in the leadership – and patient.

  2. Eli Hini

    To say that Apple no longer leads innovation is rather short sighted. There is a time to introduce something new or alternative (as done with the original iPhone) and a time to refine an existing system.

    Innovation in of itself takes time. There must be a reason for it. One has to experiment and research to solve a specific problem. The solution may innovate on what is currently in existence or introduce a new concept.

    The user interface will evolve when it has become established but the underpinnings may be overhauled completely. Just because the UI does not look radically different doesn’t mean that the core of the OS is not radical or ahead of its peers.

    More importantly, why should a company introduce new ways of interacting with a system (User Interface) if its user base accepts it and have grown accustom to it? There might be a need to tweak and refine the interface as interaction needs evolve but that does not warrant an introduction of a new way of interacting with the system. It only makes sense to do a complete UI overhaul if the existing version is broken, otherwise doing so will simply cause confusion and alienate users of the system.

    Imagine what will happen if each year an automaker changes location, shapes and feel all the controls and gauges in their vehicles. Drivers will stick with what they have and know, car rental companies will have a hard time renting vehicles that do not share similar interfaces to what their customers are accustomed to. Instead of such radical changes, automakers do subtle refinements for improvements, aesthetics and luxury.

    I believe Apple is on the right path. What we may notice 10 years from now will be an evolution of the interface. Yes it might look completely different from what it is today but it will be an evolution that progressively ushers the larger user base into a newer UI overtime without risking any shock to their workflow.

  3. Abbaink

    Ever since it’s inception Apple was always a better designed interface. In spite of the overwhelming number of Windows users. After years of relentless perseverance they are now established as an innovator leader. Yet, there are those critics that want to claim that they are doomed. Innovation requires the courage to stick to a bold plan and despite what critics may say make sure it is right and works as planned.
    Microsoft and Android should try it.

  4. Martin Turner

    I agree with most of the comments. Good design is not about being innovative, it’s about — truly obviously — being well designed.
    After 120 years, cars still have steering wheels, because a steering wheel is an excellent interface for a car. Apple’s great iPhone design innovation was a touch screen with pinch to zoom and rubber banding. There is still nothing better on the market. This is the ‘feel’ of the iPhone. Apple is giving it a new look, but the feel is the same as it was, and should remain.

  5. taojones2013

    once again we have a “design expert” with memory loss. Remember the day you put down your Motorola razor clam shell and picked up an i phone. once it was in your hand it seemed like it was always there and suddenly the ability to voice dial did not seem so “smart” anymore. the zen saying is the “first candle changes the nature of the room the next 1000 candles only make it brighter” this is teaching about the difference of kind as opposed to a difference of degree. apple lit the world with the phone design and it was a form factor copied and implemented with various degrees of success by other companies.
    if you designed the auto tire and then up graded it you would probably have a radial tire not a square one. short sighted people would call the radial an “incremental upgrade or a mere design refinement”. to take apple to task because it has been relentlessly copied and to say it has lost leadership because it cant take the truth of its innovation and produce a completely new design shows the superficial understanding of design that this
    author possesses. the designer of the paint by numbers kit is the painter not the monkey that fills in the numbered spaces. the one handling the brush is merely part of the design process not the innovator. if your kid draws a drawing with eyes on one side of the nose it will be a Picasso no matter who actually drew it because until Picasso lit that candle it was merely a bad drawing with the eyes in the wrong place. the problem trying to explain this sort of subtly is if you don’t get it already you probably will not see it no matter how clearly laid out for you .

  6. Laughing_Boy48

    I really don’t understand this quest for massive UI changes at all. When Apple first came out with the iPhone UI it was certainly copied by other companies. Google certainly has had the time and resources to try just about every new sort of interface feature imaginable based on the original iPhone interface. But why is this so important to just keep loading feature after feature into an OS when most users are only going to use a portion of those features.

    Suppose most consumers happen to like the iPhone interface the way it is. It’s very possible that they’re not looking for something ultra-fancy. I’m going to tell you why I think this way. Windows XP basically stayed the same for years. I don’t know much about the changes in the underpinnings of it, but the UI became a standard. Consumers and business have been more than satisfied and comfortable with it for all those years it was around. I think an interface can reach a point where there’s no real need to keep changing it just for the sake of change. Apple could merely keep refining the iPhone’s interface and I’m sure most consumers would be more than happy with it. Why should a bunch of tech-pundits insist that Apple try to keep up with Android OS. Consumers are the ones using it and maybe they don’t mind an interface staying the same for years.

    I still use Snow Leopard mostly although I have computer with Mountain Lion on it. I really don’t see any huge gap in productivity. Both work pretty well, but hardly enough to say Mountain Lion is a huge leap beyond Snow Leopard. I can get my work done with either. I don’t require a completely new interface every year.

    This BS about iOS being woefully far behind Android is ridiculous. Most of the Android smartphone users are still running Gingerbread and I’m sure they’re getting along just fine. What really matters is how well average consumers enjoy using a UI and how easily they can get things done. Stuffing tons of features is something that tech-heads revel in but it doesn’t necessarily mean all that much to most consumers. I can only see it from my own perspective and listen to other consumers’ complaints. Most of those that I know have iPhones seem perfectly happy with them as they are. Maybe a few tweaks can be added here or there, but not enough to rewrite iOS entirely. High-tech users are getting a little too arrogant with their constant need for change.

  7. Zurkram

    You’re missing the point. The “Game changing” innovation IS the touchable OS, which Apple pretty much invented. Everyone else is still copying and building on that. Although some may have more features the iOS, No one else is “Changing the game” with their versions. Not Microsoft, and certainly not Android. I don’t see a problem with Apple borrowing ideas from those who have stolen the main idea from them.

  8. Why does everything have to be game changing all the time. iOS is extremely popular and it would be a mistake of epic proportions to make a huge shift that upset both new and existing customers just because a few geeks require major change every 3 years.

    Many consumers do not like all the changes, not even subtle ones. They finally find a button here, then next year its over there. These are the mass buyers of phones, not tech nerds.

    When will tech bloggers start to relate to the real world rather than oozing their own selfish desires as if we all relate.

    I like where iOS7 is going. Apple is still make the best devices for those who appreciate the finer things vs. jamming the most cores and gigawats or oversized plastic designs in peoples faces.

    P.S. Android is boring now as well… save for the fact that fragmentation makes each phone a little different. Still, widgets are so 90s and having to search forever to find anything meaningful in a fugly interface isn’t exactly magic or revolutionary.

    Windows is just a fail, period.

    • Exactly.

      Once you reach a certain market penetration it’s very hard to change the interface as it discombobulates most users. There’s a long history of companies trying and their users rebelling – remember eBay from a few years ago – another is Amazon, they ran out of room for tabs but to ease their users into the revamped design they kept one row – Window 8, where’s the friggin start button?

      Geeks/Nerds like change – Most others don’t.

  9. Wierdninja

    Windows 8 now looks nicer than iOS 7. iOSis just a badly copied android look alike. Looks like a chid with a crayon designed it. Sad, but, true. Steve Jobs passing was a big loss for Apple. Time will tell how big. A lot of big mistakes have been made since his passing. UI design for iOS 7 is one of the biggest. Mac Pro redesign is another. I hope they don’t change Mac OSX to look like iOS 7. I would sell all my Apple stuff. Nuff’ said.

    • wolfspider

      I think the new Mac Pro looks like it’s going to be a groundbreaking product. All that power in a 9″ tall/6″ wide unit is pretty amazing. Even with an small rack or enclosure for external components connected via Thunderbolt, it’s still going to take up much less space than the average workstation. Why are we so attached to the idea of the big, blocky tower?

    • Laughing_Boy48

      I think Windows 8 looks very nice and it seems quite functional. But one big problems is that consumers don’t care for it much at all. I can’t explain why, but maybe it’s just too different for them. I’d have no problem using it at all. I just don’t think it’s necessarily worth the jump from Windows 7. It’s as simple as that. I could take it or leave it. Windows 7 works well enough for me. I understand Microsoft trying to keep the same interface for mobile and desktops. If Microsoft is trying to unify its computing platforms, I think Microsoft made the right choice. However, it appears consumers don’t necessarily see it that way. A company certainly doesn’t want to alienate consumers, but maybe that’s exactly what happened with the new Windows 8 UI.

      I still believe the most important thing is to keep the UI very simple, easy to understand, work well and possibly attractive to look at. Adding hundreds of features don’t mean a damn thing to consumers. Maybe tech-heads want something slick and fancy, but as near as I can tell, non-tech consumers don’t want that at all. We’ll only know if Apple is making the right decision when consumers buy iPhones in the tens of millions and say they enjoy using them.

      • Rann Xeroxx

        The problem with Windows 8 is that its two OS UIs in one; One for tablet, one for laptop/desktop. I have a Surface RT and love it as a great companion device and I use touch and Modern UI (metro) primarily. I also have W8 on my laptop and desktops at work and I install Classic Shell on them, bypass the M-UI, and don’t use touch at all.

        W8 does look nice but the desktop either needs to be more modernized or M-UI needs to be more friendly to cascading windows, settings and configurations more robust, etc.

  10. Your completely wrong in your assessment of iOS7. It is beautiful and functions extremely well. This will make the 500+ million iOS users very happy. And unlike Android, within a few months over 90% will be using the new software.

  11. A single data point doesn’t make a trend, not even directionally. I saw nothing at WWDC that indicated a significant shift to Apple’s long-term strategy. And I’m fairly certain what we saw didn’t directly reveal any secrets of upcoming products or new markets. Some hints perhaps.

    Just another page view, naive article about Apple.

  12. Hmmm…this from the boss of the company that brought us the truly awful Three app, that is poorly conceived, has no idea of what platform it’s running on and is essentially a glossy route to Three’s website.

    People in glass houses and all that!