Designing a User Interface? First, create a visual language.

Reading through the comments in this Slashdot article and I’ve noticed a few things.

Apple Is Really Bad At Design

Everyone seems to agree where Apple went off the rails was with iOS 7.

But why–no-one seems to be able to agree.

In the original article linked to by Slashdot, the article’s author seems to hinge his argument on the fact that the new operating system looks ugly. Apple Is Really Bad At Design

In 2013 I wrote about the confusing and visually abrasive turn Apple had made with the introduction of iOS 7, the operating system refresh that would set the stage for almost all of Apple’s recent design. The product, the first piece of software overseen by Jony Ive, was confusing, amateur, and relatively unfinished upon launch. While Ive had utterly revamped what the company had been doing thematically with its user interface — eschewing the original iPhone’s tactility of skeuomorphic, real-world textures for a more purely “digital” approach — he also ignored more grounded concepts about user experience, systematic cohesion, and most surprisingly, look and feel.

Now it almost sounds like the original author was about to stumble on the truth.

But then, he fails:

“It’s not just that the icons on the homescreen feel and look like the work of a lesser designer. They also vary across the system. For instance, the camera icon is a different shape in other sections of the OS, like the camera app or the lockscreen,” I wrote at the time. “Shouldn’t there be some consistency?” While this may seem like obsessive nit-picking, these are the kinds of details that Apple in its previous incarnation would never have gotten wrong.

And, at the bottom of the stack, the essay seems inspired by the iPhone X, which is described repeatedly in the article as “ungainly and unnatural”, “bad design”, “a visually disgusting element.” And by extension the entire Apple environment is described as “fucking crazy.”

The comments in the Slashdot article also riff on the visually consistent or visually pleasing aspects of design:

The result is what you see now in Apple products – a muddled mess of different ideas that just don’t fit together right, and very little actual customer value.


And you know what? We see this focus on the beautiful in many other applications. You can see it in how we describe UX jobs and who gets hired for UI design: UI, UX: Who Does What? A Designer’s Guide To The Tech Industry.

UX designers are primarily concerned with how the product feels. A given design problem has no single right answer. UX designers explore many different approaches to solving a specific user problem. The broad responsibility of a UX designer is to ensure that the product logically flows from one step to the next. One way that a UX designer might do this is by conducting in-person user tests to observe one’s behavior. By identifying verbal and non-verbal stumbling blocks, they refine and iterate to create the “best” user experience. An example project is creating a delightful onboarding flow for a new user.

It’s worth reading the entire thing to understand the state of the industry, or the fact that sometimes

The boundary between UI and UX designers is fairly blurred and it is not uncommon for companies to opt to combine these roles.


You know what is missing here?

From the movie Objectified, a movie anyone who is a designer or interested in design must watch:

I think there are really three phases of modern design. One of those phases, or approaches, if you like, is looking at the design in a formal relationship, the formal logic of the object–the act of form-giving: form begets form.

The second way to look at it is in terms of the symbolism and content of what you’re dealing with: the little rituals that make up making coffee or using a fork and knife, or the cultural symbolisms of a particular object. Those come back to a habit and gives form, helps give guidance to the designer about how that form should be or how it should look.

The third phase, really, is looking at Design in a contextual sense, in a much bigger picture scenario. It’s looking at the technological context for that object. It’s looking at the human and object relationship.

The first phase you you might have something fairly new, like Karim Rashid’s Kone vacuum, which is for Dirt Devil. The company sells this basically, “so beautiful, you can put it on display.” In other words you can leave it on your counter, it doesn’t look like a piece of crap.

Conversely you can look at Dyson and his vacuum cleaners. He approaches the design of his vacuum in a very functionlist manner. But if you look at the form of it it’s really expressing the symbolism of function. The color introduced into it is–he’s not a frivolous person–so it’s really there to articulate the various components of the vacuum.

Or you can look at, in a more recent manifestation in a kind of contextual approach, would be something like the Roomba. There, the relationship to the vacuum is very different. First of all, there is no more human interaction relationship. The relationship is to the room it’s cleaning.

I think it’s even more interesting the company has kits that are available in the marketplace called “Create”. It’s essentially the Roomba vacuum cleaner kit that’s made for hacking. You put a really wacky–I mean, you can create things like “Bionic Hamster” which is attaching the kind of play wheel or dome a hamster uses as a driving device for the Roomba. So it is the ultimate revenge on the vacuum cleaner.

How I think about it myself is that design is the search for form. What form should this object take.

– Andrew Blauvelt, Design Curator, Walker Art Center (around the 20 minute mark)


First, if you are really interested in design, do yourself the favor of watching Objectified.

But the most important part about the section above–to me, the most valuable two and a half minutes of that movie (outside of the opening sequence, of course)–is the notion that design is not just making things “look pretty.”

When you really look at it, the Dyson vacuum is an ugly looking contraption of a machine.

What is important is considering design as a formal process. And much of this “form-giving” really involves the visual language used to express the design of an object, since it is that visual language which helps us understand the object, our relationship to the object, and how we interact with that object.

Look again at the Dyson vacuum. The use of color is deliberate, Specifically, in the photo linked, the yellow parts are all components which either articulate, or which are components that can be moved, taken apart or put back together. The brush, for example, is the yellow thing at the bottom–and can be disassembled easily and reassembled for cleaning. Even the bucket which stores dirt can be disassembled by separating the yellow and gray components, as can the pathway which brings air in from the hose. (If you look carefully you see a small yellow thing just above the wheel; this is a lever which is used to disassemble the components which bring air into the storage bucket, and periodically need cleaning.)

This use of yellow expresses not just the form or function of the device–but clearly articulates how to use the vacuum: how to remove the cord, how to turn it on, how to take it apart and put it together for maintenance.

Yellow, in this example, is part of the visual language, and the consistent use of yellow is used to express function–to guide the user, to make using the vacuum easy.


Perhaps you’ve seen the poster. Perhaps not. But it says:

A user interface is like a joke.

If you have to explain it, it’s not that good.

The Dyson Vacuum, through the consistent use of the color yellow, and through the careful considered shapes of the yellow components, does not need to explain itself. It’s clear how to take apart the air pathway. It’s clear how to remove and clean the basket. It’s even clear how to disassemble down to the replaceable filter. Just consider the yellow parts, and twist, press or pull as the shape suggests.

This lesson reveals a larger one: if you want your user to understand how to use your interface, design and use a consistent visual language.

This includes the consistent use of shape and of color, so that the same shape or visual design performs the same way consistently across your entire application. Further, the same shape or visual design does not have multiple behaviors, and behaviors are not hidden behind different shapes or colors.

The best user interfaces are like the Dyson Vacuum. Good design does not have to be beautiful, but it should be suggestive of functionality. Good design should not hide functionality, though it does not need to be overly obtrusive.

And this is where things start falling apart on later versions of iOS. 3D Touch, for example, allows you to ‘hard press’ on an icon in the desktop of a later iOS device (like the iOS 7 phone) and have a pop-up preview or menu appear.

But how do you know to ‘hard press’ that icon or image?

How many of you who own iPhone 7’s even know you can do this?

You see the same thing with Android with the “long press”, which was used in prior user interface guidelines to show a pop-up menu to reveal further functions. (The new Material design tries to get away from this gesture–but how many people know the way they delete e-mails on earlier versions of Android was to long-tap the e-mail?)

But hell, even Apple knows these “hidden” gestures create a problem:

Adopt Peek and Pop consistently. If you support Peek and Pop in some places but not others, people won’t know where they can use the feature and may think there’s a problem with your app or their device.

And yet Apple never answers that most fundamental question: how does the user even know they can hard-press something in the first place? How do they know they can swipe left? How do they know they can swipe down? How do they know what they can do?

Now on iOS 6, at least some of these questions were answered: buttons had rings around them or were icons arrayed in a row.

But in the tension between visual clarity and being visually clean and visually beautiful, beauty won over understanding. We’ve moved away from the Dyson Vacuum–from the “functionalist” approach to deconstructing design and creating a constant visual language (where checkboxes, radio buttons, drop down lists and the like are easily understood because we’ve consistently used similar art to express the same functionality), towards a flat design which dispenses of any hints of functionality.

Today’s interfaces are as beautiful as users are befuddled.


But it gets worse. In dispensing the logical deconstruction of interface and the creation of consistent user interface “languages” (such as consistently using the same gesture to mean the same thing regardless of the context in which we operate), modern design is less about creating design manuals which express the visual language being used and how to consistently apply that language to solve design problems–and has become more about creating beautiful interfaces, but with absolutely no respect for usability. Usability has become, in today’s world, an afterthought, the equivalent of cargo cult thinking where we echo form without understanding what gives form.

Just look at the first of the core values listed on Apple’s human interface guidelines page, which focuses on Aesthetic Integrity, Consistency and Feedback–but without ever describing what these mean other than from an aesthetic perspective.

It’s no wonder why people in the original Slashdot article claim Apple can no longer design stuff.

Because to us “design” is no longer about the formal relationship of the design, or about the symbolism and content–but about if it looks pretty.

And thus, that notch on top of the iPhone X is considered “bad design” because it “looks ugly” without ever considering if the design (and the design language) serves a purpose or provides functional usability.

Because we don’t have the tools to describe the formal relationship between a human and a computer, all we’re left with is the artistic qualities of that object. So we look at iOS 7 and don’t understand why it fails. We don’t see that in moving towards the “print page” look and feel of user design, iOS 7 has eschewed the very visual hints we need to know if a red line of text is a button, or just a highlighted passage.

We’re left not knowing if the yellow knob on the vacuum cleaner is a lever, or an immovable bit of plastic added for style that we will break if we attempt to twist it.

We don’t understand why iOS 7 (and later versions of iOS) fail, even though the rather ugly Dyson Vacuum succeeds.

And sadly we are left with the ultimate message of the Slashdot article: that iOS 7 (released in 2013) fails because the iPhone X (which has yet to ship) has a notch at the top.


Weirdly, in the process, our design becomes more artistically radical and yet more conservative, more entrenched. Design patterns we barely understand (such as the inverted “L” of web design, or the bottom tab buttons of a mobile device, or using grids to lay web pages out) are reused without understanding what motivates those choices, because they seem familiar to us. We no longer have the tools to create truly revolutionary designs because we no longer know what makes them work.

Worse, in our conservatism mobile devices design becomes web page design but on a smaller scale. Web page design becomes mobile device design but on a larger scale. Desktop applications become mobile web page design but with menu bars and multiple windows.

All of it has become ritual without understanding why.

We’re dancing naked around a fire hoping the Gods will deliver rain to our crops.


You want to create good design?

Then first, you must create a consistent visual language. You must not start with a blank page and start drawing stuff on the page until it looks pleasing. Instead, you must start with a “design manual” for your application.

And you must answer some questions–because in today’s age we no longer have design guidance like we used to.

Questions like “how should I decompose my application?” “How should I consistently present printed information, photos, lists.” “How should I separate sections of information.”

And even more basically, “what does a button look like?” “How does that button behave?” “How can I tell the user that my icon is tappable” (and that could be simply a question of consistent placement), or “how do I tell the user that this button will reveal multiple options?”

Even deeper than this, we must answer fundamental questions such as “what are the nouns–the objects–in my application?” “What are the verbs?” (That is, the actions which operate on those nouns.) “What are the adjectives?” (The modifiers which modify nouns, like color to suggest a value is negative or bad or out of bounds.)

In many ways, because your users have a formal relationship with your application, and because your goal is to clearly communicate how to use what is probably a much more complex and feature-rich application than “pick up vacuum, press button, suck up dirt”, you probably want to eschew the beautiful in favor of the formal. (But even the Kone suggests how it is to be used: the seam bisecting the cone shows the point where the base separates from the enclosed vacuum, the flat top reveals the on/off button.)

And if that means you have little gray rectangles and small dots in places which make your application look more cluttered than you’d like–consider if your user is then able to use your application.

Beyond this, while you should respect the media and the established conventions where your design appears, so long as you are consistent in your designs, you can explore new ideas and new gestures. And you can consider new problems few designers are considering–such as the problem that on larger mobile devices, users can no longer hold the device in one hand and use it with his thumb if your controls are placed at the top of the screen where they are no longer in reach.

Because that’s the bottom line, isn’t it? Not if your application is pretty, but if your users can use it–and continue to use it, and continue to help you generate revenue.

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