Friday, February 13, 2009

Apple's Flatland Aesthetic, Part 1: The Mac

Apple needs to improve design method ...

"Appleland is becoming progressively flatter and, at the same time, less usable.

Apple has released a series of revolutionary products over the last several years, from System X to the iPhone. All represent Herculean software efforts. With such marked changes, one can expect that early releases will tend toward the primitive. Over time, users can expect missing functionality to fill in. For the most part, this has occurred and will continue to do so, with even highly-sophisticated features appearing, such as copy and paste.

Filling in obvious features, however, is only one aspect of software evolution. Equally important is keeping up with the users. The beginner today will be the expert of tomorrow. The user with 200 photos today will be the user with 2000 a year from now. The user with 10 songs today will be the user with 100 songs six months from now. The user with one or two extra apps on the iPhone will be the user with 100 apps three months from now.
Scaling Up

The great software applications usually didn’t start out that way. 20 years ago, there was a simple application on the Mac for doing basic edits on photos. It was called Photoshop. Today, Photoshop is a powerhouse of sophistication, capable of working miracles in the hands of a professional. Adobe has been in lock-step with their users, increasing Photoshop’s sophistication even as their users increased in theirs.

Apple, on the other hand, nowadays comes out with an initial, visually-simple model, and then just sticks with it as their users quickly outgrow it, resulting in their software appearing, over time, to lose power, instead of gaining it. For several years in the Jobsian Regime, I put down this perpetual primitivism as just a lack of resources. Now, I think it’s more. I think it’s a naive, misplaced belief that flatter is better.
The Apple Flatland Aesthetic

The new Apple seems to subscribe to the the belief that visual simplicity equals actual simplicity. This proposition indeed holds true on day-one of a person’s adventures in computing. It may even hold true on day 90. It does not hold true in years one and three and ten, when the user is struggling to corral thousands of documents with the same tool that was visually-optimized for 20.

Properly-designed interfaces scale, so that they support the new user as well as the expert. One of the beauties of Photoshop is that, even after all these years, with all its increased complexity, it still is able to be a simple application for doing basic edits on photos. (A new user can become productive in Photoshop in 10 minutes, even if it takes another 10 years to learn everything.)

So how do you present a new user with an object that is not overwhelming, while at the same time offering advanced users the ability to handle greatly-scaled tasks? In some case, you can design a single object that scales from the simple case to the highly complex. The Folder is such an object. A folder with 20 documents is visually simple, but so is a folder with 20 folders, even though each of those 20 folders, in turn, may contain another 20 folders, each with 20 documents, for 8000 documents in all."    (Continued via NN/g, AskTog)    [Usability Resources]

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