Iteration and iOS 7

Bob

iOS 7 changed a lot about the way iOS looks. I normally think of Apple as a company whose success is built on iteration — incremental improvements, building on each other year over year and maturing over time. A sudden, dramatic shift — like the one in iOS 7 — cuts against that grain.

The contradiction between Apple’s standard method of incremental changes and the sudden shift in iOS 7’s UI is a paradox worth exploring — paradox in the sense of an apparent contradiction which, on investigation, may turn out to be no contradiction at all. Apple, like any company, can innovate radically and/or incrementally, and it should shift its strategy depending on the product’s needs. The idea of Apple as a company whose product development is built on incremental improvements is an oft-recurring John Gruber theme that has become conventional wisdom to Apple insiders. Does iOS 7 mark a change in Apple’s strategy going forward?

Ben

While some Apple watchers feel concern at the sweeping changes introduced to the world’s most widely loved operating system, the question remains: is it an actual departure or something that fits within Apple’s understanding of product development? Looking back on Apple software, there are few design changes as large as the those introduced in iOS 7. The most similar was the transition from Classic Mac OS to Mac OS X. This was a clear and definite shift, but also coincided with Apple’s purchase of NEXTStep as a way to solve their inability to bring a next generation OS to market. As such, the changes had much more to do with switching to a new technology foundation while keeping existing users on the platform rather than a straight interface redesign like iOS 7.

Bob

I’ve hoped to see this sort of sweeping redesign happen to Mac OS X for years, but Apple’s never taken the time to complete one. Instead, we’ve had many piecemeal, incremental updates. Mountain Lion’s System Preferences > General > Appearance still has Blue and Graphite options — just one of maybe twenty or fifty odd relics in Mac OS that have either been completely abandoned or simply never developed into full features. (I’m hoping for Blue and Space Gray options in Mavericks.)

If iOS 7 is an interface redesign, rather than a change in underlying technology, then maybe the Mac OS 9 / Mac OS X transition isn’t the best analogy to what’s happened to iOS. Are there other products in Apple’s past that give us better examples?

Ben

I think that, looking back more carefully, we can see some places where Apple has re-envisioned products in a similar way to iOS 7. iMovie and more recently Final Cut have gone through a redesign from the ground up, in both cases more drastic than what has been done to iOS 7. On the hardware side, the Mac Pro recently finished the most drastic of redesigns. Even so, little of the Mac Pro’s core technology or hardware ability was changed. The iMac form factor has had radical refreshes from the iconic gum drop, to the desk lamp, to todays floating slab (with a touch of flower power in there as well).

✍ Bob: I miss desk lamp iMac.

✍ Ben: I do too. He was a chipper lad. I can still remember sitting in the Macworld Keynote when Steve unveiled it. It was killer—that is, until I read the comment by “iDisappointed” at the end of this article.

Bob

I miss the days of new iPod models every year, with new designs, and the changing iMac designs. I hope Apple keeps the iPhone on a tick-tock pattern with design changes every two years, but staggers those changes by redesigning one of the models every year.

Ben

I think you see that happening with the iPhone 5c. It’s an obvious new design direction while the 5s sticks to the normally understated iPhone look. The 5c seems to be taking a page out of the iPod Touch’s more playful design inspirations.

Bob

Quick reality check: is there anything actual powerful about Apple’s supposed pattern of iteration and incremental improvement? Or is it just a cliche about Apple that doesn’t have any real meaning? (Or is it something everyone does?)

Ben

The powerful thing that Apple has created is the mix of strong iteration based on smart technology choices (e.g., not adding NFC to iPhone, or moving to non-removable batteries in their laptops) while reserving the ability to throw away some or all of what you have and take a step back to re-envision a better way to interact with products. Having just one or the other makes your products boring or low quality, respectively. An important piece of this is making decidedly opinionated choices. Simply redesigning based on what people say you need or what users clamor for won’t result in a great product.

Bob

So sometimes Apple radically changes things, and sometimes they change things incrementally. Is there anything we can learn from that that will help us make better apps?

Ben

The takeaway here is that it is a bad idea to change things drastically just to please the market, or make your product feel “fresh.” Incremental change makes good products and iOS 7 doesn’t change that. The MacBook Pro is far and away the most solid laptop on the market and has been for years. In fact, it is probably farther out in front of other offerings than ever before and this is specifically because Apple has continually and incrementally decreased its thickness, increased its build quality refined each component and feature, rather than push for flashy redesigns.

Bob

Even the switch to solid aluminum blocks for the MacBook wasn’t really presented as a radical change, even though it seemed like a radical change in the manufacturing process — just not in the product itself. So incremental vs. radical doesn’t mean “underlying technology vs. gloss” — but rather about knowing your product’s strengths and refining them. Sometimes that means you have to concentrate on the underlying technology — the Snow Leopard update to Mac OS X is one example of that — while sometimes you have to concentrate on the interface itself.

Ben

But sometimes you need a redesign, a step back to look at the whole. A time to assess whether the product is meeting the needs it was originally built to meet. A product that has gone through revision cycle after revision cycle can include odd technology choices and incongruent user interface paradigms. iOS 6 wasn’t so much a poor user interface (it wasn’t) as it was incongruent with Apple’s hardware design direction and had grown into a smorgasbord of design choices when looked at as a whole. Tearing out all the old design languages and replacing them with a cleaner and more integrated language is a clear win, even if it makes some users weep for the loss of their shiny chat bubbles.

Bob

iOS 7 is a complete design statement. It presents a clear break with iOS 6 and gives us an aesthetic that will govern the way apps will be designed for the next five years. And that aesthetic will grow through iteration, as the technology gets better and as designers figure out the best ways to use elements like translucent layers and animated physics in apps.

The most amazing part of iOS 7 is that Apple has completely changed the look and feel of the OS without alienating their developers. In part, that’s because iOS 7’s unified, modern theme allays concerns about Android and Windows making iOS look old. It’s also because iOS 7’s underlying architecture isn’t radically innovative. The SDK has changed about the same amount in iOS 7 as it did in each previous incarnation of iOS. The tools Apple has added over the past few years — UIAppearance in iOS 5, attributed text additions in iOS 6 — have made it easy to use iOS 7’s default UI and to design new UI using most of the tricks of Apple’s own built-in apps. In other words, iOS 7’s radical new design is possible because of the slow, iterative improvements Apple’s made over the past five years.