To Me, Design is More Than Just Pretty Pixels

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what constitutes “good” design, especially in the context of iOS 7.

I’m by no means a professional designer, so take my armchair opinions with three or four large grains of salt. But for all the hoopla surrounding the best and worst elements of iOS 7’s design, I think one area has largely been overlooked: accessibility. More specifically, how iOS 7’s overhauled user interface fits (or doesn’t fit) in the lives of visually impaired users such as myself.

Fortunately, accessibility on iOS is one topic I can speak authoritatively on.

As I mentioned earlier this week on Ben Alexander’s podcast, Pulling The String, I seem to have a love-hate relationship with iOS 7. On one hand, I love the redesign because it’s generally clean and simplified. The typography is fantastic — I’m able to read text at smaller sizes because it’s so bright and crisp — and I love the animations. On the other hand, though, I despise things like the date picker and the fact that toolbar icons are so thinly drawn, and especially that buttons are simply color-coded text labels. I miss the Look at me, I’m a button! explicitness of the iOS 6-style design. I’ve written about this several times, but suffice it to say that whatever one’s feelings about skeuomorphism, the old interface did do many things right, not the least of which make iOS more accessible to those, like me, whose eyesight thrives on high contrast and button-looking buttons. In short, the design nerd in me loves much of what Apple’s done aesthetically, but from a usability standpoint, iOS 7 is a profound step backwards. I’m fortunate insofar that my vision is relatively better than many others with vision impairments, but I still have my troubles.

I didn’t use the iOS 7 betas over the summer — my first exposure to the new OS came late with the release of the GM. But I sensed, from the moment Craig Federighi demoed it onstage at WWDC in June, that those in the accessibility community would not be happy with Apple’s chosen path for iOS. In fact, it was interesting for me to follow the comments thread for my review of iOS 7’s vision-oriented accessibility features, as most folks expressed (sometimes vehemently) a less-than-pleasant opinion of the OS’s redesign, to the point that a few wanted to downgrade to iOS 6 and/or petition Cupertino for changes. It’s a small sample, to be sure, but I think it’s a telling one. For all of Apple’s grandstanding in promoting iOS 7, this talk of “clarity” and “deference” and joking that “we completely ran out of green felt”, there’s a portion of your user base, however small, complaining that their iPhones and iPads are rendered useless because they can’t see well enough to navigate them. This should be deeply concerning to Apple, because it in a sense betrays their mantra of creating technology that’s accessible to all, regardless of technical proficiency or physical limitation.

My biggest gripe is bigger than iOS 7’s design in and of itself. Rather, I often wonder, in the moments when I curse under my breath because I struggle to see something, if Jony and Craig had actually tested this design with people like myself. Do they have an engineers or a group of people well-versed in visual accessibility on their teams who could give an honest assessment of the new look from a unique but critically important perspective? If not, did they even consider the ramifications of the new design to users like me? I know no little Cupertino birdies to prove me otherwise, but my cynic answer to those questions is a resounding “NO”. iOS 7 was designed by a bunch of very talented but nonetheless normal-sighted people who, naturally, design in, pardon the pun, their vision. The basic tenets of good design do not necessarily apply unilaterally to all types of users. What’s generally acknowledged as “good” design by the normal-sighted is not always good for the visually impaired. (Cf. my earlier point about iOS 6’s design being better in many aspects than 7’s.) I don’t think many people stop to consider that. The Accessibility features are not always enough to compensate, no matter how deep or well-designed they may be.

I don’t mean to say with this piece that iOS sucks unequivocally, or that Apple needs to scrap it all and start anew. That’s untenable. My point is simply that I wish Apple would have spent more time considering our — where by “our”, I mean “we” visually impaired folks — reaction to such a radical shift. I realize the difficulty and impracticality of being all things to all people, but it’s just very sad to hear so many people disenchanted with iOS 7, so much so that many of them are willing to forsake all the good iOS 7 offers because the interface, on a whole, just doesn’t work for them. Perhaps Apple will listen to our cries and address these issues with iOS 8 and beyond. But for now, it’s a bumpy road.