On How Apple is Giving Design a Bad Name”

Thanks to Richard Banks for point­ing me towards this piece pub­lished on Fast Com­pany’s site by Don Nor­man and Bruce Tognazzini (Tog):

The art­icle is a hard hit­ting cri­tique of Apple’s cur­rent design philo­sophy. More than this, though, the two long time inter­ac­tion design gurus set out a clear pro­ject for design, one that they see Apple hav­ing been instru­ment­al in but now devi­at­ing from. Their gen­er­al argu­ment is, on the face of it, pretty con­vin­cing. Yet dig­ging a little deep­er it’s one that I have prob­lems with. This post is really an effort to sort things out in my own mind.

I think, out­wardly, at least, Nor­man and Tog have a point about Apple doing a dis­ser­vice to design. Cer­tainly, in their mar­ket­ing and stores, they are put­ting a lot of emphas­is on visu­al aes­thet­ic and phys­ic­al form. As Nor­man and Tog say, this con­veys a mes­sage that the busi­ness of design (and how it is being widely pro­moted by Apple) is all about mak­ing things pretty. I am fairly con­fid­ent though that Apple’s design­ers would make a strong case for put­ting metic­u­lous effort into inter­ac­tion cues, and visu­al (and tact­ile) feed­back — that is, in think­ing care­fully about the ensemble of product/interaction design. I’ve read inter­views with Apple’s design­ers say­ing just this and heard Ive talk­ing about the painstak­ing efforts to con­vey inter­ac­tion­al qual­it­ies through anim­a­tion, touch, tactil­ity, etc. Wheth­er they’ve made good choices or not is, I’d say, anoth­er mat­ter.

Again, I also recog­nise that Nor­man and Tog have some very clear and con­vin­cing argu­ments for the kind of inter­ac­tion design they pros­elyt­ise. I worry though that they are part of the old guard that sees some of the ori­gin­al solu­tions’ to the prob­lems they them­selves created/defined as the best ones (for example, what they see to be ).

Mac OS Menus

If we were to take this ref­er­ence — indeed rev­er­ence — to Apple’s past design at face value, we would be led to ima­gine that none of us had prob­lems with using earli­er ver­sions of Mac OS. Well, of course we did. I nev­er really got on with Apple’s ori­gin­al bit­map Chica­go font, the open/save dia­logues were notori­ously con­fus­ing, and we’re still left with the leg­acy of a very awk­ward solu­tion for eject­ing media.

Mac OS Open dialogue

More import­antly, there is a sense of the authors mis­judging the chan­ging ways we have come to think about com­put­ing and use com­puters. In fact, I think many people don’t think they’re using com­puters any­more — at least in how we under­stood them in the 80s/90s as pro­ductiv­ity machines. Our phones and tab­lets are much more enter­tain­ment devices (devices of con­sump­tion), not so far from a gam­ing exper­i­ence in which many will know things like dis­cov­er­ab­il­ity, feed­back, map­ping, and the abil­ity to undo are just not cast in the same mould. Of course, the kinds of design cri­ter­ia Nor­man and Tog talk about are import­ant and I, for one, sorely miss them when I try to use Word, Excel, etc. on a iPad. But in the world of iOS, where the forms of use are so very dif­fer­ent, I think the issues mani­fest them­selves dif­fer­ently and demand a dif­fer­ent kind of atten­tion (one that Nor­man and Tog choose not to see or per­haps not to under­stand).

What par­tic­u­larly interests me about this is that I think we need to recog­nise that what good usab­il­ity is and, to some extent, what good design is are things we in a sense man­u­fac­ture’ through the tech­no­lo­gies we pro­duce and design. Tog and Nor­man under­stand good design guidelines as stat­ic, some­thing some­how unchan­ging, irre­spect­ive of everything else that is chan­ging. By talk­ing about basic psy­cho­lo­gic­al prin­ciples” they indic­ate an obdur­acy to what good design might be, but fail to recog­nise that this is deeply bound to the con­tinu­ously chan­ging mater­i­al prac­tices we are enabling through com­put­ing’. They write: prin­ciples reflect the needs, desires, and abil­it­ies of human beings, not the machines they use.”

The trouble is our needs, desires and abil­it­ies are inex­or­ably entangled with mat­ter, mat­ter like machines. The qual­it­ies of being human can­’t in some way exist out­side of these entan­gle­ments. Of course, there is much to be gained by look­ing back to design­ers like Dieter Rams, but I think what we’re doing when we do this his­tor­icising is rework­ing old con­cepts into con­tem­por­ary moments, under­tak­ing a trans­la­tion work to make these mean­ing­ful for the assem­blies of things and people we are deal­ing with today. So, to me, the guidelines Nor­man and Tog speak of make most sense for the machines that they played a role in engin­eer­ing and build­ing. A prin­ciple of con­sist­ency has a very par­tic­u­lar mean­ing for the early Mac OS that, I feel, does­n’t trans­late in any straight­for­ward way to con­tem­por­ary oper­at­ing sys­tems and eco­lo­gies of apps, etc. What Tog and Nor­man miss, I think, is that we are always giv­ing shape to new and dif­fer­ent pos­sib­il­it­ies of good design through the things we cre­ate. As com­put­ing has diverged from the Macin­tosh (and PC), we have cre­ated logics and rationales that present fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent kinds of inter­ac­tion where it doesn’t always make sense to rigidly apply past prin­ciples.

Even though Tog and Nor­man plead for us not to, yes, let’s take the pop­ular­ity of the iPad amongst — for lack of a bet­ter cat­egory descrip­tion — retir­ees (or grand­par­ents’ if you like). I know I’m not alone in being struck by how people from my par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion can get so intim­ately attached to their iPads. I think we have to ask what’s going on here and not brush aside what is vis­ibly a genu­ine intim­acy by simply cri­ti­cising some spe­cif­ic user inter­face fea­tures based on the design of tra­di­tion­al com­puters”. And this is meant as more than the hack­neyed could my moth­er use it” kind of point. Really, what’s going on here? Of course, there are prob­ably plenty of reas­ons for the iPad’s appeal (and I don’t mean to over­look a lot of the really dif­fi­cult and frus­trat­ing aspects of using them), but I think we’re wit­ness­ing a dif­fer­ent set of expect­a­tions around com­put­ing and the rela­tion­ships we form with machines. This seems to be some­thing Nor­man and Tog don’t want to acknow­ledge (des­pite Nor­man’s efforts to under­stand ). 

As I see it, the iOS aims to reveal (and make dis­cov­er­able) a dif­fer­ent set of qual­it­ies that appeal in dif­fer­ent sorts of ways and that fit with­in a logic of port­able and touch enabled devices in the way the Mac OS does­n’t (and should­n’t). In the ori­gin­al design of the Mac, choices also needed to made about what was imme­di­ately dis­cov­er­able and what would be bur­ied under the menu archi­tec­ture and in obscure dia­logues (remem­ber the Chooser?), and this presen­ted a par­tic­u­lar kind of logic-of-use. With the iOS, I think (inten­tion­ally or not) a dif­fer­ent kind of exper­i­ence is sur­faced by the decisions to reveal and hide inter­ac­tion­al cap­ab­il­it­ies, and the logic-of-use here is fun­da­ment­ally dif­fer­ent; I feel like the iPad, etc. is much more about the feel for con­tent (and to some extent, cre­ation). So per­haps it’s this that makes the devices so appeal­ing and that many of us, includ­ing my par­ents, get so attached to.

Mac OS Chooser

Finally, I should say that I am a long time Mac user but I feel wed­ded to Macs (and the Apple eco­sys­tem’), for now at least, because that’s what I’ve bought into and am used to using. I’m really not sure wheth­er Apple’s inter­ac­tion design is espe­cially bet­ter than any­one else’s and I think there are lots of things that con­fuse and frus­trate me about their vari­ous oper­at­ing sys­tems. This post isn’t one defend­ing Apple’s design, but more a response to what I see as Don Nor­man’s and Bruce Tognazzin­i’s views on design.

Image from The Apple Museum
Image from The Apple Museum
Image from The Apple Museum

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