On the first day of WWDC we finally got to see the result of Jony Ives’ plastic surgery on iOS 7. The new approach tries to build on familiar actions, but simplifying their visual representation. As is normally the case with such a broad redesign, it is polarizing.
Some individuals are already calling it a failure, while others feel that this again results in a leap ahead that reasserts Apple’s position as a leader.
Let me stress that right off the bat: iOS 7 is not ready to be installed on your main devices. There are known issues like tethering not working. And many other glitches waiting to stump you.
If you are a masochist, then please by all means, torture yourself. If not, then patience is a virtue. I for one bought a fresh cheap iPod Touch to experiment with. And I will hold of with putting it on my production devices until some later stage of the beta process.
For installing you best add the device’s identifier to your developer account first before doing anything else. On the first day the activation server kept failing, claiming that my device was not registered. But the next morning activation went right through. Some developers reported the same activation problems, a few had gotten incomplete activations.
Those incomplete actions allowed usage of the device in general, but anything using push notifications would give you a message to “Please Connect to iTunes”.
While experimenting around I also found that you can downgrade from iOS 7 to iOS 6 via the DFU mode. But now with the activation server working again, you can simply sign into WiFi and activation should go through.
Killing the Rounded Rect
The biggest visual impact stems from basically killing rounded rectangles everywhere. Gone are borders with round corners to signify that UI elements are somehow interactive. Instead you are now supposed to pick a color to communicate that the user can “tap here”.
In Apple’s stock apps this color is uniformly hyperlink blue, which makes me long for some additional decoration for my eye to latch onto. But who underlines hyperlinks nowadays? Not unless you want to look totally 80s. Which would have been counterproductive for a “UI Refresh”.
The usual problem with such a drastic visual change is that it risks also killing the feeling of familiarity that you feel for the OS. But I found that while the eye is struggling to get a grip on the new look, your haptic memory remembers the moves. You tap the navigation back “button” just as intuitively as the much used “Next” in the upper right hand corner.
I find it fascinating to have this demonstrated to me with such amazing clarity: apparently you can totally change the UI, but if you keep the interaction paradigms the same users will not get lost.
Shiny, No Shadows
In the fake textured world of iOS 6 you would generally assume a virtual light source coming from the top. So all shadows would be below items to communicate depth. Navigation and tool bars would have gradient and gloss to pretend to possess a concave surface.
The new flatness also means that shadows have been abolished throughout. Previously designers could help yourself over a poor choice of contrasting colors by adding shadows. Light text on a light background might become somewhat readable by adding a blurred dark shadow.
App names on the new Springboard don’t have any shadows any more. Which means that if you pick a wallpaper with bright parts, it becomes harder to read the names. Granted that might be a minor issue, easily remedied by using darker images for your wall paper, but I am pointing this out because iOS 7 will force designers to choose contrasts and app’s color schemes with greater care.
New Interaction Paradigms
Oh oh. I just said that one shouldn’t change the look and the feel at the same time. However there is a big exception to this rule I found. It is apparently ok to broaden the interpretation of the user’s actions. To give them a new wider meaning.
For example: on iOS 6 you would have the trademark slider for unlocking the device as well as mini-sliders on the icons of individual entries visible for notification center. For a Passbook boarding pass you could drag the icon over to the right to go straight into the app in charge of the pass.
The slide to unlock slider would also possess a knob for dragging. As would the slide-to-power-off slider. Those knobs are more three-dimensional rounded rects and have been killed also. But that only affects the visual representation, not the underlying discovering of the user’s intent.
Having a knob on the left side of the screen would hinder left-handed people. A right-handed person could simply reach over and pull the knob with the thumb. But the area close to the base of the thumb is a little harder to interact with.
We want to somehow lock the screen to prevent accidental prank calls while in pocket. And we don’t want to enforce a passcode lock for everybody to achieve that. So the question is: how can we tell if the user wants to unlock the screen. There has to be some gesture that we can measure. If it appears to be intentional then this should result in unlock.
The previous paradigm has been to give the user a small target to hit (making it harder to do in your pocket by accident) and to require dragging said target over a relatively long distance. That means this unlock gesture had two dimensions: hit area and drag distance. Two things we could fairly easily measure and ignore all interactions falling outside these thresholds.
On iOS 7 you can drag the lock screen from any point towards the right. If you drag more than half the width of the screen then this is interpreted as intentional unlock action. Anything less causes the screen to bounce back, you didn’t really mean it.
At first glance this seems to work like a scroll view, but there is a difference. With scrollviews you can give the content a momentum with the flick of your finger to have virtual inertia perform the scrolling for you. Not so on the lock screen. If you flick that you don’t achieve an unlock. Flicks could easily be unintentional.
If you happen to drag in the area covered by a notification center message, then this has the same effect as described above for the boarding pass. You open the relevant app. Everywhere else you unlock.
New Look, Familiar Operation
After I managed to activate my iPod Touch I set up my e-mail server to see how well I would be able to deal with the usual morning onslaught of mails. And to my delight I found that all the usual interactions I am performing in mail would still work.
I would read mails, archive the ones to keep, trash the ones to delete. Toolbar icons are flat, bar button items are neither buttons nor are they in a distinct bar. Yet, having everything in a familiar location made my feel right at home.
You could even go as far as saying that if you were able to operate iOS 6 more by feel than by parsing visual cues, then you will by very thankful to Apple to having kept everything working like it used to.
My biggest worry at this point is that for a while after launch all previous apps will look like crap next to the new and shiny. Indeed I installed an app of our – iWoman – on my touch to see how this behaves. Generally well, but were some visual problems.
The coming-in animation has some visual artifacts, but that might be due to the early stage of iOS. Another problem I found was that the tint color for the navigation bar revered to standard blue while all the buttons kept their purple tint. I would have to investigate further to know who to blame for that. Apart from that the app seemed to work like you are used to.
iOS 7 does not change the look of apps compiled with older SDKs. Are to put it more succinctly: it’s not supposed to. But as a reality of Beta versions there are side effects.
Jony Ive gave iOS 7 a visual overhaul that dramatically modernizes the look of the OS. At the same time you fill still get a familiar feeling when using it because for the most part the kinds of interactions you were used to from iOS 6 are still in place.
In some areas – like the lock screen – the underlying paradigm gets a wider meaning. In others – like the new app exposé you have a new gesture to delight in. You kill apps no longer by pushing the X, but by flicking their screen shot upwards, like a rocket launcher.
If anything then iOS 7 is more mature, serious and departs from whimsy that tries to copy the real world. That is not to say that it has become boring. Just the opposite: new SDKs (like physics built into UIKit) allow for eye-popping effects like parallax wallpapers.
When iOS 7 comes out in the fall you will feel like you have gotten a new phone, but without a feeling of being lost. You’ll feel right at home.