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By now you've probably already decided whether or not to upgrade your existing iPhone operating system to the largely divisive iOS7, released approximately four weeks ago.

Perhaps some of you automatically uploaded on the day of release without question, perhaps some of you more cautious cats waited to see what the general consensus was from the early adopters before uploading.

If you were anything like me, an iPhone 4 user - the shelf-life of which was becoming quickly terminal - who read thousands of comments (ranging from histrionically aggrieved to deific praise) and decided they had nothing left to lose, so took the plunge anyway.

Although we have looked at iOS7 in terms of opportunities for enterprise organisations, we have yet to discuss the user experience of iOS7, so after a month of the new operating system being released in the wild and with the Nielsen Norman Group publishing its own user experience appraisal today, now seems the right time to do just that.

Flat design

I learnt a new term last week thanks to my learned colleagues: skeuomorphism - the practise of making something artificial appear real.

Although the practise of skeuomorphism goes back to the ornamental overkill of the 19th century, the prime modern example of this is the iPhone’s yellow papered, ring bound Notes app and the rickety bookcase aping Newsstand app.

Apple has now thrown this aesthetic into their cartoonish representation of a wastepaper basket.

This turning away from 3D semi-realism, also seen in Android and Windows 8, may indeed be a fad, however Apple has embraced it with gusto. But what does this mean for the user?

From a design point of view, personally I think it’s really quite beautiful. I’ve been interacting with the digital world for half my life now, I don’t need the patronising comfort of a button on a digital screen to look exactly like a button in the real world.

The faster we consumers get used to this, the faster digital design can move forward.

However, as Nielsen point out in their appraisal, within flat design there is a tendency for buttons to disappear into the background, forming a seamless wall that can leave the user bewildered and frustrated that they can’t find functions that, although do exist, are not clearly defined, especially if they don’t have any previous iOS experience.

iOS7 is rather hit and miss here. Most of the apps indicate clear tappability; anything blue indicates a function that will take you away from the page (much like a blue link on a website) and red invariably means delete or change a feature.

However, as you can see in this screenshot, there are many different colours showing actionable text

This severely impedes your ability to learn what these colours mean as there’s no consistency throughout the rest of the operating system.

New icons

Nielsen suggests that changing something that people have gotten used to is a very bad thing. Apple has "demolished millions of hours of user learning” just by changing the icons.

Here you can see the difference between the iOS6 photos icon and the iOS7 one.

This is all tied into Apple’s journey away from skeuomorphic design. I feel that retaining the semi-realistic icons would contrast jarringly with the flat user interface Apple has engineered throughout iOS7.

The new icons are effective; simple and clearly defined. I don’t think it takes any user more than a few seconds to get used to the new icons, and frankly if you’re appalled by the new design, you’ve probably hitched your wagon to the wrong horse.

Swipe ambiguity: home screen

Swipe ambiguity quite simply refers to the ability to swipe different parts of the screen in various directions to yield different results. 

For instance, swiping upwards from bottom centre reveals a brand new Control Centre, where some general settings can be found grouped together – brightness, airplane mode, basic iTunes controls and a handy torch function that utilises the camera flash by merely leaving it on.

Swiping vertically downwards from the top of the home screen reveals the Notification Centre (calendar, weather and my iPhone’s most ignored information service – stocks) as normal.

The major change though is how you get to Search iPhone. You no longer swipe to the right, now you swipe vertically down from a point slightly below the Notification Centre.

Mastering this has been a frustrating trial. Trying to search your iPhone and not accidentally opening the Notification Centre is pretty much impossible, especially with these less than nimble fingers.

Even more gallingly, swiping right on the homescreen now does absolutely nothing.

Swipe ambiguity: Safari

There are other problems with swipe ambiguity outside of the home screen, especially within Safari. 

I'll start with the positives: I’ve been frustrated with the previous operating system’s unintuitive internet browser – why can’t you swipe back and forth through web-pages like you can pages on the home page? Well now you can.

Swiping to the right takes you forward a page, swiping to left takes you back.

Nielsen has pointed out however that if a webpage contains a carousel function you are more than likely to swipe straight past the carousel page and back to the previous page, such is the functionality of carousels on mobile (swiping left and right to move the carousel back and forth). 

As Nielsen also ironically demonstrates, Apple itself will be the worst affected, as its homepage contains a large carousel advertising the iPhone 5, which you can very easily shoot straight past.

It’s at this point that I realise the intuitiveness I was craving is in actuality quite flawed, and would be far better served by a single back button.

Another negative within Safari is the ease with which you can accidentally draw up the Control Centre from the homepage, when you actually meant to just scroll casually up a webpage.

Apparently it is possible to disable this function within settings, but I certainly wouldn’t have assumed this, and it really should be an opt-in setting rather than opt-out.

Calendar

I may be on my own here, but my least favourite improvement in iOS7 is the new iPhone calendar. It’s a work of minimalism over function. It’s so white it barely exists.

Frustratingly the swipe back and forth rules do not apply here, as they do within Safari now. You can’t swipe left or right to go back and forth through the months, instead you have to scroll downwards, with no clear indication as to how you get back to the current month with a single tap.

The natural assumption is to tap the red back button on the top left, but this merely takes you to a year view. I have only just noticed, after three weeks, that there is a ‘today’ button at the bottom left.

Equally I’ve only just noticed the add an event option is a tiny, light red + in the top right.

Tapping Calendars reveals a plethora of options without any clear indication of function or how to operate them.

Do you tap the ticks? Do you tap the text? The text is black so you would assume not. There’s also information buttons and a single slider button at the bottom.

It’s a confusing array of widgets that seems thrown together thoughtlessly from multiple previous operating systems.

The positives

Although I’ve tried to give balance to the above appraisals, I do feel there is a leaning towards the negative. 

I’ll reiterate that the aesthetic is wonderful. iOS7 is a bold step into the future for Apple and reveals a reinvigorated vitality for its design team.

Nielsen also counters its criticisms with the following plus points: 

  • The hiding of browser controls in Safari gains the webpage many more useful pixels of space.
  • Apps can now update in the background, and you don’t have to wait for the data to refresh when you open the app.
  • Settings are more streamlined.
  • Unlimited files can be stored in a folder and you now have global font-size control.

The criticisms above are minor niggles. Nothing fundamentally flawed, just teething problems.

The existence of iOS7 in its current state shows a dynamic new vision for the way we interact with a digital product, and shows digital design's confidence in separating from the real world in order to exist on its own terms.

Christopher Ratcliff

Published 14 October, 2013 by Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff is the editor of Methods Unsound. He was the Deputy Editor of Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via Google+ and LinkedIn

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Comments (12)

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Pritesh Patel

You missed the date selector facility. https://www.evernote.com/shard/s73/sh/707b75ee-8fcf-49c0-bb9a-86221a2722a5/5f084fc73a9c05a2162d2d262d464ba7

I like the 'fat finger' friendly version.

about 3 years ago

Christopher Ratcliff

Christopher Ratcliff, Editor at Methods Unsound / Search Engine Watch

Yeah you're dead right. I was struggling with that only a couple of days ago.

about 3 years ago

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Joachim Farncombe

I think the designers of the windows phone OS will be justifiably annoyed that their clean, authentic design has been eclipsed by iOS7.

about 3 years ago

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Tony

I think this shows just how much influence Steve Jobs had on the design and usability of the operating systems. I can see him throwing a phone at an engineer screaming "I can't use this f***ing thing. Fix it."

about 3 years ago

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ED M

ios7 is ABSOLUTELY TERRIBLE! Is there any way to go back to ios6. If not we will be forced to do something we never thought possible, dumping our iPhones and moving to Samsung Android phones and a 10.1 tablet.

about 3 years ago

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Irma

ios7 is Horrible. I want to go back to IOS6 or switch to an Android.

about 3 years ago

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warburtont

Great notes..

I must say that the Photo example is the perfect example of the 1000's of hours spent learning something. The fact is I have bloody well learned it! Worse, I cannot believe how uninterested I am in learning another new icon for something. I just DON'T CARE. I want to look at the photo's now - Since I can't remember the new icon, it now requires more steps - ie - double click and then slide to the recent usage of Photo's since that will require looking at just one row and I am sure I used it recently -

OK - what about music? How easy was it to slide right and there it was.
Now it's like "try , try Try, TRy, TRY, again to get the ridiculous control pad to come up!!

How about search? How dumb is that? Cool idea - Sure.. But try using it - maybe 3, or 4 or 5 swipes before the search come down rather than the seemingly ever present recent messages - Before one could reliably swipe right and bingo bango look up what one wanted.

Which brings me to the single search and URL box cited by all as a step forward. Sorry - What utter nonsense. Yes it works. but the page one is looking at is lost - if one is trying to spell something that is on the page - you can no longer look at it at the same time.

It's essentially as if the designers have gotten hold of the code instead of engineers and users. - Always a disaster - When I want to go to a movie - I watch it - When I want to do something I expect smart people who actually will use it for its utilitarian value to have final say so.

My sense is I have lost many seconds per use as I try to make something work that was easy before, now harder.
Where is JOBS when we really need him??

about 3 years ago

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Apple ***hole

My advise is don't ever buy anything from Apple products from now on because none of their products represents reasonable value for money ... And if you must buy one, DON'T EVER UPDATE OR UPGRADE SOFTWARE such as their infamous IOS6 and now the disastrous IOS7, which is designed to fail some of the older hardware ... my family suffers two casualties so far.
Please note I say "some", not all. Why ? Because they'd have to face massive class action lawsuit if they do design something to kill all the oldies at once, theoretically speaking.
I am leaving Apple until they change their business ethics ... Bye.

about 3 years ago

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Xmasterblue

I honestly don't understand why do people have so much frustration about the IOS7. Being flat is the new mantra of design..and they just followed it. See microsoft logos...see Google.. Are all those designers dumbasses? And for people who gets their butt hot regarding the new icons, learn it. Learn the new software.. learn the design. learn how to use. A change is always good and always welcome. It's just about knowing how to use your fingers. The new control pannel...the new search...everything is just fine.
I don't bother about what they have brought. I just care about the stuffs that they could have brought....like siri which doesn't need a home button long press.

about 3 years ago

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David

I was hesitant to install the new iOS7 update simply because of how hideous everyone's screenshots looked. Replace that barf-inducing light blue / purple gradient background with a decent dark contrast background and it looks great though.

I've been a iphone user since the beginning and it took me all of one day to fall in love with 90% of the update features. Pulling down notifications instead of the search bar? Pull down from the MIDDLE of the screen instead....not that hard.

Swipe away open apps is 100x better than having to HOLD down for several seconds and then trying to tap the little X to close. I can view all my open Safari tabs now, swipe old ones away, and finally store passwords!

My complaints are so minor compared to the improvements they made. I'm still not a HUGE fan of some of the icons, but no big deal, I'll just hide the ones I hate in a folder.

about 3 years ago

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Dennis

Skeuomorphism was so far ahead of its time. Of course we want computers to mimick realism. Would most of our movies today be so great without computer graphics. No! What Steve Job's team created made Apple products fly above the crowd. Nobody tried to copy it because it was already perfect, why buy a knock off. Now, unfortunately you can feel free to go shopping. In fact I'm sure there are way better products that function much better than an iproduct right now. Apple's little ego's were so rushed to get something new out to everyone including their shareholders, that they forgot to make everything function. Jony Ive was quoted as saying about his new design that he was creating order to complexity. What he actually has succeeded in is creating chaos where there was simplicity. And all because he personally didn't like Skeuomorphism. More importantly I'll bet it was because he didn't like Steve Jobs and Forstall. This is what can happen when you lose the captain of your ship and the inexperienced crew takes over or as I like to say, the inmates are now running the Asylum. Stay tuned for Aapple to ruin your lovely iMacs and MacBook Pro's. Such a shame, I always loved the look of an Apple product. Now it looks like a child's toy.

about 3 years ago

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Ian

IOS7 came just two weeks before my upgrade, so I dumped it for Galaxy S4. I never thought I'd do that, as I was an Apple Evangelist, but now I hate it. Maybe they'll get me back in two years, if they can sort out their OS. Ideally, just a downgrade feature would have kept me loyal. Either that, or truly separate theme from functionality - such that the IOS7 functionality improvements remain, but the layout themes can be changed.

about 3 years ago

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