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Early Mac UI designers say Apple has abandoned many of its human interface design principles


Two of the early Mac user-interface designers argue in a lengthy FastCo piece that Apple has abandoned many of its original human interface design principles in both OS X and iOS, and a switch to an alphabetic rather than hierarchical list seemingly puts aesthetics above all else.

Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini say that five of “the most important principles” are now “largely or completely missing in iOS”:

  • discoverability – having all possible actions be visible
  • feedback & feedforward – making it obvious what a function will do, and what it has done
  • recovery – the ability to undo a mistake, or get back to where you were before
  • consistency – using the same gestures across platforms and hardware
  • encouraging growth – helping people tackle more complex tasks when they’ve mastered the basics

Norman and Tognazzini also say that Apple violates many of Dieter Rams’ design principles, a German designer who Steve Jobs has said greatly influenced his own thinking. They say that Apple prioritizes Rams’ 10th principle – “good design is as little design as possible” – over the other nine.

I’d note that iOS 9 tackles one of their criticisms, offering an easy ‘Back to’ function when a link has taken you out of the app you were using, but it’s an interesting read.

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  1. PhilBoogie - 7 years ago

    Personally I didn’t think that was an ‘interesting read’. The piece was filled with, well, crap. I can spot a clickbait article from a short gander, and this is one of those. A truly pathetic article, from writers who seemed to be ‘reminiscing better days’. That whole site isn’t any better for that matter. No, I’d rather read this site, with fact-checked articles and without any derogatory tone.

    • rogifan - 7 years ago

      Let’s not forget that Tognazzini has been critical since the first version of OS X and predicted the dock would be a failure. And let’s not forget this spring Fast Company’s Mark Wilson called Apple Watch a disaster, that everyone agreed with him but he was the only one with guts to say it publicly. Fast Company has been pretty anti-Apple for a while now. The’ve written several positive puff pieces about Google and design, most recently one that was a slobbering love fest over Google’s logo change.

    • mrobertson21 - 7 years ago

      dang you trolls really have nothing better to do, huh? sad

  2. rahhbriley - 7 years ago

    Eh, sure.

    Id actually argue that Ives is far more influenced by Dieter Rams than Jobs. Hell iMac, Calculator, iPod etc are near Rams-clones.

    Things must evolve. I don’t want a print icon sitting in my toolbar anymore because I rarely use it. Don and Bruce, are you suggesting we can’t update our Discoverability principals?

    Lebron doesn’t play like Jordan…doesn’t make it incorrect.

    (Having said; I think with all the change in UI, it’s never a bad idea to examine and evaluate what you’re changing to and if it purposeful and if you can reconcile abandon design principles.)

    • Ben Tarr (@TheBenFNC) - 7 years ago

      Jobs took what was good and utilised it. That makes him more influential.

      • rahhbriley - 7 years ago

        To clarify, I meant I think Ives design/style influence was influenced by Dieter Rams possibly more so than how much Ives’s design’style was influenced by Steve.

        I am absolutely not dense enough to argue that Ives was more influential than Jobs.

  3. rogifan - 7 years ago

    That piece was way to long and full of nostalgia for the past. And the headline was basically click-bait, the type of headline they know a site like BI or BGR will pick up and then it will spread everywhere.

    • Philip Machanick - 7 years ago

      I am happy for things to evolve. What I don’t like is abandoning principles that work to look cool. An iPod is about as easy to use for content creation as eating spaghetti with your elbows.

  4. mpias3785 - 7 years ago

    Jony Ive dumped the book on Human Interface Guidelines in his Bang & Olufsen trash can the day Jobs died. This is making me study and use Windows (under Parallels) like never before. After 30 years, when this Mac’s useful life is over I may be purchasing my first Windows machine.

    Windows is getting better while the Mac is getting worse. I never thought I’d ever say that, but Thanks Jony! I really wanted to learn a new OS right about the time I was retiring! I hope Cook comes to his sences and fires you before that happens.

    • PhilBoogie - 7 years ago

      Thanks for the laughs!

      • rogifan - 7 years ago

        What’s hilarious is someone thinking Jony Ive wrote Apple’s current HIG.

      • PhilBoogie - 7 years ago

        Hence the ‘plural laugh’

      • PhilBoogie - 7 years ago

        “Trolls. So broke they can’t even pay attention.”

    • rogifan - 7 years ago

      Bye bye.

    • I switched to the Mac in 2007, after M$ released Windows Vista. And since then I haven’t seen anything worth going back to Windows. Not even Windows 10. Anything in Windows causing a hype is just a mirage, a trojan horse filled with problems. That’s how it has been after Windows XP got replaced by junk releases.

      And I do use Windows a lot, as my job involves providing tech support for Windows and Macs in a network environment with over 2000 users.

      I’m not going to comment about everything else you said, it’s being replied enough already.
      Just one question remains: Do you really need to study Windows???

      • beyondthetech - 7 years ago

        I’m just like you. Switched to OS X and the iPhone when I had my last straw with Windows Mobile and Windows Vista. I was actually mad at myself for being so blindly pro-Microsoft up until 2007. Even the “Switch to Mac” ads made so much sense the more I looked back at it.

        Windows 10 made me curious, curious enough to drop $100 on a cheap Atom tablet that ran Windows 8.1 and then Windows 10, but with all its cosmetic and under-the-hood updates, it’s still remains so obviously clunky, unrefined, and inconsistent, compared to even the earliest Apple products I’ve had. I still laugh when I notice products, hardware and software, developed by engineers over designers.

        I still get paid to support hundreds of Windows users as a support technician as well as consultant, but you better bet your britches my home is Apple-based, because I don’t need the same headache there, too.

    • Honestly, I try to give Microsoft a fair shake, but the devil is in the details. There is so much inconsistency and things don’t operate they way you think they should. There are a lot of “cul-de-sac” interactions, making you wonder where do I go next or how do I get back. The File menu on the new Office apps takes you to a whole different screen for some reason. The “ribbon” is such a compromised solution, as a UX designer it give me the shakes. I am sure people get used to living with the idiosyncrasies and create workarounds, but OS X is still a much more consistent and usable system (obvs IMO).

  5. Doug Aalseth - 7 years ago

    They make a good point. I understand that an OS and Apps will evolve over time. But I’ve run into more and more cases where the old rules have just been dropped. I used to be able to fiddle around and figure out how to do something. There used to be several ways to do something. More and more I find I have to Google instructions and even then the instructions are not obvious. I forget the last time I found myself saying “Oh of course, I should have known that.” Examples: iTunes which is a bloated unintuative mess so bad that I find myself not playing my music or buying as much at the iTunees store. Photos which has so many dead ends its absurd. Little things like when I click on a picture why does ESC not take my back to the main page. That’s a rediculous miss. Sure I can hit the back arrow but I shouldn’t have to. ESC always used to take you back up a level. That’s been common since MacOS-6. But it’s gone now.
    No, Apple has abandoned a lot of the interface standards that built the company and it’s really too bad.

    • Fair points. It seems common knowledge about how terrible iTunes is. It’s like everyone except Apple knows. Photos is v1, so while I am personally not giving it a pass, I hope that some of the issues will be smoothed out as it is definitely a step in the right direction compared to iPhoto. I think OS X has evolved in a good way, though. Maybe I am in the minority, but to me it works better than it ever has.

      • rogifan - 7 years ago

        No you’re not in the minority. It’s just fashionable for people to pile on. Of course the Verge is pimping this story even though they published an article in 2012 titled ‘it’s always 73 and sunny in cupertino’ criticizing iOS for being stale. What I find amazing is articles like this come out and everyone in the tech press goes ‘yeah spot on’ yet every Apple device they review gets the highest marks. The Verge gave the 6S and 6S Plus 9.0 rating in their review. They gave the iPad Pro an 8.7. Many tech sites praised 3D Touch and wanting it to do more. They also praised slide over, split view and PIP (while knowledge and there are additional areas for improvement). Now an article like this comes out and all these things are no longer great but unnecessary levels of complexity. The way people jump on anti-Apple bandwagons is incredible. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by it by now.

      • Jassi Sikand - 7 years ago

        Personally, I don’t think iTunes is bloated. I think it’s organization could be redone, but iTunes wouldn’t work if it wasn’t what it is.

  6. Kira Kinski - 7 years ago

    Norman and Tognazzini are spot on with their analysis. Those that cannot see that just don’t get it, and that’s understandable given that the Mac languished for years in spite of its superior interface. The principles of the original HIG were sound but in no way suggest they could not evolve. What Norman and Tognazzini are speaking of are ways in which the interface is devolving, making Apple products less user friendly. It’s wrong anytime a user has to Google a basic feature just to use it, and I find myself doing that more and more with each “new and improved” OS.

  7. I largely agree with the critiques of iOS. There are so many UI issues that it’s difficult to know where to start. I would say that some of their more complex apps have suffered greatly. The new Music app is absolutely horrible (as has been pointed out by many, many people). I think the new SF font is a marked improvement over Helvetica Neue, much more readable and Apple does provide a plethora of ways to adjust the readability to the user’s liking. They really need to do a better job communicating that. The UI of iOS could use a major overhaul, not in the aesthetics department, but usability. There are way to many compromises propping up old metaphors creaking under the weight of new levels of complexity.

    • rogifan - 7 years ago

      The music app is horrible because it’s trying to do to many things. That’s not an issue with Apple’s HIG it’s an issue eith Eddy Cue or whomever is in charge of Apple Music not saying no and adding every feature under the sun. I would hate to be one of Apple’s UI designers on the iTunes team.

  8. Philip Machanick - 7 years ago

    Great article – I said something similar but in a lot less detail in 2013: – pretty is not good design.

  9. Seth Lewin (@sethlewin) - 7 years ago

    I moved from Snow Leopard to Yosemite because I needed to run current software – mostly iTunes to enable updating my various iOS devices – and after a few days’ use of Yosemite can find little if anything to say in its favor. It thwarts me at almost every turn, right down to the behavior of windows and folders. After 27 years of Macs I’d entertain an alternative if there were anything better. Mountain Lion was OK, more or less, then it’s been off the cliff with the UI in Yosemite as far as I’m concerned. Snow Leopard was all OS X should be – stable, reliable, flexible and didn’t look like a kid’s idea of what a UI should look like.

  10. skellener - 7 years ago

    I miss NeXTSTEP. That had a wonderful UI that was adhered to very well by all the developers. Everything in it worked as expected. I really can’t stand what has happened to the UI since Yosemite and what Jonny Ive has done to the look. Get him out of software please. Every item in both Mac OS X and iOS is a damn mystery and I really hate it…. Apple software has been sliding down hill for awhile now. I really hope they break with what they are doing very soon and bring back usability and consistency. It’s a mess right now IMHO.


Avatar for Ben Lovejoy Ben Lovejoy

Ben Lovejoy is a British technology writer and EU Editor for 9to5Mac. He’s known for his op-eds and diary pieces, exploring his experience of Apple products over time, for a more rounded review. He also writes fiction, with two technothriller novels, a couple of SF shorts and a rom-com!

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