Opinion

iOS7: the Shock of the New

Earlier this week, Apple unveiled the latest version of their software for iPhone and iPad, iOS7—you may have noticed.

All new Apple releases are hotly anticipated, and this latest unveiling triggered the usual level of hype we’ve come to expect from this global behemoth brand. However, this time it’s different. The new software represents a dramatic shift in look and feel, and the reaction among consumers sensitively attached to the old design will be seismic.

When the first iPhone was launched in 2007, Apple took the market by surprise with hardware and software that was years ahead of the competition (who appeared to believe that slightly increasing their phones’ camera resolution each year qualified as innovation). But since then competitors like Google’s Android have closed the gap and over the last year or so has—arguably—overtaken Apple.

Meanwhile, there’s been a paradigm shift in digital design. Skeuomorphism, the term for software that mimics real life (like a contacts app that looks like a address book), is widely seen as tired. Microsoft—for a long time in Apple’s shadow in design terms—has emerged at the forefront of a charge towards what they call an “authentically digital” approach with Metro, the design language behind their software.

Under Steve Jobs and iOS chief Scott Forstall, Apple’s software was full of skeuomorphic indulgence, from spinning compasses to felt game tables. Worse, from a designer’s perspective, it lacked consistency; detailing, visual language and functionality varied from app to app, creating a muddy mélange of styles. Apple—hailed as design leaders—had software that was becoming a mess.

Following Jobs’ death in 2011, Forstall left and hardware design chief Jonathan Ive moved into a more central role overseeing both hardware and software design. Thus the scene was set for a major shakeup—to make-way for Ive’s vision of Apple’s software future.

As expected, iOS7 is a radical new look. iOS6’s characterful cocktail of interfaces and skeuomorphs are replaced with a far more cohesive and clean visual language—a complete system-wide reworking. Compared to the evolution that has characterised each new software version in previous years, it’s a revolution.

And therein lies the rub. Reinventing the user interface for millions of devices is really high risk. Customers have learnt their way around Apple’s products and have come to rely heavily on their intuitive, frustration-free operation. And while the design and tech savvy might doff their cap to Ive for skeuomorphic cessation and graphic coherency, the average user just wants to use their device as they always have.

Apple knows this. In the iOS7 promo, Ive speaks of the importance of making such a radical design feel “instantly familiar”. But there’s only so familiar it can be when virtually no function, icon, colour, texture or button has been left untouched. There will be a learning curve, and for many, it will be an unwelcome shock.

For that reason, Apple should brace itself. iOS7 is a future-facing design—one which Ive describes as a “beginning”—and it’s common for such designs to experience a troubled birth, as the familiar is snatched away and replaced with something alien.

It’s a factor we have to take into account when we research new designs with consumers—and we often encounter resistance when we introduce challenging ideas. But that doesn’t mean they’re not the right thing to do—just that they need to be handled carefully.

Photo: Gordon Gin's old (left) and new (right) package design

Photo: Gordon Gin’s old (left) and new (right) package design

Take Gordon’s Gin. We researched the design on shelves now, which was a big change from the previous pack. Layers of detailing were stripped away to create a minimal look that could feel stark by comparison. For that reason the initial response from consumers could be quite defensive, but our research needed to look past that—to the ‘acclimatised’ response. Now, years on, a design that could shock at first sight looks absolutely fitting for today, while the old design looks very dated. It was the right thing for the brand, long term.

The mixed response to iOS7’s unveiling, and the friction it will experience at launch as customers scale the learning curve, will eventually subside. Apple’s new design direction will sink or swim on its ability to hold its nerve and carry consumers past the inevitable shock of the new.

If iOS7 is a truly visionary design its appeal will over time silence the reactionary critics and re-set the bar in Apple’s favour once more.

About the Author

Stuart Chapman_The Big Picture_headshot
Stuart Chapman is Associate Director at The Big Picture, the London-based qualitative research agency specializing in design research. After completing his degree in Architecture and working in practice for four years, Stuart turned his attention from building buildings to building brands, when he joined The Big Picture in 2009 as a fresh-faced newbie to research.

Since then he has applied his particular combination of analytical pragmatism and creative thinking to the benefit of many major global brands.

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