How Apple and iOS 7 have impacted the future of app design

Emily Maginess
By Emily Maginess under Design 16 September 2013

Apple first introduced its new mobile operating system iOS 7 to the world back in June, which adopted a bold new look and feel compared to previous versions. The skeuomorphic textures and ornamentation that apps used to be famous for had been replaced with white space, typographic treatments and fluid animations and transitions.

For most, the initial reaction was a tad negative. However this quickly faded away once the new look had sunk in, and more importantly once people started actually using it. Ask anyone who has been testing the development betas of iOS 7 if they would ever revert back to iOS 6 and I imagine the response from most would be “no way!”.

So what makes iOS 7 so different from previous versions? It’s all about the content. There are 3 “design themes” that Apple frequently refer back to when explaining what iOS 7 is all about. Clarity, Deference and Depth.

Clarity: The interface helps users understand and interact with the content, but never competes with it.

Deference: Text is legible, icons are precise, adornments are appropriate, and a sharpened focus on functionality motivates the design.

Depth: Visual layers and realistic motion heighten users’ delight and contextual understanding.

Those descriptions are taken from Apple’s “iOS 7 UI Transition Guide” and help frame iOS 7 in a nutshell. As a product and interface designer it’s very important to understand what Apple means by these to get to grips with how they would like us to start thinking about app design. What does it mean? Essentially, content is king and users should be able to navigate that content with ease.

This focus on “content over chrome” isn’t new however. Google’s Creative Vision for its Android OS Jelly Bean shares similar aspirations to Apple, and has been out for a while now. Microsoft has been using its “flat” Metro design language in various applications for years. Websites today look, work and feel light-years ahead of the Flashtastic, over-the-top animated gif nightmares of the late 90′s. Remember GeoCities?

So the visual shift that Apple has made with iOS 7 isn’t new per se, but it is perfectly timed for the iPhone and its users. When the iPhone first launched in 2007, most people weren’t that familiar with touch screens, and they certainly weren’t familiar with using one on a phone that they carried around in their pocket every day. Apple’s skeuomorphic-led design language was created to help transition people over to this new type of interaction and the visual cues helped explain the various gestures that this new type of device would require. To help people get used to tapping with their finger, rather than clicking with a mouse.

Fast forward six years and the audience (and technology) has matured. We no longer need a texture to suggest something is tangible and therefore can be moved. We no longer need a nice bit of gloss and bevel to suggest that a button can be tapped. It’s this user maturity and experience that means as designers we can now focus on creating a different kind of beautiful, joyful app. An app where the beauty comes from clear content, and the joy comes from frictionless navigation.

This has always been possible of course, it’s simply “good” design. Previous iOS apps likes Clear, Color and Svpply all shared a love for clean, chrome-less and content-driven design over using heavy textures and gradients way before iOS 7 was even rumoured. The difference now is that Apple has done it. In the past, those apps I mentioned would be for the power user, the design lover or the app connoisseur. Now, once Apple releases iOS 7 to the public, this newer and fresher looking and feeling style of app will become what regular users will expect.

That last part is very important, so I will reiterate it. Regular iPhone users will very soon come to expect this newer and fresher looking and feeling experience from all of their apps.

When Apple released the iPhone 5, it came with a larger screen which meant any app that hadn’t been updated to fit would have a “letterbox” effect at the top and bottom of the screen. Very quickly, users started to delete any old apps that had this letterbox, in place for newer apps that had updated UI. Similarly, when Apple released the iPhone 4 with the Retina display, any apps that hadn’t been updated with Retina assets instantly looks blurry and old fashioned compared to the crisp graphics of the newer apps. They too quickly got deleted by users.

With the release of iOS 7 on our doorstep, the changes are going to be much bigger than simply crisper graphics or a larger screen. Apple has completely changed the way apps should look and feel. How they should act and respond. No longer will users accept an app that hides bad layout and confusing navigation structures with fancy gradients and drop shadows.

As user expectations continue to rise, app designers and developers will have to continue to up their game. It’s an exciting time for apps, and digital design as a whole, and no doubt it will bring with it a lot of new and difficult challenges. The key to success and to future proof your app is to always refer back to Apple’s 3 design themes (Clarity, Deference and Depth) and to remember that content is indeed king.

If you’re wondering what to do with your current iOS app in light of iOS 7, or you’re just exploring which platforms to develop for, contact us today with your questions.

Also check out our more technical post on how iOS 7 has affected app development.