Bull Session

Apple Software UX

November 19, 2015          

Episode Summary

This week on The Digital Life, we chat about Apple and the state of its software design. Is Apple off the rails? Is Google nipping at its heels? You could argue that Google is getting better at design at the same time Apple is getting worse.

An interesting article on Fast Company by Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini, “How Apple is Giving Design a Bad Name” sets the stage for this discussion. With the mobile iOS, Norman and Tognazzini argue that Apple has abandoned some of the fundamental principles of good design including discoverability, feedback, and recovery.

In contrast, Google is doing some interesting things with its Android OS. Experimental design is part of the conversation and the company is unafraid to evolve in the open.

How Apple is Giving Design a Bad Name
Google Design


Welcome to episode 130 of the Digital Life the show about our adventures in the world of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.

Hi-de-ho Jon.

Today Dirk I wanted to revisit one of our favorite topics on the Digital Life with a slightly different lens. Over the years we have noted the rivalry and the back and forth between some of the top tech companies for that prime spot, namely Apple and Google have been among the top 2 over the past 5 years or so. I think you’ve noted on more than one occasion how Apple seemed to be losing some of its mojo. I believe you had a prediction for this year that it was going to be the downward slope for Apple as the dominant tech company, although it might not necessarily feature in their stock price, not necessarily this year, but that there was going to be some significant change in the way Apple was viewed. I notice, lo and behold, I was reading a publication I enjoy online, Fast Company, and there were two very notable authors, mainly because they came from the design side of Apple, that’s Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini, very famous interaction designer, basically started the IxDA and Done Norman, usability guru well known.

Both of those had contributed to this rather long article, this long screed that was entitled “How Apple is Giving Design a Bad Name”. Now aside from the reference to the ’80s Bon Jovi song “You Give Love a Bad Name” which always rings out in my head as a child of generation X, that’s a pretty strong statement for these two guys who basically came out of the Apple shop at one point, helped establish Apple as a design powerhouse and they’re not looking at what have we wrought, what is the incarnation of Apple currently. It is not as some would like to think of it as the paragon of design anymore. There are lots of reasons for it but I wanted to get your reaction to that first and then dig into that topic a little bit more.

Yeah. A lot of people are finally talking about it, Apple especially on the software side, Apple’s software design has been garbage for a really long time, garbage. Now finally people are talking about it, people are calling them on the carpet for it. That’s good because they can’t be allowed to keep getting away with it. Software’s garbage.

Do you think that this decline is reflective of the absence of Steve Jobs at the helm? What do you think? Did it start happening during his tenure? What do you think?

I think Apple’s never done software well. They’ve had moments where they come out with Keynote and Keynote is better than PowerPoint, okay great, incrementally better this one piece of software. But if you go back and look at all of Apple software over all of time, the vast majority of it has always been total garbage. They’ve never done software well. They’ve been a hardware company, they’ve done hardware well but on the software side it’s been really barren. I think it’s only now that their hardware is becoming more mediocre that the software is being held accountable too.

Do you think Apple has reach the tech summit and has more or less become what we thought of Microsoft in the ’90s as being a more business oriented, less user friendly kind of bully in the tech space now? Is that what they offer it as?

I think the connotations are different. I don’t know that Apple’s operating as a bully by any means. What happened with Microsoft in the ’90s was very different than what’s happening with Apple now. Microsoft earned their business success by ruthless business practice, by monopolistic ownership of personal computing to some degree over a period of time. Apple’s dominance is both less dominant by far than Microsoft’s ever was, but it was built on the back of design, it was built on the back of creating new markets and featuring products that were a clear cut above. I will certainly say that Apple now is cycling down, that Apple’s peak …

I don’t know, it would be interesting to speculate where was the true peak of it. It was probably before the iPad and after the iPhone, somewhere in there. Probably early iPhone time was when they really peaked. They starting coming in the late ’90s, they peaked ten-ish years later. I think stayed near the peak for a while even after the iPad. Since Steve left they’ve done nothing notable, they’ve done nothing innovative, interesting. Their hardware design has only deprecated, the iPhone 6 versions, it’s a piece of garbage, this is a product that would never have been released under Steve’s watch. The decay is real and accelerating across all front. Frankly I don’t know that the software is any worse now than it was before, it’s just always been putrid. Maybe it is worse, maybe it is also getting worse actually, but it was terrible to begin with.

In the Fast Company article Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini highlight some of the HCI elements that are missing especially in the iOS. When they point them out, things like there’s no real undo which you take for granted on your desktop that you’re just going to be able to undo things, that provides the user with the willingness to experiment because you can take it back in this virtual world. That’s missing. Discoverability, you don’t really know what your iPhone can do and there are all kinds of secret features that need to be pointed out to you either in articles online or via a friend telling you this cool feature that they’ve discovered without doing it very easily.

When those things are made concrete, you suddenly say “Oh my gosh, now I know why I prefer doing certain things on my laptop because I can undo them, or why is this so frustrating? You can’t necessarily put it in words. That’s a real key thing I think that this article brings to the table is the specificity of the critic and the experts from which it comes, that’s very important. I think on the other side of it is also the level of attention that’s being paid to design by other companies now is really upping the game at the same that that Apple seems to be headed in a “Let’s just make this look beautiful direction.”

What I find interesting about that is that the design conversation is shifting, especially in the case of Google they have at least some aspect of Google are very open, they’re not the walled garden that Apple is. You have on one side of the table the walled garden, sort of “Here’s what good design is, you will enjoy it.” versus on the other side “Here are lots of experimental ways that we’re going at creating the digital world. We don’t know all the answers but here’s some stuff to play with.” Which I think of more of an engineering mentality and that’s coming from the Google side.

I’m really fascinated by that because it’s a multi-input environment. They’re doing a lot of things, not all of them good but they’re doing lots of iterations on them. Even though it never feels like it’s completely baked, Google’s really been at least pushing into the design space in new ways. I don’t know if they’re going to end up being the same kind of design force that Apple has been for so long but they’ve made some promising moves. Your thoughts on that?

You covered a lot of ground so I’m going to go back first and talk about Don and Bruce’s take down of Apple’s software. I’m actually going to cut Apple some slack here, I think Don and Bruce are old guys, they’ve been around a really long time and they made their successes and learned their trade in the context of traditional old school desktop personal computer. They’re bringing their lessons from that time and they’re judging … What’s happening for Apple on the desktop now is very similar to what Apple was doing on the desktop 40 years ago, how long has Apple been around, 30 to 40 years ago.

Mobile is a whole different beast, we have less than a decade now of mobile. We’re still, we collectively meaning the whole, everybody is still figuring it out. Mobile doesn’t lend itself to the point and click paradigm that desktop personal computing lent itself to. They’re bringing all of those old rules and guidelines and patterns and saying “What the fuck? Where is this stuff?” I’m not going to make the case that the things Apple is doing or any of the manufacturers are doing are correct, but I think it’s just a new animal. They’re saying “Here’s all these best practices, why aren’t they there?” Those are old practices and we need to really reinvent what mobile computing looks like, taking lessons where they’re appropriate but …

I don’t know man, the point and click, that whole frame isn’t relevant and you have a tiny of pixels when you’re dealing in direct manipulation. Even on the hardware side, the whole Apple watch thing now, to me that is just one of the many gyrations of what does mobile computing truly look like? Because I don’t think the form factor is correct of a mobile phone. I also don’t think the watch form factor is correct. We’re trying to figure all of this out on the hardware and the software side. I thought their take down unfortunately showed their grey hairs more than was really making crisp salient points that were germane to the paradigm we’re in today.

In terms of Google, yeah, if there’s a main stream consumer tech company that I’m going to buy the stock of it’s going to be Google. I’m very bullish on Google for a lot of different reasons but on the design side I don’t know. They’ve never been great at design, they’re really engineering driven. I don’t know, their newest Nexus phone just came out and it was produced by a different hardware manufacturer. Whereas Apple controls their hardware, controls their software, the design that emanates for that Apple takes credit for. Google can’t take credit for those, it’s a very known, I’ll mispronounce it, it’s H-U-W-A-E-I is the company, Huwaei or however you pronounce that, Chinese company. The phone is really beautiful but it’s not Google, it’s this other hardware manufacturer.

The degree to which Google’s going to be a design leader and/or practice exceptional design, I’m not sure. It’s never been a staple or a hallmark. A big picture of what’s happened is that the decay of Apple over the last 5 years has just brought them back to the pack. Now, who’s the design leader? I don’t know. I don’t know that there is a leader, they’re all kind of similar-ish. Nobody is this perfect … Apple used to be this clear cut above. There ain’t the clear cut above anymore.

Yeah, that’s fascinating, that Apple has lost its design advantage. There are other elements of Apple where it still has a lot of clout and a lot of excellence, right? Their industrial design, granted the latest edition of the phones we can quibble about, but their industrial design is still strong. Maybe not as mind blowing as when you first saw the iMac, which was a real game changer, where they took the beige box and made it a colorful gumdrop, right?

Yeah, they blew our minds for about 15 years with amazing things. Those things are done.

Yeah. The low hanging fruit is gone and design has in some ways not been commodified but at least adopted by all the major players in such a way that Apple is going to have to find other ways to compete in addition to design in order to stay relevant. I do think it was interesting what you were saying about Google being an engineering centric organization which we know is true. We also know that design and engineering, the marriage of that and the future of design being a more technical discipline as we look at emerging technologies, that in my opinion favors Google in some ways because if you look at where they’re dipping their toes into genomics and into robotics and internet of things, whatever you have, their experimentation ecosystem is so broad and it’s so engineering focused and bringing a little bit of design perspective in their really makes their inventiveness chime through.

The forward looking nature of that company attracts me in a lot of different ways. In the same way that I used to really adore Apple. Maybe I’m just switching my fan boy allegiance, not quite yet, I’m still up in the air about it, I still enjoy Apple products but I feel like Google is nipping on their heels.

Yeah for sure. I am switching. My personality isn’t to fan boy anything, I wouldn’t necessarily characterize myself as an Apple fan boy but I’ve used exclusively Apple products for … I don’t know, 2015 … Well over 10 years. Needless to say my whole ecosystem has been Apple. I’m kind of over it, I’m not seeing the better value there anymore and Apple keeps screwing me over. The last OS upgrade, it wiped out my iTunes library, it wiped out hundreds if not thousands of hours of rating songs, making playlists, organizing all that shit. It just blew it away. With naughty moves like that you’re going to lose my loyalty really quickly.

Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show you can follow along with the things that we’re mentioning here in real time, just head over the thedigitalife.com, that’s just one L on thedigitalife, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everybody, it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked. If you want to follow us outside of the show you can follow me on Twitter @jonfollett, this is J-O-N-F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course the whole show is brought to you by Involution Studios, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O dot com. Dirk?

You can follow me on Twitter @dknemeyer, that’s D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R or email me dirk@goinvo.com.

That’s it for episode 130 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett and we’ll see you next time.

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