Apple's once legendary user interface design has been on the wane for the better part of a decade, as its software becomes more obscure, more complicated, and less intuitive. Nowhere is this is more apparent than in Apple's mobile operating system, which abandoned good design practice in favor of superficial aesthetics with iOS 7.
Apple could still turn it around, though—and a new video by Federico Viticci exploring some possible improvements for iOS 10 shows us how. It contains some serious recommendations, and points to how Apple could fix iOS's three major UX problems: discoverability, multitasking, and Cupertino's general failure at staying competitive with other companies on a feature-by-feature basis.
When Apple first announced 3D Touch—its pressure-sensing touch-screen technology—Co.Design called it the innovation that could solve the biggest design problem in mobile: the issue of "shallow" UI, where everything on a smartphone is locked down behind a one tap, one screen, one action paradigm. 3D Touch fixed that, in theory, by giving iOS the equivalent of a right click. Tapping on any element on an iOS screen could suddenly be contextual, depending on how hard you pressed.
That was the promise of 3D Touch, anyway. The execution has been a joke. Apple never fully integrated 3D Touch into its own apps, and didn't make implementing it a requirement for developers, who procrastinated on adding a feature which was only supported on the most recent iPhones. The end result is that most users don't even know about 3D Touch. But even if they do, they probably don't use it, because 90% of the time, pressing harder on an app icon doesn't actually do anything.
Viticci demonstrates how Apple could better utilize 3D Touch, using it to improve the Control Center—which he envisions as a way to contextually interact with Wi-Fi networks—and set third-party apps as defaults for commonly used functions like the camera. In doing so, he illustrates a simple truth: 3D Touch will never be a solution to iOS's shallow UI problem until Cupertino goes all in on it, and makes developers do the same.
The truth is, though, iOS has many other discoverability issues, some of which can't be fixed by 3D Touch. It's a system-wide design problem—one that has hidden important features behind obscure multi-touch gestures and decoupled a labyrinthian Settings app from the apps and services it actually controls. Even 3D Touch, in a sense, fails the discoverability test: there are no on-screen visual cues that 3D Touch can be invoked in an app. Without those cues, it's not obvious that pressing harder on a 2-D app icon even should do anything contextual.
Fixing 3D Touch is a way for Apple to easily fix iOS's problems with obscuring features and information—without having to rebuild the whole thing from scratch.
Apple has always kept a tight grip on iOS, famously preventing third-party developers from plugging into the operating system in key ways. For example, Android has had third-party keyboards since 2009; Apple didn't add the same functionality to iOS 8 for another five years.
Ostensibly, the reason Apple keeps such tight control over iOS is to keep the system running smoothly, and to keep users' data secure. Yet, as Apple has consistently dropped the ball on key features, it's become clear that third-party developers may play a useful role—if only Apple would let them. Loosening its grip on what developers can do with the OS might be a key part of fixing it.
For instance, take Proactive—first introduced in iOS 9—which was hailed as Apple's answer to Google Now. Terrible name aside, Proactive was supposed to "proactively" predict what apps you want to open next, what News stories you want to read, the weather near you, and more. In a post-smartphone world where context is key and our devices already know our behavioral patterns, it's a theoretically useful feature that could rid iOS of many of its pain points.
Of course, unlike Google Now, which is a genuinely practical product, Proactive isn't particularly useful. Part of the issue is simply that, by design, Apple has less access to your information than Google (which has its fingers in pretty much everything you do on the web). But Apple does have a thriving ecosystem of developers—including Google!—who could tap into Proactive and use it to surface relevant emails, documents, music playlists, or messages you need to reply to—except it doesn't, because Apple is a control freak.
Siri's another example of this. Apple's digital assistant is almost five years old, and while it's come to more devices in the intervening years, it doesn't feel like it's gotten any better in all that time. Compare Siri to something like the Amazon Echo, which literally gets notable improvements every single week. That's right. Amazon is out-designing Apple when it comes to voice assistants.
Despite being much later to the market, Microsoft Cortana and OK Google are both easily more functional than Siri, as well. The solution is simple: open Siri up and allow third-party developers to plug into her, so she can do things like create tasks in OmniFocus or order meals for someone in Grubhub. As dozens of conversational UIs take off, this feels like the only possible way Apple can catch up.
When Steve Jobs first unveiled the iPad in 2010, he said Apple had set out to design a device that could live between an iPhone and a MacBook.
Six years later, it's pretty clear Apple failed to create a third product category. When it comes to hardware, the iPad is basically a more versatile replacement laptop, and that's not a bad thing. It's just as powerful, gets better battery life, and even has its own first-party hardware keyboard—all while still being cheaper than a MacBook. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro is an explicit concession on Apple's part that customers want their iPads to be useable as laptops now.
So why does iOS still treat the iPad as though it's a big iPhone? True, iOS 9 introduced some new multitasking features to the iPad, allowing users to run apps side-by-side. But despite the fact that the iPad is basically a laptop now, it still handles too many things like an iPhone, especially in the way two apps running side-by-side interact with each other. Which, in turn, makes it incredibly difficult to be as productive on an iPad as it is on the laptop you're trying to replace.
Apple needs to embrace failure here, and make the iPad's operating system more Mac-like in iOS 10. iPad users shouldn't have to settle for the worst possible compromise between smartphones and desktops.