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.