My take on iOS 7

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I’ve had a chance to check out iOS 7 on an iPod Touch for a few days now and I thought I’d add my notes here. Since buying my first Windows Phone last year, I’ve loved how simple and unified the experience feels. Android continues to have a designed-by-committee style—even with the influence of Matias Duarte, it continues to be a bit of a mess. So, as far as I’m concerned, from a design perspective, there are only two relevant mobile phone OSes—iOS and Windows Phone 8.

Comparing the two might seem like it makes sense on the surface. Apple wholeheartedly bought into the so-called skeuomorphic design with prior iOS versions. The wood grain, stitched leather and green felt diminished the overall experience, undermining any decent UI work going on in the OS. Some apps, famously, went far off the deep end. The voice memos app displayed a big microphone instead of giving users more useful information, and the podcasting app looked like a 1970s reel-to-reel tape machine—something that most iOS users have probably never seen outside of the movies.

iOS 7 is supposed to clean up the mess left behind by Scott Forstall’s cronies. Steve Jobs might have been a fan of the style, but let’s remember that he also thought the iPod Hi-Fi was good enough to replace his primo home audio system. It’s the first effort from a team headed by Jony Ive.

Layers

iOS has always utilized dimensionality of some kind. Previously, iOS got its depth from the 3D icons, buttons, and textures—a design partially inherited from OS X, the last vestiges of the “lickable” Aqua UI. Now, with its new, flattened appearance, Apple’s designers have based much of the iOS experience on sliding layers and zooming. Unfortunately, the effects in use suffer a problem that long-time Mac users are used to—the animations take too damn long.

Unlocking an iOS 7 device feels like it takes an eternity. You’ll have to wait nearly two seconds after pushing the lock screen aside for the icons to finish their cutsey plunge onto your wallpaper. Now, it might not seem like a huge deal, but not only does the animation make the OS seem seriously sluggish, you’re wasting time. Waiting for a full computer to load is one thing—when it’s the phone you carry with you everywhere and use likely a hundred times per day, those precious seconds add up. Apple still hasn’t learned a crucial lesson from the old iOS—The best user experiences get the hell out of your way.

The same critique applies to the zoomy app launching animation. It’s neat the first time. But, you know what you tapped and you know where the icon is, so there’s no additional information being communicated to the user here. And, if a minimalist aesthetic was really what Ives and Co. were going for, these overdramatic, showstopping flourishes go against that aesthetic in a big way.

Notifications and gestures

iOS still has an excellent notification center. New for iOS 7 is the control center feature. Here’s where some of the layering gets tricky. The translucency at work makes colorful backdrops look like unicorn vomit. The notification center drop-down is darker than the control center and so it looks not quite as bad. I understand wanting to separate the experiences while making them all feel unified, but transparency has been done to death. In a mobile environment, it also requires more of the GPU, the last thing that iOS devices need given their already intensive high-resolution graphical resources (thanks, Retina). There’s a reason Microsoft eliminated translucency from Windows 8 after embracing the “Aero” look for so many years—it’s the source of needless power draw and leads to diminished battery life.

A new set of edge gestures on the sides allows iOS to more easily grow into big screen sizes. Make no mistake—that’s why they were implemented. Without the constant back buttons that both Android and Windows Phone have (Windows Phone wisely uses a hardware button, which means the buttons don’t eat up display space or cause burn-in like on Android), even the larger 4″ iPhone 5/5c/5s screens are a stretch to reach corner buttons. Since it was necessary before to reach said corner buttons, large devices would have been frustrating to use one-handed.

One big drawback of the new top and bottom gestures comes into play when scrolling. It’s way to easy to activate one or both of these features with a careless flick. You shouldn’t have to worry about activating features accidentally, but with iOS 7, you’ll need to keep your swipes inside the lines.

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Perhaps the best, most meaningful change for power users is the brand-new multitasking tray. At once, Apple apes Windows Phone and WebOS. Screenshots of open apps are displayed and a swipe up dismisses the apps. The apps aren’t actually running live like in WebOS, but like in Windows Phone, they’re screenshots taken from the last time you left each app, saving battery life, yet letting you peek at what you were doing previously. It’s well-executed and long overdue. Apple learned an important lesson from Steve Jobs—know who to rip off and do it with no remorse.

Notifications

Finally, after six years, the small analogue clock icon is animated. Was that so hard? Unfortunately, no other icons give new useful information. It’s a missed opportunity, and coming from Windows Phone, the still-static icons just feel incredibly out of date. Live Tiles don’t work perfectly all the time. But the added customizability, information, and animation give the phone vibrance—something the static pastel color scheme and nausea-inducing parallax wallpapers in iOS 7 just can’t bring to the table.

Unfortunately, you still have to dismiss each notification individually. It’s tedious, and the buttons you have to hit still aren’t appropriately sized

Left & Right

Something that has struck me as nonsensical is the way iOS 7 handles left and right swipes. The first gesture you use when you go to unlock your device is left-to-right. I understand that the old slider button on prior iOS versions slid in that direction, and Apple didn’t want to spook habitual users right out of the gate. Given the new full-screen application of this gesture, it’s entirely incongruous. Maybe if I were from a country that read left-to-right it would feel correct, but sliding a big page like the lock screen sends the signal to my brain that we’re going backwards, like with a book. That is to say that it feels completely wrong.

The gestures in Safari use the correct book logic and  work as expected.

Compatibility

iOS 7 is the first iOS to screw up backwards compatibility. The second worst offender was the move from the 3-inch class devices to the new-school 4-inchers, a move on Apple’s part that started app rewrites as soon as the dimension was announced. In iOS 7, old apps run like on iOS 6—a really, really jarring experience. The old keyboard even pops up for no good reason. Granted, this shortcoming will be fixed in a few months for the major apps, it’s still a really weird thing to run into.

It’s worth noting that the 4th generation iPod Touch, sold up until a few months ago, isn’t going to get the iOS 7 update. Apple’s being more and more ruthless with cutting off support for these older devices. One of the company’s strengths is supposed to be vertical integration—why can’t they use their resources to make older hardware really sing with new software? The choice reeks of forced hardware upgrade.

Icons & Buttons

Much too fiddly. Something about the itty-bitty degree ticks around the Safari compass and the microteeth on the nested, Geigeresque Settings cogs give me the heebie jeebies. We get it, guys. The display is ultra-high resolution. Also, major points off for sticking users with  awful icons for Game Center and Newsstand—icons that still can’t be removed and will likely spend their time with Stocks and Passbook in a junk folder until the end of time.

Loose Ends & Inconsistencies

The iOS keyboard has actually gotten worse in iOS 7. Safari no longer has a “.com” button, suggestions are still in-line instead of tied to the keyboard, and letters are ALL CAPS ALL THE TIME, with only the small arrow changing from gray to dark gray inside the shift key. That’s the only suggestion given that you’ve engaged caps. This is stupid, and a boneheaded user experience decision. Why not use the fluid, changeable nature of the on-screen keyboard to its fullest? I thought that part of the purpose of iOS 7 was to expand the visual language beyond the buttons that people “needed”. This is really something that users need. I shouldn’t have to search for a tiny, out of the way indicator to tell what case I’m in. Also, it’s 2013, Apple. We can handle getting more than two word suggestions at a time.

The word “Delete” shows up everywhere in the OS, and, yet, Apple’s designers don’t have a consistent way of expressing the notion. In all cases, a button marked “Delete” does the same thing—it deletes what you’ve just selected. Why, then does the word show up marked in red in some places (as it should) and not in others? One of the simplest ways of creating a consistent experience is unifying text—something Jony Ive says iOS 7 was focused on (“We’ve considered the tiniest details, like refining the typography”). Oops. See the screenshot below.

inconsistency

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