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.

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