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.
  • Mtiede

    Have you looked at Silverlight and Windows Phone 7?  I think they have better tools with more power while maintaining simplicity.  Sounds like your opinion is biased to what you know.

    • Alfonso J. Ramos

      I think it is a fact, that the opinion of a person is based on his experience and by extension what that person knows. If this statement is true for everybody, it means that Mtiede’s opinion is also biased by his/her knowledge. Taken this phrease comes from his/her knowledge we conclude it is biased, ergo, we can’t be sure if it holds true for everybody. Taking that into account we can drop “Sounds like” and there you go:”Your opinion is biased to what you know” — Mtiede, 2011

      A quote to remember. Mtiede’s entry to philosophy.

      Mtiede makes us remember that we can always be wrong, so, what I continue to say, maybe wrong also….

      tl;dr;

      This quote show the both the core of the methodic doubt of Descartes and an agnostic position that suggest that there are no truth’s a priori, in consecuence everything we know comes from our experience. It is worthy to contraste this with the works of Emanuel Kant, because the possiblity of opening the knowledge to a less biased opinion means that it may be possible to get a good approximation to a prexistent truth, which we would get by experience anyway. That is a thruth “a priori” about the universe but we get it a posteriori, and since we did get it a posteri we can’t be sure if it is an universal thruth or or is it just a local maxima of “unbiasness” (that is that is only true for our colective experience). While advocating to do expreiments and try thing on our behalf in order to learn more, this also means that we will never be completely certain about anything in physics and it’s derived sciences, and that any unification theory that works has the risk to be umpossible to demostrate, this something that is already common to those versed in quatum theory, theorical physics and cosmology.

      Still, must remember Descartes’ maxima “Cogito ergo sum”, “I think, therefore I am”. It is there to reminds us, that if we are capable of doubting, we are capable of thinking, and if we can think it is because we exist. And by that, it shows us that we can reason and infer things having only uncertainty to begin with.

      Put another way, all our opinions are biased on our own knowledge, and we can only get closer to the thruth by our own experience.

      It is reminicent of Confucio’s proverb:

      Tell me, I’ll forgetShow me, I’ll remember Involve me, I’ll understand

      Mtiede is telling us that trying to impose our point of view over others may be a fruitless and daunting task (not mention against local law if done by force), the best way to get it done is help the others to see things from your point of view by helping then experience what you have experienced. Of course it is not advertised to go against the will of other people, but instead to try to look things from the point of view of others allowing us to learn from them.

      However it has some others implications, it dicates that we should find our world view based on our experience, it opens to the discussion if it is ethical to expose a child to our own world view because the child may lack the needed experience to create one of his own. Then again on the practice we may want to indroduce childs to our point of view of the cosmos before they reach adolescence to make sure they will not chalenge it. Our best hope is to give them an up to date version of our understanding and be clear on what things know that we don’t know, be humble enough to understand that we don’t know everything (that is that in the end of the day, we are ignorant too, and should not be offended by that), and let them improve from that for the better of future generations and to ensure we get better science and engineering from the next generation onward.

  • Guest

    You never opened up Visual Studio, did you?

  • John

    I have worked with both Visual Studio and XCode.   Visual Studio is far superior in terms of development tools.

  • http://allenc.com Allen Cheung

    So for those who are espousing the virtues of Visual Studio, my exp. with was more the VS 2003/2005 era, when I was writing MFC and Win32 apps. And no question, as an IDE VS is probably one of the best, but I’m not talking about a coding tool – I’m talking about tools enabling design and UI, and more than just a WYSIWYG wizard/editor (otherwise, Dreamweaver would be considered a great tool). There is some genuine hype around the Metro UI, but as I said, there is already a robust community of designers who have moved to iOS.

    • Anonymous Coward

      “… there is already a robust community of designers who have moved to iOS.” – I totally agree with you, probably this is why Apple stopped producing technology and switched to the fashion industry quite some time ago.

  • b woo

    I would characterize this entire article as an example of “tail wags dog” analysis.

    What motivated developers to deal with the awkwardness of XCode and Objective-C, was the great public demand for the hardware innovations, and aesthetic qualities, and the beautiful UI of the iPhone/Pad. These are great hardware devices with elegant design and construction !

    In addition Apple is both a company, predatory and monopolistic as any other, and a unique social phenomenon that is surrounded by a “religious coterie” for whom the latest product is yet another in the series of divine incarnations originating in the original “Epiphany in the Garage” of Saints Jobs and Wozniak. Not to have the latest product, for many Apple-addicts, is … intolerable.

    This religious coterie of Apple faniacs is catered to in the media in a very special way, and any shortcomings, such as antennas that don’t work, use of near-slave labor in China, batteries that discharge too quickly, etc., are glossed over in a way that is quite special.

    I question the entire thesis of this article that the API of IOS makes developing great apps “easy.”

    • http://allenc.com Allen Cheung

      My thesis was more along the lines of “iOS makes developing good looking apps easy”, which, by a cursory comparison of iOS apps to apps on other platforms, mobile and web and desktop, holds some merit.

      Since apps are by default already pretty good, “great” app devs are forced to take it to the next level. In fact, getting there isn’t easier on iOS than any other platforms; custom UI is custom-built anywhere. That iOS has prompted this to happen on its platform is an indication it started on the right foot.

      I don’t see how Apple’s shortcomings (which there are many) have to do with great UI.

  • Phyll

    No one can apologize for some of Microsoft’s decisions, but Apple and open in the same breath, please. The “openness” of the Mac back in the 80’s is why I have such a large body of work devoted to Windows.