On The Minimalist Movement In UI Design At Apple

Discussion in 'macOS' started by PatrickWeisser, Jul 16, 2015.

  1. PatrickWeisser macrumors newbie


    Mar 15, 2014
    It seems there was a time when Apple UI designers consulted with experts in human psychology when designing their UI's to make them as warm and "human" as possible, emulating the interaction we have with the real world. It was more than just the skeuomorphism of implying a certain functionality by making an analogy between an icon and a common real world device - it was allowing the user to interact in a natural fashion in an interface which is an extension of the depth and texture of the natural world we as humans are most comfortable with. It was a place that was pleasant to be in, naturally increasing productivity and minimizing eye strain.

    The minimalist movement of late in user interface design abstracts interacting with our computers to the point of cognitive burden. Sure our brains can do the translation and figure out when a string of text is actually a button by context, but it's still an additional cognitive burden, and these all add up to cause subtle mental stress and fatigue. For example, it's actually less of a mental burden to understand the time displayed on an analog watch face than a digital one. That's because our minds don't have to form the mental image of how far into the current hour we are - it's already shown on the analog watch face. Determining how much time remains in the current hour requires even more mental processing with a digital display, but is still super easy with an analog clock.

    In addition to eye strain, another physiological issue from saturating our screens with white is that the blue component of the white can also cause insomnia if we use our computers close to bedtime. Studies have shown that blue light induces a waking state, while reddish-amber light prepares us for sleep. Our displays should at least favor a neutral color combination, inducing neither agitation nor sleepiness. The "white" light of our computer displays still can't come even remotely close to a white sheet of paper under natural light, so they simply shouldn't try.

    Starting with iOS 7 and Yosemite, Apple UI designers seem to have taken to minimalism like a religion, with no room for a middle ground or even a user option to bring back some of the beauty, depth, and usability of an operating system such as Snow Leopard. Aesthetics aside, it really is a usability issue for so many of us who find the light grey font atop a saturated white background in iOS 7, 8, and Yosemite to be unpleasant to use at best and simply unusable at worst. Our computers should complement our humanity, not run counter to our basic physiology and sensibilities. I guess the problem with building something like Snow Leopard is where do you go from optimal? How do you make something that's seen as new without it then being less than optimal? The answer is not to destroy what has worked so well for so long, but rather to build incrementally upon it with new features, while not changing the foundational UI guidelines set forth by Apple as it was under Steve Jobs. It's really that simple.

    I sincerely hope Apple will at least tone down the eye-searing white in a future release and return to what just worked so well for so many years.
  2. LizKat macrumors 68040


    Aug 5, 2004
    Catskill Mountains
    I've not been a big fan of extreme skeuomorphism (the leather calendar thing...yuck) although I like the icons for Activity Monitor and Console. They make me think of the days of Heath radio kits & etc. The nostalgia factor?! Aside from those, however, I've grown fond of the flat icons used for Apple apps in the later OS releases. But that's probably nostagia factor too; they remind one of designs from the 1920s and 30s. Still, I do like them.

    That said, I certainly agree that the use of low contrast in text vs. background and the tendency now to use tiny fonts in descriptions of stuff in the App Store, the iTunes Store, etc. are deplorable.

    Sure you can use options off the Accessibility panel in System Preferences, and sometimes individual app preferences have "small, medium, large" options for fonts displayed, but it has always surprised me that you can't just jack up font sizes in these Apple venues the same way you can in a browser.

    Sure when I was 20 I thought cream text on a lavender background was soooo nifty. Note to 20-something developers: when you are in your seventies, pale grey on white is excruciatingly difficult to decipher.

    I've never before had to bother experimenting with temporary inversion of system colors and etc. just to be able to read something in an online Apple venue. Now I do it all the time, usually to no satisfactory avail.

    This will sort itself out eventually, I suppose, since now the baby boomers are retiring. They still spend money on computing gear, and they too will end up discovering what a pain it is to have to mess with display attributes just to be able to read something on a screen.

    So, when enough complaints land on Tim Cook's desk (or when HE finds it hard to read App Store descriptions), then maybe I can quit holding a magnifying glass over a laptop screen, or quit using zoom features that slow down my ability to get some simple reading task done without having to think about the mechanics of it.
  3. MacUser2525 macrumors 68000


    Mar 17, 2007
    70s I am in my 50s and cannot stand it. Both your posts sum it up well and will be the reason I will never use any of the flat cartoon OSs Apple are coming out with lately. Mavericks is the last one I find even remotely usable even then the fonts suck big time. No scalability at all I fail to see how anyone even could have a thought in their head that was a good design choice.
  4. dusk007 macrumors 68040


    Dec 5, 2009
    Skeumorphism dies for a reason. We used to use paper calendars and learned to use electronic ones. Today the electronic is the normal and many never have used a paper one in their life. Microsoft started it with Windows 8 and now all UIs dropped trying to be like paper devices and instead focus on clean and efficient but fundamentally digital. We don't need the connection anymore because digital is the new normal. Most people wouldn't even know what to do with a calendar anymore (what you have to turn pages?, there is no search function?, what kind of broken thing is that?)
    Today's UI tries to be the most efficient and clean at what it does and not make connections to the real world people have no use for anymore anyway.

    For some it maybe to clean but that is also the efficiency. There is fundamentally just the same or even more functionality, just a significant portion is implied because today interacting with touch screens and ui elements is so natural that to imply functionality is enough and the other fluff just wasted space that keeps the overall look messy and confusing.
    Material Design of google did it best. You know where stuff goes, what you can expect from what kind of elements, corners and gestures. It is not laid out for dumb and uneducated anymore but that is because we are past that point. We know how to use touch interfaces today, it is the new natural.

    The lightness of interfaces has imo not changed. If you browse on the notebook or do some word processing, most is still white and that is just the same it has always been. Yes PC white at 6500k is basically too cold but for that smart people build the tiny little app flux (look it up). It costs nothing and will change the color temp when the sun goes down to actually work in harmony with the usually warmer indoor lighting. It maybe troublesome for photographers but for people that do any other kind of work it is a blessing for the eyes.
    If review sites wouldn't focus so much on being anal about correct colors in sRGB and other unnatural and limited colorspaces, maybe we would already have the technology to adjust color tone along with brightness. I am sure that trend will come around once they evolve past obsessing about sRGB and 6500k white on review sites.

    Textsize is also nothing I would complain about. Personally I think standard UI size on OSX is way to big. I cannot deal with best for retina settings but go for the 1680x1050 on 15" and would be finde with the 1200p version but 900p is just for blind people. It makes unimportant ui elements way to prominent and space consuming. Generally smartphones displays have grown a lot and therefore text had to shrink just to stay the same size. Everybody still using tiny smartphones like iphone 5s might find it off. I don't see how text really shrunk at all recently. We got thinner fonts but overall size is largely the same or even bigger imo. (I am on Android though no idea maybe iOS is odd there)

    Generally I much prefer the minimalist and clean modern look of Material design, Windows 8 UI, Yosemite.
  5. KALLT, Jul 19, 2015
    Last edited: Jul 19, 2015

    KALLT macrumors 601

    Sep 23, 2008
    Skeuomorphism is not dying, it is merely being decoupled from rich design. Calendar still behaves exactly like it did before, but the leather textures are gone. Contacts still behaves exactly like it did before, but the address book background is gone. Notification Centre with the linen background: same thing. The most obvious example is Calculator: it still works and behaves like a physical calculator, with most of its limitations, but has a flat design. Operating systems still work on the basis of visual metaphors: floating panels ('windows') with shadows, layering by using shadows, transparency or translucency, buttons and toggles (even present on Windows 10), animations and transitions. We still use them, because they make sense to us, hence human interfaces. We all understand the concept of depth and layering by nature, our eyes can be guided by demarcating content and controls and animations can help us to understand relations between elements and functions.

    The OP makes some excellent points in that regard. How efficient is a system when your working memory is burdened with an additional cognitive load, purely because of artistic reasons? You are able to identify a bevelled button as a button immediately, the cognitive load is low. Replace that with a textual button and your brain will have to devote some energy into figuring out what that component is supposed to be. Eventually, it will be able to figure it out, especially with experience, but it will come at the cost of minute cognitive loads. There is nothing in iOS 7/8 that could not have been made in iOS 6; there is nothing in Yosemite that could not have been done in Mavericks. There are no functional gains, or at least, Apple has not used any. What is left is the promise that people are now accustomed to interfaces enough so that they don't have to rely on these concepts anymore, but that is just not true. They were beneficial even for people who used these interfaces for many years. You don't stop being a human and experience does not replace or override your brain's basic understanding of how things work.

    On the topic of Material Design, I think Google admitted that a flat design doesn't work without skeuomorphism. It is no coincidence that they called it 'material' design and make reference to paper. Material Design has animations that make physically sense, uses shadows that are calculated based on the perceived elevation of the element (layering) and responds to touch input without being abstract. That was the genius of iOS 1 as well: there was nothing to learn. You were guided by the interface and could directly manipulate the device with your fingers, without being abstract about it.

    I like reading about human interface design and I found the examples given by Apple, at least the old ones, very illuminating. It really is a science rather than just an art. I, too, feel that Apple is squandering its pioneer position in this field for the sake of art and trends. When I watched the developer session on the iOS 7 design, I cringed so often because of the rubbish they told people and it was so obvious that the lead human interface designer (who retired shortly after) was not enthusiastic about it at all. He couldn't sell it and the statements he made, like how translucency gives you that 'sense of context' and how they wanted people to 'focus on their content', were outright lies and empty marketing phrases. iOS never came from a place where the sense of context and the content focus was undermined.

    Apple also used to be anal about good icon design and it's this particular area where they completely lost every sense of direction and consistency. Basically, most icons are designed in isolation. They provided the example of the Safari icon: just keep enough so that people can still see that it's supposed to be a compass. But that guidance is not consistent: you have icons like Settings and Game Center that go clearly beyond that approach. You have icons that use gradients for colour, but you also have icons that use gradients for depth. It just gives me the impression that there is no coherence anymore, no consistent design approach. Icons are very important on iOS: they are the metaphors and faces of the apps they are supposed to represent. They were demoted instead.
  6. dusk007 macrumors 68040


    Dec 5, 2009
    I would say Material design is still very much modern. It focuses like all them on clean put the content and main feature in the foreground, let the rest fade in the background and hide instructions and explanations in the transition animations. There is a lot of "what does this do" hidden when just looking at it. You either know it or have to play around.
    Yes they make references to paper but to do it in a new world that does not hold close reference with real life objects. They redesigned how to work with that kind of paper from the ground up and not incrementally from the real thing.

    I don't really know what iOS looks like but from a few screen shot glances it does not look so different.

    You also use the same interface so often that the cognitive load of searching for buttons is almost irrelevant. On the other hand a clean interface that places the information you are looking for in the foreground and letting buttons and such fade into the background while still being there when needed, I say creates a lower cognitive load. You immediately see what you want and aren't distracted by having to guide your eye around and past lots of attention grabbing knobs. The buttons are still there and we already expect loads of things to be press-able so there is not much of a learning curve, also buttons stay on the same place for all the time, while you use your music player interface everyday. You know where the button is but when you glance on it what you are interested in is not an attention grabbing button that is very easily identifiable but you are looking for what song is playing currently. The button that fades into the background and does not distract from the main point of interest introduces far lower cognitive load on a daily basis.
    And that is basically the idea of this new interface design paradigm. Clean up the clutter so the content of interest can be most prominent. You still need a start/pause button but you don't need it in bright pink with its own shadow effect.
  7. KALLT macrumors 601

    Sep 23, 2008
    The thing is, even a flat design like on iOS still puts controls on top of the content. They do this with translucency, whereas they previously did it with shadows. It may have reduced the noise a bit, but the controls are still in the foreground as they are almost always visible (except in Safari). The guiding principle of iOS 7 is removing all design until you are left with the essentials: text and basic icons. That is an aesthetic decision, not a decision rooted in interface improvements. What’s more, by adding the translucency, they also added another distraction: because you will notice these bright colour blobs when scrolling, whereas previously they were hidden from view. Material Design does a similar thing with animations: they are sometimes so over the top that they are in fact distracting as well. Material Design also added this signature action in the bottom right corner where it will always scroll along with the content. How is that not distracting? It is there so that people can quickly use it.

    The previous design was a lot clearer between what is control and what is content. Your eyes could quickly wander past the plastic-like grey blue navigation and toolbars and look at the content immediately; it was easier to ignore. Now most apps are completely white, and you need a wee moment to orient yourself. The stark contrast is what made it easier for you to navigate, not more distracting. You might not notice it yourself, but you are almost always adjusting to it. ‘Cleaning up the clutter’ is something a designer would say, there was nothing cluttered about iOS 6 or Mavericks. Moreover, I am pretty sure that with the short attention spans and quick interactions on smartphones, people generally appreciate having a solid frame that guides them through the content. This removal of all design so that people can ‘focus on the content’ is nothing but a sham, in my opinion.

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