On Form Following Function and iOS 7

Jared Sinclair makes a case that iOS 7, design-wise, values form more than function:

We’ve all heard the old design adage that “form follows function.” Those of us who make apps for a living have heard it so many times that it’s easy to ignore it as trite. In reality it is very difficult to adhere to that principle. It is difficult because separating form from function is a messy exercise. It must be done delicately, and with respect for what our users think and feel.

On iOS, putting function before form is not as simple as paring down icons to a strict grid and color palette. There are functions beyond literal communication that iOS designers must balance. Making icons warm and inviting serves many deeper purposes. It builds your confidence in the device. It makes you feel in control. It sets your mind and thumbs at ease. It communicates through feeling and memory, and when done well, resonates with human experience in a way that PCs never could.

I keep banging this drum, but iOS 7 is, in so many ways, worse than 6 from an accessibility point of view. For all Jony Ive’s flowery talk of “clarity” and “deference” and Craig Federighi’s jokes at the lack of wood and green felt, iOS 7 feels like Apple went too far in the opposite direction. In other words, there’s too much clarity and too much deference.

A comment like this is a bad, albeit isolated, sign. If even the normal-sighted like Jared (among others) are expressing their displeasure with Apple’s design choices for iOS 7, then one can only imagine what a visually impaired user like myself feels. While my vision is relatively better than those with worse acuity problems, I still have my share of struggles. It’s unreasonable to expect Apple to be all things to all people, but many of the choices they’ve made in 7 are just plain bad for visually impaired users, and no amount of Accessibility features are going to be able to compensate fully for the inherent badness of the interface.

In this context, then, iOS 7 epitomizes “form over function”. UI designers can bitch all they want about skeuomorphism, but from an accessibility perspective, iOS 6 was absolutely better than 7 in many respects: better buttons, better toolbars, better icons, and so on. My hope is Apple addresses some of these concerns in iOS 8, but it’s fair to say that iOS 7 is more two steps back than two steps ahead user interface-wise, especially for us users who don’t see as well.