Skeuomorphism and Apple: Throwing “Fitts” over iOS

Now that the holidays are over, thousands of consumers young and old are poring over their shiny new Apple iOS devices. For many, this is a repeat of last year’s Christmas gift. Is the experience much different from prior years? Maybe iOS has grown a bit stale, but does that matter? I have heard grumblings about Apple’s iOS growing a bit long in the tooth. Scott Forstall’s departure from Apple and Sir Jonathan Ive’s subsequent takeover of Apple’s Human Interface team signals a strong possibility of a dramatic iOS overhaul.

I don’t think an OS should necessarily be exciting or keep me entertained throughout the lifecycle of the product. Sure, the initial magic from when Steve Jobs unveiled the very first iPhone has faded. It was a new product. Of course we were all enchanted and likely already clamoring at the doors of our local Apple Store. When Steve swiped through the shiny app icons on that elegant touch screen, I was in awe. Should Ive completely overhaul iOS, will it evoke the same tumultuous fit of geekery as the first version of iOS? That would be quite a feat, but I do not believe that is his goal.

Speaking of throwing a fit, there is a fundamental design paradigm that is frequently cited amongst interface designers and human-computer interaction professionals called Fitts’ Law, and I think it is worth discussing. Paul Fitts, in 1954, proposed a model of human movement that predicts the time required to move to an interface element as a function of the distance and size of the element. In the late 1970s, researchers used Fitts’ Law to compare the efficiency of a variety of input devices, and the mouse won out overwhelmingly.

Applications of Fitts’ Law can be as simple as buttons that are larger and closer and thus easier to hit than those that are small and further away. Things get a bit more complicated, though, when you have limited screen real estate and a large amount of UI elements. Not only that, but we are no longer just talking about using a cursor. We are talking about a user’s finger. Where is the user’s finger? How can you minimize finger stretching when you cannot always accurately predict where the user’s finger is relative to the phone’s screen? This is why you often see apps that leverage the entire screen for a single action. Twitter’s pull down to refresh new tweets is a popular action item that we see being used in a lot other apps now. As you scroll through your tweets, you don’t have to stop executing the same motion when you get to the top of your Twitter feed. This is good design because “…it feels undesigned.” Design should go practically unnoticed.

Skeuomorphism and Apple: Throwing Fitts over iOS

I think this design paradigm plays a part in Forstall’s departure from Apple. Forstall champions skeuomorphism. When you turn a page in Apple’s iBook application, the faux leather stitching on icons, or the tape deck animation in the Podcasts app, are examples of skeuomorphism. I felt satisfied and rewarded when I discovered nifty, lifelike design features. It encouraged users of all ages and levels of technical prowess to explore and play with their device. It makes sense to include a touch of skeuomorphism in iOS and Mac OS. Apple has proven that, when used carefully, it is a powerful design methodology and there is a place for it.

Skeuomorphism and Apple: Throwing Fitts over iOS

Unfortunately, skeuomorphism grew to be more of a hindrance than a help to the desired end result. I enjoy a pleasant user experience, but iOS is approaching arbitrary and thoughtless design. The Podcasts app is a chore to use and I do not enjoy staring at the useless tape deck, squinting at difficult to see icons, and trying to scroll forward through a podcast by dragging that tiny red line. Fortunately, I believe Ive will change a lot of this. Design is not a feature in and of itself. It feels like Apple designers are just showing off at the expense of the user. Design should make a product useful. Ive said “it’s really important in a product to have a sense of the hierarchy of what’s important and what’s not important by removing those things that are all vying for your attention.” I find it quite interesting that, in Apple’s iOS Human Interface Guidelines, the company specifically mentions using metaphors in interface design. The guidelines state: “…metaphors work best when they’re not stretched too far. For example, the usability of software folders would decrease if they had to be organized into a virtual filing cabinet.” Apple designers are waving their leather-stitched icons in our face and reveling in their aesthetic prowess. No one is doubting Apple’s incredible designers, but Apple let the designers run rampant and vomit skeuomorphism over all of its carefully engineered software.

Skeuomorphism and Apple: Throwing Fitts over iOS

One of the biggest challenges, I think, is balancing adding additional features without overwhelming the user and cluttering the OS. We see lots of very interesting renditions of newly proposed features by Apple fans. But what people don’t understand is that it is easy to add features. I think jailbreaking is evidence of that. Apple has some of the most talented software engineers on the planet. From a business perspective though, it doesn’t make sense to add tons of features and incorporate any and all user feedback. Why? Because with hastily released features come problems. Customers will become overwhelmed with the multitude of features and options, bugs will inevitably arise, and too many resources will be staffed on customer support related work. Putting yourself in Apple’s shoes, you would burn through money and time, leaving little in the way of resources to keep up with your competitors’ innovation.

This Christmas I held off on upgrading my iPhone 4. I want to wait and see what’s in store for Apple users in 2013. Based on what I have seen, I think Apple is heading in the right direction. I think iOS will be simplified with a better design. I think Apple is doing the right thing in carefully implementing only a handful of new features into its OS. Let’s just hope that the design is up to snuff — and by “up to snuff,” I mean no one notices it at all.

Alex McGregor is an IT auditor with a degree in MS-IT Management from UT Dallas, and a BA in Communications from SMU.