Article: Shaping Buttons

by on December 16, 2013

Apple recently seeded iOS 7.1 Beta 2, and one of the big features is the introduction of Button Shapes. Turning this option on the Accessibility portion of the Settings app provides a faint grey background behind “clickable” items in iOS 7. This addition should be helpful to some since it does add a bit of contrast, but it also is concerning that Apple is using the Accessibility area for all sorts of user interface tweaks that are off by default.

I’m not the only one who has weighed in, as numerous people have linked to Steven Aquino’s excellent piece on the matter. He points out that the buttons are ugly, and that’s what most of the designers and developers are concerned about. Never mind that they’re ugly, but more importantly, they do add a level of obviousness to the interface, but also help those who are visually handicapped and need the extra contrast.

There are two issues with Apple arguably backpedalling with this option—it’s off by default, and why not find a solution that can be on all the time and isn’t ugly? This has become the norm with iOS 7 and its hidden UI “fixes”—they are there, but an all-or-nothing customization. I’d love to turn on Bold Text for icons on my home screen, but not everywhere else, or use Reduce Motion to turn of parallax, but not necessarily some of the other visual flourishes. Are we going to get a whole series of toggles switches to make iOS 7 functionally more like iOS 6, but end up making it uglier than both?

Craig Grannell seems to agree with me on this concern:

My concern is more that Apple has created an operating system that clearly has a ton of UX and UI issues, and yet is now burying ‘fixes’ within accessibility, away from where the typical user will see it. To my mind, the defaults of any design should be the most usable, even if that means some kind of compromise on whatever artistic and aesthetic vision you have. With iOS 7, Apple’s strayed some way from that goal; I hope as its mobile OS continues to evolve it will trend back towards being more usable, rather than being a showcase for Jony Ive’s infatuation with a certain kind of minimalism.

I’m still relatively positive about iOS 7, especially since it did simplify and clean up a lot of apps. I just worry that Apple will keep tacking on toggles to “fix” the issues rather than subtle tweaks to improve the experience.

In regards to these new Button Shapes, if it were me, I’d offer a simple outline, much like Contrast’s Perfect Weather, or even the older versions of Mac OS. They give some visual indication that you can tap that, but still are clean and match the interface.

iOS 7 has arguably been one of the most exciting operating system launches from Apple in awhile. OS X Mavericks feels much like its predecessors, just with additional features. This is from years of refinement after a shocking, and arguably over-the-top first release of OS X that did make some sacrifices in favor of eye-candy, rather than minimalism. Although it took about seven or eight years to get something that looks much like what we have now, OS X development is a much slower process in contrast to iOS. Because of this, I’d hope that Apple is working on resolving all of these toggles and awkward settings for iOS 8, much like Marco Arment muses:

Apple knows this, so it’ll be interesting to see how it’s revised next year. If iOS 8 can’t remove any of these options, it’s a design failure.

Anecdotally, there are a handful of people I know who have refused to update to iOS 7 because of its visual changes (I’m waiting for them to be left behind on the app update side of things), and I’m sure there is a segment of the population running iOS 7 wishing they had not upgraded due to usability reasons. While this does not mean that Apple should just make iOS 8 look like iOS 6, I think that some things need to be considered to bring the happy mix of usability and good aesthetics.

Lukas Mathis sums up the issue the best:

To be clear, making your UI a bit harder to use in order to make it prettier might sometimes be a worthwhile tradeoff. But it’s a tradeoff you should never make lightly.

I hope Apple spends the next few months reevaluating this tradeoff while working on the next version of iOS. In the meantime, these toggles and additions are a welcome addition.

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