Mobile Product Design

Eyes on WWDC: Predicting the Future of Apple’s User Interface Design

May 29, 2013

  • Nelson Taruc Nelson Taruc

As a designer, one of my most eagerly anticipated moments of this upcoming WWDC is to see how much Apple’s design guru, Jonathan Ive, exerts his hardware design principles to iOS 7 on the iPhone and iPad.

This is important because Apple has historically lead the way when it comes to user interface trends. When Apple introduced Aqua with OS X, it basically ushered in a decade of shimmery translucent buttons, realistic drop shadows and rounded corners on everything. When Apple introduced the iPhone and iPad, it took skeuomorphism to new levels and brought realistic wood and metal textures to user interfaces. But for all the popularity of Apple’s software design, it has had its share of criticism: too dated, too noisy and too inconsistent. Surely, Ive’s primary design goal is to fix all three at once, and strengthen the visual (and emotional) bond between hardware and software.

Although the latest rumors have iOS 7 officially launching in the fall, a likely preview of iOS 7 at WWDC will be a prime opportunity to gauge the future of Apple’s interface design. A few keys to look out for:

1. All eyes on Core Apps: When the original iPhone debuted, Steve Jobs outlined the core user experiences: music player, mobile phone and internet communicator. These will certainly be the first apps Ive will lay his hands on, and in fact, if you look at the Music app on iOS (as well as the latest version of iTunes), you can already see the push toward flatter, boxier and palette-muted designs that retain hints of Aqua while killing skeumorphic noise. To see how far Ive takes it, focus on what the keynote reveals about Safari, Mail, Phone and Contacts apps. Their interface design will waterfall to the rest of iOS.

2. Dieter’s Colors (or Lack Thereof): It’s been well documented how the work of Dieter Rams has shaped Ive’s work. What remains a mystery is how much Rams’ hardware design can (or should) apply to Apple’s software. However, the Braun design legend’s influence has already taken hold in one respect: Color schemes. A look at Rams’ industrial designs reveals three primary color schemes when it comes to interaction controls (knobs, buttons, etc.):

  • Gray or dark gray controls on light gray (or off-white) backgrounds
  • White controls on darker gray backgrounds
  • Gray controls on black backgrounds

All backgrounds are flat, and colored buttons are used extremely rarely. I suspect that for consistency, Ive will try to group these color schemes to create families of apps, so that apps with similar purposes will share a common color scheme (and if that holds true, it appears that the the Music app will own the top scheme). I’m sure Ive wants to unify the hardware and software experience, and I think he will use Rams’ color schemes to do just that. In any case, if you see an app revamped with one of the three color schemes above, pay close attention to the details.

3. Signal vs. Noise: Apple will probably never go totally ultra-flat with its UI like Google and Microsoft have, nor should it. I think adding depth to a flat screen carries emotional resonance that Ive would surely take care to preserve. However, there is a big difference between the emotion of writing on a yellow striped note pad, and writing on a clean white sheet of paper, and it’s all about improving signal (design that matters) while reducing noise (everything else). The recent redesign of the Podcast app is a prime example: It increased signal by moving the most important information at the top (the time scrubber and chapter marks), while keeping the most often-used controls at the bottom. Everything that didn’t “boost the signal” — the tape reel, the photorealistic buttons, and yes, the skeumorphic noise — got cut. So when you get your first chance to see iOS 7, try and get a feel for the new signal vs. noise ratio compared to previous iOS designs. Comparing those ratios will help quantify the impact of Ive’s eye on software design.

4. Unity and the Big Picture: While iOS 7 will be big news at WWDC, look for even more seeds of uniformity between Mac OS X and iOS. Frankly, it’s inevitable that Apple’s two operating systems become one and the same, just like Microsoft is doing with Windows 8 and Google with Android. The appeal of a consistent interface across all devices has to be something that Ive covets. However, unlike Microsoft and Android, I’m sure such a convergence will remain a closely guarded secret, and certainly not be rushed to market. That said, look for design interface clues that “test” the convergence of OS X and iOS.

Of course, WWDC could surprise everyone and iOS 7 could reveal crazy new interfaces never before seen (or expected) from Apple or Ive’s design team. Or perhaps it’s a new iOS device that dictates a different design language for iOS 7. But barring any surprises, the four points above are what I’ll be focusing on when it comes to divining the future of Apple’s interface design.

Think I missed something big or have more to add to the discussion? Please let me know in the comments. Thanks for reading!