Apple dials back ‘flat’ obsession in iOS 7.1

Apple’s new obsession with flat design has generally been positively received. I think that this is in part because it is a nice harmonizing design principle, and in part because Apple users feel almost compelled to agree with the Cult of Ive.

Yet while flat has smoothed over what was probably excessive use of skeumorphism throughout the apps and chrome, there can’t be any doubt that some users have been caused confusion by the opaque meaning of some of the icons. My personal favorite is the app store downloading icon. Upon hitting the Purchase or Install, you are presented with a small dot inside a circle. The circle is supposed to increase gradually as the app downloads, but you the user don’t know this, so it’s natural to hit the circle to see if the app can be launched – and this stops the download. Of course, you learn this by trial and error, and that is surely a step backwards for iOS whose foundations were built on usability and intuitiveness.

Then there’s the use of flat by the visually impaired. Even users with 5% vision could get around reasonably well in iOS6, but iOS7 has for many users rendered the device inoperable, despite the number of measures inserted into the OS to prevent this. One visually impaired user recently described it as ‘like moving the ramp for wheelchair users’.

So it’s interesting that iOS 7.1 has rolled back the total commitment to flat with new Button Shapes. These allow users to flick on button outlines, making it clear which screen features are action buttons, and which are just labels. While this is hardly a return to the faux-leather days of skeumorphism, this is for me a step (back) in the right direction. We do after all live in a world where we interact with objects, rather than symbols floating in space, no matter what Jony Ive may think. However, with the execution, as you can see in the image, they’ve spent little effort trying to beautify the experience, almost as if they specifically want users to try out button outlines, then decide they are ugly and switch them off again.

Nonetheless, this is a rare example of flexibility on philosophical principles from Apple. Apple’s focus has increasingly been Apple-centric, rather than user-centric in recent years, and hopefully this is a small sign of an increased willingness to listen to consumers who are still more than willing to pay top dollar for the right experience.