Is Apple putting style over substance?

Anthony Caruana
13 November, 2015
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Apple Watch, apple, fashion, macworld australiaAs the editor of Macworld Australia I receive a lot of email from readers asking questions, making comments and sharing various points of view. And I read forum comments (of which there are fewer unfortunately). Over recent months something has become apparent to me.

Many of you are less than happy with Apple’s direction when it comes to the user experience.

These comments manifest in a couple of different ways. Some of you lament product quality, particularly with software that many feel is released prematurely and with more bugs than ever before.

That’s something I wrote about a few weeks ago when iOS users faced three software updates in a fortnight (see iOS 9.0.2 is out – feeling like a beta tester).

But some others have noted that Apple’s much heralded usability has taken a beating. With a focus on simplicity and subtlety Apple has been throwing away the ‘good design baby’ with with the ‘clutter free water’.

Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini have written a long, detailed but excellent article about how Apple is giving design a bad name. They cite a number of examples where Apple’s attention on creating elegant and clutter free interfaces is getting in the way of functionality.

Among the examples they discuss are the font styles that are used.

“Apple has, in striving for beauty, created fonts that are so small or thin, coupled with low contrast, that they are difficult or impossible for many people with normal vision to read.”

As I’m approaching my 50th year on this planet, I am finding it a little harder to read some text, particularly finer fonts. Norman and Tognazzini note that they have friends who have to use iOS’s accessibility functions to increase font size and contrast. As a result, Apple’s desire for interface elegance is bypassed.

The authors make mention of several other issues (some of which have been addressed since they did their research).

One of the challenges I’ve faced comes from Apple’s newest evolution in software design – 3D Touch. When we first started using multi-touch interfaces, things were pretty intuitive. All we had to do was tap, tap-hold, pinch and swipe. And we could usually tell which was the right action based on the what we were doing – or the context we were in.

But now we add Peek and Pop to the equation. If you were a new iOS user would you have any clue as to which gesture out of tap, tap-hold, Peek or Pop was the right one to use?

According to the authors, Apple has relegated important principles such as discoverability (the ability to easily discover how an application works), recoverability (the ability to go back a step if you make an error), feedback (a response to an action) and feedforward (the ability to anticipate what will happen if you do something in an application) in favour of hiding anything that might clutter the interface – like a button that makes an application easy to use.

My favourite example of this, and one that Norman and Tognazzini note, is the ‘Undo’ command.

In most applications, Undo is represented by a curved arrow pointing to the left. On the iPhone, Undo, if software developers decide to use the option, is achieved by vigourously shaking the device.

Think about your computing experience over the last two decades or so. At what point were you taught that shaking a computer was a good thing? This command is counterintuitive.

Furthermore, if it doesn’t work, how do you know if you’ve shaken hard enough or if the option is supported by the application developer?

Even useful tools, such as the ability to create a RAID array in OS X, have been removed for the sake of simplicity. The ability to do what used to be a few clicks of the mouse is still there – replaced with a bunch of Terminal commands.

In simplifying an application – Disk Utility in this case – Apple has made life harder for some users.

In my view, the simplification of user interfaces is a good thing. But it can go too far. I feel things have tipped a little too far.


18 people were compelled to have their say. We encourage you to do the same..

  1. Belinda Stevenson says:

    Well I am befuddled. I am new to Apple (just over a year). Thought it was just me, but two other people when trying to sync via USB or when trying to just charge get a high tone constantly and screen flashing, with i-tunes saying “device not connected.”
    I believed my lead was faulty, until two other’s mentioned similar problem.

  2. Hew says:

    The classic case of supposed simplicity getting in the way of functionality has to be “Photos” over “iPhoto”. I have a big screen on my iMac, I don’t need that dumbed down to the functionality of an iPhone.
    Here’s some of the things you can’t do in “Photos”, and by the way the Apple geniuses couldn’t find a way to do these things that are practical and every day useful.
    1. Batch change titles
    2. Batch change or even just insert descriptions (Command-shift-B)
    3. Easily flag / unflag photos (Command-.) (there is a stupid heart icon that you have to click to get into a “favourites” folder)
    4. Delete unused folders (not photos) easily, you now have to use right-click mouse button only.
    5. Show geotags
    6. Modify geo-tags
    7. Change sort dates to most recent is on top
    8. Trim video’s.
    9. Photostream has disappeared. (very useful for those crap photos on your iPhone that you don’t want to import)
    10. I DON’T want to put 55,000 photos into iCloud and pay for extra space FOREVER??
    11. “Description” has disappeared (key words are NO substitute)
    12. “Places” has disappeared.
    13. “Events” have disappeared.
    14. I can’t even delete the Photos app.
    15. 3rd party apps. can’t access or change metadata so you can’t put in descriptions, geotags, etc anyway.
    Finally, even the name is simply dumb. A search for “Photos” finds all sorts of stuff whereas iPhoto is relatively unique.

  3. Andy Burton says:

    And how about the dumbing-down of Aperture (and presumably its eventual demise) in the guise of Photos. As far as it goes Photos is OK, but it doesn’t go very far.

    Aperture was a brilliant piece of software. When will someone replicate it?

  4. Gerd says:

    Anthony, you are so correct.
    In their quest to make MacOS the same as IOS Apple has lost sight of the fact that you do different things on a desktop/laptop than on an iPad. Therefore you need two distinct operations systems.
    In my business an iPad is nothing but a nice toy. Starting with a lack of communication abilities (i.e. only one way to use VPN, etc) to the lack of screen real estate, business wise, I cannot do anything with an iPad.
    By reducing the ability to do things quickly and efficiently on a desktop, Apple is repelling a large portion of their loyal customers.

  5. Rod says:

    Totally agree with Anthony. Apple’s IOS devices are still very easy to use for simple things but as their functionality has grown the User Interface has kind of gone down a different path that makes it harder and harder to use that advanced functionality. A sign generally of a system that isn’t maturing.

    And because new versions of IOS are force downloaded (in secret) to our devices (whenever on charge and WiFi) the ridiculous 9.0, 9.0.1 & 9.0.2 downloads all in one week overloaded our home internet limit and shut our broadband down; all because immaturity led to problems led to 3 forced downloads led to no functionality (in my household). Ouch!

    I worry where OS X might head.

  6. Hedware says:

    Andrew – I absolutely agree with the line of your story and of that by Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini. Apple iOS and XOS software have definitely become poorer in features and usability. Take iTunes – it has become worse if that is possible. I thought each version was to be an improvement on the last, but that is not happening with Apple software.

    Take the new inability to partition RAID drives with Disk Utility – it is obvious that Apple needs to start doing some user surveys to discover what we want in the way of software. Ive doesn’t have his finger on the pulse.

    Maps – how do you change the language again? Just not intuitive any more.

    iCloud – what a mess. Apple needs to come out of its ivory tower and realise that we dont have fast, cheap, reliable and fat internet services as they obviously have at Cupertino.

  7. Peter Mackinlay says:

    Thanks for the link to this article Anthony. A great (tho’ fairly lengthy) read, but hits the mark. Functionality is the prime factor in design of tools and aesthetics should reinforce it, not detract from it. Beauty without function is mere ornament.

  8. Jamie says:

    Totally agree Anthony, I’ve been saying it for a while now. Form over function is Apples new mantra and the apparent lack of bug testing in software now has driven me away from my Mac and making me regret buying my (over priced) iPhone 6.

  9. Dlanor says:

    I agree totally. What I originally liked about iOS was that it was clear, and required no training to use. That’s no longer true.
    Also as an example of usability, I use my phone to time my walks. The stop watch on my old iPod, is easy to use (v6) because of the large characters and good contrast, which helps because I don’t walk with my reading glasses. Not only did they reduce the readability, but on v9 they swapped the start and reset buttons, which when they are unclear became a problem.
    I could go on, but I think you get the point.

  10. Paul says:

    Reading this article makes me think of the new Apple TV. all the adds made out the Siri search function to be an awesome time saver navigating to the content you desire and searching multiple sources to provide results.

    Sounds great. You can guess my surprise that whenever I search for content that I own and have downloaded to iTunes Siri does not find it. Turns out Siri only searches for items you would stream, rather than items you have on your local machines, that don’t require any streaming. My kids watch their shows over and over again, seems a waste of my data allowance to stream it every time. It also assumes your connection is capable of live streaming movies, which mine is challenged to do in peak times.

    Feels like style over substance to me

  11. Doug Grinbergs says:

    Thank you for acknowledging the article and adding feedback shared by users and your own observations. I believe the emperor – alas, in full Reality Distortion mode (:-( (;-) – is enjoying his new clothes and simply refuses to consider *our* alternate (but very real) universe. (:-( Even among the secret and forgettable “Easter egg” OS interface, as I like to call it, shake to undo seems beyond nutty. (:-(

  12. Lindsay Cameron says:

    Totally agree that Apple has been heading in the wrong direction for some time now. While efforts to decisively enter new product segments are to be applauded, the dumbing down or abandonment of previously excellent software is very shortsighted. I doubt Apple realises the enmity it has created by the abandonment of Aperture in favour of of Photos. Photographs are emotional investments and are often the single most important thing on millions of user’s computers. Calculate the billions of man-hours spent by users adjusting and cataloguing these collections of photographs and then realise that Apple, in one stroke, completely trashed all this creative work. There is simply nothing else out there that comes anywhere near doing the job that Aperture, with all its minor faults, once did. Photos is fine on an IOS device but is a joke as a replacement for Aperture or even iPhoto. Like many once loyal Apple users (and vocal opinion shapers influencing others to go the Apple route), I now regret my decisions and actively seek alternatives to Apple hardware whenever I can. Abandoning loyal users is a double-edged sword Apple!

  13. Andy says:

    Yep, yep, yep!

    Phones = play, desktop = work. I have been against all this dumbing down since 10.7 and am sulking resolutely on 10.6.8. I have installed later systems on the kids laptops and even they grizzle about wanting to go back to 10.6.8. There are a few applications I can no longer update so I was about to bite the bullet – but on reading that RAID is gone (seriously does anyone in this day and age NOT use at least RAID 1 ?!?) I have just dodged that bullet – Thanks!

    I too have looked for years at moving to linux at the expense of leaving behind what I feel (10.6.8) is a highly usable and productive *nix OS that is great for kids, casual users and bearded sandal wearing FORTRAN coders alike – but unless Barebones release a linux version of bbedit or Apple decides that they want their desktops to be used by grown ups for serious work and offer a ‘this is not a toy’ pro version of the OS I guess I will have to build a 10.6.8 based hackintosh… (Apple user since the IIe)

  14. Geoffrey Luck says:

    Apple is on a path to destruction. Just as Microsoft was years ago when it insulted and betrayed its users by refusing to provide back-compatibility in the name of progress.
    I intered the APPle world in the early 2000s with OSX 10-1 so I never had the problems of OSX-9 or transitioning from it. At first it was a marvelklous escape from the MS PC world – so clean and easy and with such great forum support from Mac enthusiasts.
    But as time went by, the Apple tools were peeled away – Firewire, DC/DVD drives etc and we were told to suck it! The iPad waslaunched with an incompatible, non-printable, non-connectable system, and since then, OSX has apparently been manicured to be more like IOS. Well I’ve been staying with OSX 01.6.8 because I don’t trust anything Apple does any more. I wwon’g subject myself to the problem of trying to fix compatibility with all my worling applications or paying heaps to upgrade them for no reason.
    And boy! Am I glad I never touched Aperture! Early versions of iPhoto and iMovie were simple but genius programmes and I still run them, but I have always chosen Lightroom as the best and enduring programme for photo management and archiving.
    Apple is just going the way of all companies that believe in programmed obsolescence. My plan has been to hang on to a working bug-free development level and refuse to be coaxed into the future expense of confusion, orphans and learning again.

  15. Simon says:

    If you are looking for examples of where simplifying the interface has caused all sorts of problems you only have to look as far as the “Save as” command! What used to be a simple operation is now a tedious mess that still leaves your original file altered because it auto saved over the top of your original work. Save as just does my head in why it has become so complicated and the fact that you even have to think about it before you start work instead of at the point when you want to save.

    I must admit I’m finding Windows 10 more and more attractive these days unfortunately. Those new surface books and Dells XPS range just look so nice compared to a MacBook too. Sad really Apple even seems to have lost the lead on hardware.

  16. Rich says:

    When my old Mac blew up I switched back to PC – and happily so. The Mac experience was becoming less and less the elegant, problem-free experience that it once was. The PC is pretty rubbish and troublesome, but not so much different from the Mac experience now, and once it’s all working it’s OK, plus the advantages of PC compatibility with Office, projectors, USB, etc… and lower price. My wife still has a Mac, chosen for its ease of use, but is increasingly finding it hard to use. I doubt we’ll be able to justify the cost premium for Mac again when time comes to replace it.

  17. Tom Danby says:

    I have used macs for 16 years – and I wish they would include a expert setting option. I can see the advantages of sync and cloud but why can we not “un-select” them.
    I have not personally upgraded past 10.7.5, and left my office machines on 10.6 to preserve the localised behaviour.
    I like macs as I can train up new staff in half a day. And they are bullet proof, but the new features are too confusing to low level IT staff – ?versions of documents, ?every audio file ends up in itunes, ?safari only updates with a full OS upgrade… no thanks.

  18. Judy says:

    Have to agree. In fact I had to visit Apple to sort out my Photos last week and commented to my helpful Apple person that it seemed to me that Apple now expects more professional-style ability from users and less intuitive learning and use. Recently bought the new Apple TV and am less than impressed (with Siri and general Settings) but do appreciate a better remote. Function first. That is what brought me to Apple products, and what, like others, I still want.

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