Aesthetics = Usabilty
This is the second part in series of essays on the importance of dimension and tactility in user interface design. I recommend reading the first essay prior to reading this one.
Today we are seeing somewhat of a clash between the icon designer/UI artist community and their counterpart developers and UI animators. The latter have up to this point acted as defenders of the UX changes made by Apple, Google and Microsoft, asserting that the collective decision to move towards flat design was made with usability as a pressing concern. This camp holds that aesthetics are of lesser importance, and do not inform the UX as much as the underlying structure. I feel the need to assert again that this is in fact the opposite of the case, that aesthetics are integral to and inseparable from the structure of a good user experience.
Let us break down the changes made to the elements and structure of iOS7 into three categories:
1. Interface components that affect aesthetics mainly: eg. icons, glyphs, folders and fonts
2. Elements that affect both aesthetic and structural elements equally: eg. buttons, separators, list views, transitions and affordances.
3. Complex features: eg. Cards (multitasking), Control Center, Notification Tray
If a designer were to redesign elements in the first category, they would have a duty first to prove that changes would be more visually appealing to the user. Then they would have to render them to the utmost of precision. In the case of iOS7, UI artists and icon designers have legitimate gripes here. Visual harmony, consistency and legibility have been sacrificed to follow a trend that does not benefit the platform. The flat aesthetic was implemented as a set of training wheels for the constraints of responsive web design, not for tactile mobile design. To be more specific, the training wheels were meant for the designers themselves, not for the users.
To make a change satisfactory in the second category, it would have to be maintained that a proposed visual sacrifice would benefit the overall structure of the platform. It simply has not been proven that less affordance and less contrast better informs visual hierarchy, legibility and therefore usability. Yet that is exactly what has been done with iOS7 with blurring and the over-reliance on animation to provide affordance.
Changes in the third category are a place wide open for consideration, and that is agreed upon by designers, developers and animators. There were plenty of things in this category that were worth fixing or modifying, especially when it comes to multitasking, notifications and system settings to be changed on the fly. These changes would make the UX more pleasurable and functional without sacrificing aesthetics or usability. Apple did a pretty good job with this category of changes as it turns out with respect to the overall structure. The problem is that the changes made in the first category impeded the positive changes in the third.
It seems as though the many analyzing the redesign have mistaken aesthetics as being an isolated element in an operating system, worthy of ripping out for the sake of change. This is a primary mistake. No design element exists in a vacuum, each one is interdependent as part of what is ostensibly a coherent system. There is a whole lot that has been unnecessarily sacrificed with this new iteration of iOS. The distracting implementation of fixes to make up for visual missteps was decided upon haphazardly, seemingly for the purpose of following a trend, rather than standing on proven principles that Apple has long been an advocate. At the same time, the redesigns that are being posted on dribbble seem to tacitly agree with the position Apple has taken: that the issue with iOS6 was it’s textured, rendered, dimensional aesthetic and that this could be solved by a flat aesthetic. I hold that this is a reductionist viewpoint. If there was a major problem to be solved in iOS, it was not visual in nature, it was mainly structural, limited to a few areas, such as multitasking and push alerts. The problem was certainly not with the interaction patterns iOS has been known for.
Just two days ago Apple appeared to be the last holdout that maintained the benefits of humanist visual design in their user interfaces. Today, the new paradigm removes much need for visual designers in the development process. A warning sign of things to come is Vesper app. When common design patterns get established on a relatively simple OS, upstart developers will differentiate on features and animation alone, not on UI or icon design to the detriment of usability and delight.