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Good UI Begets Great UI

With the recent updates to apps like Flipboard and Path[1] (not to mention the existing base of well-designed apps on iOS), it’s about time iOS developers are breaking away from the standard mobile app UI. They’re building own UI widgets and introducing new standards, inspiring (i.e. having others copy) other platform developers on their own platforms. Soon we’ll be seeing more interesting interactions with this new generation of apps.

It’s no simple coincidence that these innovations are almost all exclusively coming on iOS: Android lags behind (although our CTO says Ice Cream Sandwich is perfectly capable, with the right tools), desktops have had the most interesting UI custom-built for games, and web design hasn’t seen much advancement since the Web 2.0 days.

Despite the equal technical capabilities on all our modern computing platforms, Apple’s mobile efforts seems to be ahead of the game and is striving to evolve beyond established UI conventions. The question is, why iOS?

One possible answer is self-selection: since iOS has had the best system interface and has provided the best UI tools for app development, it naturally attracted designers and design-oriented developers. Once they’ve settled down to Objective C, they’ve continued to explore and prototype new ideas. While touch is still a new frontier for interface design, it’s moving quickly to break away from its desktop, mouse-based roots.

Apple also raises the bar with its own software. Sure, Siri has been the headliner for the 4S, but their designers have added new gestures, new UI widgets (e.g., the hold-enabled lists on the iPad), and lots of subtle refinements over time. Most operating systems have some form of visual refresh on each release, but since iOS versions come so quickly – five versions in less than four years now – they’ve been iterating on their own UI at a faster pace. Of course, some of their own apps (Garageband for the iPad comes to mind) are user-friendly in their own right.

But I think a big factor working in favor of iOS is the initial investment in an API that makes building good-looking apps easy. For a while, even the really good apps on the iPhone used the default list widgets, the default dock and the system toolbars. To Apple’s credit, they standardized how its apps looked and felt, but that meant the vast majority of apps on the platform looked and behaved the same way. By building something custom, this new breed of apps is looking to differentiate itself on its good looks.

And Apple is very friendly to developers looking to build great user interfaces. In addition to having the right coding tools, their HCI guidelines and best practices are almost legendary and required reading for a UI designer. By contrast, when Microsoft first announced its new Ribbon interface for its Office suite, they attempted a misguided program to license out the Ribbon UI to application developers. A few years later, and the only programs bothering with the Ribbon are Microsoft’s own.

So the next time you find yourself building a new OS or developing an app ecosystem, remember to get the default system UI right, and keep it open to your developers.

Footnotes    (↑ returns to text)

  1. And at the risk of tooting my own horn, Square.
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