As team lead in user experience for SAP’s Mobile Design Center, I recently spent time familiarizing myself with Apple’s latest release of iOS 7 in order to gain better insight into how this new mobile operating system will affect users.

iOS 7 is being touted as the first major update to the look and feel of Apple products since the passing of Steve Jobs, who was known for his love of “skeuemorphic” design, in which user interface elements are designed to mimic real life.

Think of the cheap pine bookcase background in the iBooks library, the stitching on the edge of the calendar app, the notes app that looks like an old-fashioned legal pad, or the green felt background of the Game Center app. All of these design elements speak to the user in a language distinctly Apple, telling them that this is not only a genuine Apple experience but a reflection of the imagination, care, and meticulous attention to detail in design that the company is so famous for.

iOS creator and former lead design thinker Scott Forestall was also a long-time champion of skeuomorphic design. However, Apple design chief Jony Ive, who stepped forward last year to take the role of lead design thinker for product hardware as well as software environment, has long been a critic of skeuomorphic design.

With iOS 7, his vision for a simplified “flat” design that eschews all things skeuomorphic has been realized. Apple’s new operating system is more than a just facelift, revision, or update—it’s a direction-setting blueprint that gives us insight into the future of mobility.

It’s Not Just an Operating System—It’s an Experience

The changes to the graphic interface are immediately apparent: a thin-serifed global font, Helvetica Neue, combines with thin line icons and bright, primary colors to create a look that clearly distinguishes iOS 7 from its predecessors. The colorful, flat icons use the retina display to high advantage by creating a sparkling, eye-catching home screen. The changes aren’t just cosmetic: the new gesture-controlled functions represent an advance in a gesture-based behavior that didn’t exist a few short years ago and allow easier access to controls, like Notifications Center or Control Center, and faster content searching with a single swipe down on any screen.

iOS 7 … a light and playful experience, perfectly in tune with the content it is designed to support

In a keynote speech at Apple’s last Worldwide Developer’s Conference, Ives said: “True simplicity is derived from so much more than just the absences of clutter or ornamentation, it’s about bringing order to complexity.”

When you look at all the new iOS 7 screens in together in a side-by-side view, you get a clear sense of what he means. The simplified design removes mental associations that might complicate one’s ability to process the experience. At the same time the OS introduces dimension into the experience. Everything has been flattened into a two-dimensional layer but there are added translucent layers of functionality on top of each other, making it easy to move from one layer to the next.

The result is a light and playful experience, perfectly in tune with the content it is designed to support. The operating system minimizes the number of background brain cells required to process what you are seeing in order to allow you to more richly experience what you are feeling, substantiating Apple’s claims that it’s in the “experience-creating business.”

And why should we expect anything less? This is the company that created the iProduct family of iTunes, iPods, iMovies, Garage Band, etc. and pioneered the concept of creating a compelling complete multi-media entertainment system for your computer.

In the same way, iOS 7 isn’t supposed to be seen as another product offering but rather a way to perceive something already familiar from a different angle. It’s a unique language that is easily understood and repeatable across multiple devices with varying screen resolutions and screen sizes and, above all, representative of Apple’s unique brand values.

Elevating the Experience While Remaining True to the Brand

Compare iOS 7 to Microsoft’s 2012 release of the Metro user interface. There are arguable similarities found in the color palettes, font, and icon styling of the two different user interfaces. And yet there’s a huge difference in how these two releases were executed on a brand level. Microsoft spent countless millions on advertising to create anticipation for Metro, which it tried to brand as a revolutionary game-changer.

It reminded me of a friend who tries to look younger then his years by wearing a baseball cap backwards on his head. Unless you can name three current pop songs that are topping the charts, have Tweeted at least 20 times that day and really know what “WWAG do,” your hat had better face forwards. No matter how revolutionary and cool Metro tried to be, it was hamstrung by the fact that it lived side by side with a Windows browsing experience. And ultimately, “hip and cool” just aren’t descriptors that reflect Window’s long-time brand identity.

Apple, on the other hand, isn’t trying to be the ultimate game changer here. Instead, they want to be the cilantro in the omelet: the ingredient that adds freshness and flavor when least expected. They don’t want to dominate the experience: they want to surprise and delight you. One surprise I discovered was the new feature of a moving background image, which moves ever so slightly when you tilt your iPhone up and down. The effect makes it look like your pictures are nearly 3D, but if you want to really be impressed, set your iPhone homescreen picture as a panorama and spin around.

Get Ready tor More Exciting Experiences Coming Down the Pipe

That’s what iOS 7 is telling me: that there are new and interesting experiences coming my way from the guys who made the iPhone and iPad. At the very least, I expect to see new advances in translucent user interfaces that communicate dimension in a nontraditional manner.

The new operating system also encourages users to stop unconsciously focusing on how they’re making something happen and instead to enjoy what they’re making happen. And this makes me excited about the other great leaps we’ll see as the mobile landscape continues to evolve.


The comments on this article are far more informative than the article itself. There's a line in one of teh authors replies to comment that nicely sums up my beef with the movement to "flat" design: "UX design is... moving away from the visual clues we have used in the past to inform users." Visual cues are important to users, and flat design abandons the familiar often with no replacement. Skeumorphic can certainly be overdone, but as a concept it has practical merit.
A little more critical analysis would help the credibility of your publication. Fanboy love letters like this belong on personal blogs. If it weren't for the comment section this article wouldn't have been worth reading.

Well, the Metro-Interface is simply clearer and easier to read. Way better than even iOS 7, which seems to be a bad compromise between overloaded skeuemorphic design and minimal, effective design.

How can a professional website like UXMagazine publish such a fanboy-ish take on this topic, very important to the mobile UX design industry? Microsoft is the pioneer in bringing minimalistic design approach with high emphasis on content and key app functions, transitions and animations. They're working really hard to reinvent themself risking one of their core businesses during the transformation. Android "Halo" (4.0) was highly inspired with Metro design aesthetics and Windows Phone design patterns. iOS7 is even more Metro-ish. You should give this company respect for what we have in mobile design right now. And that's very ironic to read these comments from SAP representative, the company which is not even trying to be younger.

I've had the iOS 7 beta for a few weeks now and I'd like to explain some of the reasons I really hate it.

The clean look of iOS 7 is nice in some places, but the abandonment of skeuomorphic design is so drastic that it affects usability in several areas with a lack of clear distinction between active objects and ordinary text.

I also think Apple has botched what seemed like an obvious lead to blur the line between desktop and handheld devices. Since the release of iOS 4.3 for the phone and OS X v10.7 Lion for the desktop, Apple started to blur the line between handheld devices and the desktop.

Microsoft must have liked the idea too. Windows 8 Live Tiles came out a few months later which appeared to be their attempt at blurring the line between desktop and handheld.

Apple also updated the desktop OS X to be more touch friendly like handheld devices and broadened the usability of touch oriented devices for the desktop such as the Apple Magic Trackpad and the Apple Magic Mouse.

iOS 7 throws all of this out in a giant leap backward with a departure from usability and GUI consistency across devices.

I *am* an older user, and your example of the yahoo! weather screen is harder to read and I know my husband couldn't do it (I've already HAD my cataract surgery and my eyesight is better than it has been, but I am unhappy with the lowered contrast). I'm glad he's got an android phone.

Thank you for reminding me NOT to upgrade my OS on my iPhone or iPad.

It seems to me that Apple is eschewing it's previous skeumorphic design philosophy precisely because Jobs is no longer there imposing his vision on everything. And I have to redesign 300 icons for the application my company makes because of this new design "trend"...


"The simplified design removes mental associations that might complicate one’s ability to process the experience. "Wow, I completely disagree with that. Depth and texture help one recognize which things afford interaction. This is going to be difficult for older users and they've already thickened the font because it was virtually unreadable. Interactive elements take longer to perceive in the new interface resulting in pauses that weren't there before and more cognitive load required to process which things are interactive. It's going to be much more difficult for older users. Gestures are fine but they have basically stolen some of webOS's gestures but not even the best ones. Flattening the design also is bizarre now that they are on a screen allowing for more details than ever before. I understand getting out of the way of the content but interactive elements should look more interactive. Linkedin and Google are getting it more right than Apple. There is also the element of this being a trend and there will probably be some usability backlash hopefully pulling them back from where they've gone. Even great graphic designers like Erik Spiekermann have been critical of the design and typography choices. It's hard to believe so many articles have been written on this.

I think what many design critics tend to overlook is the all important driving factor in product development - "Consumer Boredom". Windows 8, iOS7, OSX, are all products that deliver necessary under-the-hood improvements, things like Flat Design or Skeuomorphic Design are driven by the fact that product companies must deliver products that "seem" to be different or else they face the dreaded consumer boredom or worse dips in stock price.

Even the sacred brand Braun has occasionally diverged from Dieter Ram's design aesthetic in order to prevent consumers from getting "bored". No matter how great or perfect the design principle, when you're dealing with a product that visually hasn't changed in years you run the risk of losing attention to upstarts. Consumer boredom happens much faster in today's cluttered, hyper disposable psyche.

PS- I'd pay real money if you let me log into comments, using third party services, without also having to register an account;).

I agree this article oddly avoids specifics, but more improtantly, it cherry-picks some rudimentary points of iOS7. I've been using it in beta since launch, and we all know as designers there are horrible inconsistencies: from the nauseating icons, to the misshapen control center. A revolution in some areas? I think that's extreme, but debatable. A step back in others? Ansolutely, and more than the sad back button. They zeroed in on an attempt at structure at the expense of user interface and experience. And this is coming from a fanboy, believe me- I moved all of our companies apple (and app-centric) strong before iphone.

Useless article. He likes ios7. He doesn't really tell us why except that it has some nice layers and tilting features. There's nothing talking about the actual usefulness or efficiency of the interface design, just vague words about how pleasant it is. Personally I want a design that works well in addition to looking good. Since Android (not mentioned?!), iOS, BlackBerry and windows all look nice, let's talk about something more relevant.

Hi Brian,

I was trying to say two things: UX design is evolving into a newer form that is moving away from the visual clues we have used in the past to inform users. Interface designs, like the one Apple has presented in iOS7, are a good indicator that major enterprise leaders (like Google and Microsoft) are recognizing this and responding with proposals and ideas. To me, these ideas also point to a larger mind-shift: that design for devices is going to need to become less device-specific or brand-specific but much more focused on the utility that device can provide.

I think that's a good thing for the UX profession; it frees up the notions that things need to look a specific way and allow an exploration of function, utility and device. Yes, these are things we currently do in UX, but they are many times driven by platform. It would seem that those borders may be beginning to blur.

I hope that adds some insight.

Good coverage on the design elements of what Apple is attempting to update in their mobile OS - they've got some challenges ahead of them. They created a premium 'blue skies' platform 6 years ago (and they've done well with it). That's said, the new design 'feels' like a modern facade on a dated structure. There's nothing new or unique about what they're doing with a mobile interface (see Microsoft).

Wow. How can someone in this position and writing for such a site have any clues what "Metro" is all about and where it comes from?

This is seriously shameful. "Metro" was not released in 2012 with Windows 8. It is a design trend inside of Microsoft that goes back to Encarta Encyclopedia (google it!) and Windows Media Center (focus on content, typography and a two-dimensional list-view as the main interaction).

There is so much to learn about the concepts in these approaches and some are really forward thinking instead of just a new skin. The most important aspect about Metro is not even about the graphics but the interaction: content becomes chrome: an image of your friend is an icon to start a conversation, no boarders no decorations; you swipe your mails to sort them, no buttons or menus. Every good interface designer knows about the Zune or the Zune HD's interface. Or at least should know! Market share is irrelevant here. And it seems the author never even heard of Windows Phone launched in 2010.

The lack of knowledge is frustrating to be honest.

Hi tNo,

I was not ignoring the history of Metro, in fact I think as a legacy element in the history of Windows it speaks to real progress. I respect the work and I'm very familiar with the history behind it. That was not the point of what I was writing about however, and in order to be brief I did not describe detailed values that Metro provided to UX. I also still have my Zune player :)

" Microsoft spent countless millions on advertising to create anticipation for Metro, which it tried to brand as a revolutionary game-changer.

It reminded me of a friend who tries to look younger then his years by wearing a baseball cap backwards on his head."

This article really lacks self awareness. You knock MS for thinking they were being trend setting while you think they were clueless and out of touch... but Apple is clearly following the trend that MS started.

100% agree with you! It is quite aparent that the author is not really allowing Microsoft to have created something cool. "Because that would not be according to MS brand guidelines..."

Because apparently, if MS does it, it's bad and without meaning, but if Apple does it, they can do no wrong. I hate that kind of mentality. Thank you for stating how it really is. MS kicked into gear the "flat" design for mobile OS, and Apple is now taking the cake and running with it.

Hi QuentinH,

let me be sure to clear up that I am not denigrating Microsoft, the efforts they have made to UX design or picking a favorite UX operating system. As a contributor to UX, Microsoft has been a big influence in what can be seen, not only in iOS7, but other products as well. The issue for them, to me, is not as much design as product execution. Perhaps, if the other product aspects of the Zune and Windows Tablet had worked to better support the interface the story would be very different.

Interesting and refreshing perspective on the iOS redesign after countless blind bashings.

I too think that the problem was often, that the redesign criticism looked at iOS as a standalone product instead of taking into account the connections to the existing infrastructures and experiences in place. I am not yet sure if it will help tying it in better or just differently. One thing I am wondering about is that iOS is turning completely flat, while I did not see this change reflected in OSX yet. And I always thought that, as much as I was not a fan of most of the visual metaphors in place (aka the skeuomorphic design), it was interesting to see how consistent this experience was across devices.
I am wondering what the stylistic changes to iOS mean in regards to changing the overall experience. You have hinted at it, but all we can do at this point is probably just guess.