Enraptured by Mockups

There’s a set of theoretical designs for iOS 7 going around, and while they’re pretty to look at I’m a little disappointed by those declaring that it should be Apple’s next move. John Gruber thinks differently:

There are a lot of clever ideas and nice designs in this iOS 7 “concept” by Philip Joyce of design firm Simply Zesty. But they’re only clever and nice in the abstract, as possible designs for a touchscreen phone interface. Nice and clever though they are, this would be a disaster as a new design for the actual iPhone. A new look is one thing (and we’re going to get it), but when you’re well established and have a large user base, as iOS does, you need to maintain familiarity. If users are asking “What is this? Where am I? Where’s all the stuff I’m used to?” it’s going to be a disaster.

I haven’t been a user interface designer for very long in the scheme of things. I trained as a print designer, learned how to draw typography, and created color separations for press runs. Interactive design is still something we’re all making up as we go along. But one thing I have learned is that users have no fundamental problem with a redesign. They do, however, recoil in horror when you introduce them to something that is a top-to-bottom replacement for a product they’ve grown to feel comfortable with, while calling it a “redesign.” It’s fundamentally dishonest — Windows 8, whatever your opinion of it (and I am generally a fan), was not a “redesign” of Windows. It’s an entirely new design for an operating system that happens to still be called “Windows.”

Designers wanna design. It’s in our DNA to seek out and eliminate every trace of hokiness, or half-assedness, or what seemed cool at the time but now looks tired. If WordPress were run entirely by designers, it would likely have an all new interface every year, but a fraction of the user base.

This is the challenge in continuing to freshen and update the design of software that millions (or billions, in the case of iOS) of users already know and understand. But those millions of existing users are what makes the work worthwhile. It’s the guiding principle behind the MP6 redesign project for WordPress. We made it our goal to refresh WordPress’ aesthetic styling and improve accessibility by making the dashboard responsive — but doing this without making major changes to the way users interact with the software. It’s not that there aren’t opportunities for it — I could spend an entire cycle alone on the Edit Post screen — but through years of experience we’ve found how much users appreciate it when we separate visual redesigns from major, sweeping architectural changes. In short, it’s about iteration, something both WordPress and Apple have always embraced.

Flat design is sexy. And simplicity rules the day. Both of these concepts should inform the future work done by all interaction designers (including for WordPress and for iOS). But to paraphrase Gruber’s quote from above: a new look is one thing (and WordPress is going to get it), but when you’re well established and have a large user base, as WordPress does, you need to maintain familiarity. If users are asking “What is this? Where am I? Where’s all the stuff I’m used to?” it’s going to be a disaster.

2 thoughts on “Enraptured by Mockups

  1. I agree with you and John Gruber for the most part. As largely tech-ignorant users, we seek familiarity. But I guess most great innovations are in no way familiar. Before the iPhone, the touchscreen wasn’t mainstream. People had to learn as they went and now they’re used to it. Sure the learning curve for something new is steeper at the beginning, BUT if the benefits outweigh the discomfort of relearning things, I’m sure most users would be happy.

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  2. Oh, man. This article is so timely for me as I struggle to balance redesign with usability in a big project I’m working on. I found myself over-designing the new layout just because it looked hot, but the ui wasn’t as trim and functional as it should have been. One of the processes that led me to that realization was hopping on my fiance’s laptop (running Windows 8) and being so effing frustrated that I couldn’t figure out even how to restart it, change a system setting, close a system pop-up…that I wanted to throw the whole thing off my balcony. There’s always a way to maintain familiarity and usability and still accomplish fresh design. Thanks for sharing. I’m glad I’m not the only designer who has to make a very conscious effort not to give myself over to the temptation of Totally New Super Unique Sexy Awesome “redesigns”.

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