It’s very easy to be different, but very difficult to be better.
Jony Ive, SVP of Design, Apple
When Apple announced last fall that its own industrial design visionary Jony Ive would also take over software design
for the company, UX designers around the world didn't know whether to
celebrate or shudder. But it could be just the shot in the arm Apple
needs to take its design leadership into the future. And it has big
implications for all of us.
Apple has always been lauded for its beautiful and visionary hardware
design. But the company's recent skirmishes with Samsung and other
hardware manufacturers over who owns the rounded corner has only served
to reinforce why hardware design is steadily becoming homogenous. There
are only so many things you can do with a thin glass rectangle. Remember
the first Motorola Razr? Sure you do, it was an iconic phone. Do you know what the current one looks like? Of course you don’t, it’s just another smartphone.
You can still get phones in different sizes, with rubberized frames,
sporting the odd flip-down or pull-out keyboard. But as hardware evolves
itself into invisibility we're well on our way to a time when the only
thing that differentiates how something feels will be its software.
Software design is what makes a page turn onscreen, it makes a TV
respond to your voice, it makes an app feel homey and familiar like
Apple's Calendar, and it makes an OS feel modern and fluid like Windows
This is not lost on Ive and his team. While Apple hardware has more
or less consistently surpassed competitors' designs, Apple's software
isn't always best-in-class. As hardware becomes less important to why
people purchase the devices they do, software takes on the burden of
being the main differentiator. That's why you can expect to see more and
more patent applications for things such as the scroll bounce. Unlike complex aluminum construction processes, interactions are easy to copy, integrate and ship into the next OS release.
Apple's competitors are also taking note. Microsoft, not known for
spending a tremendous amount of time on interface innovation, has taken a
huge bet on Windows 8 and
its innovative Metro interface. Window 8's often stellar UI can quickly
give way to what is essentially Windows Vista - but as a first step,
it’s hugely ambitious, beautiful and mostly successful.
Meanwhile, Google continues to update its Android platform (with its
somewhat contradictory Chrome OS platform in tow). The whimsical
branding includes a friendly green robot and OS versions called Jelly Bean and Ice Cream Sandwich,
which, along with its odd mishmash of UI elements, makes Android the
least recognizable and least remarkable interface. Sure, it’s possibly
the most versatile, and lives on the most affordable range of devices,
but Google still seems to be cleaning up after giving headset
manufacturers too many design freedoms early on, fragmenting its own
operating system into various sub-groups. Still, Android is the leading
smartphone platform, and will probably hold that lead for the
While key players seem to be visually differentiating themselves,
there still seems to be a consensus on the need to create cohesive, if
not entirely identical, experiences across a wide spectrum of devices.
Apple has slowly integrated some of its key iOS features back into
MacOS. Google’s app suite has evolved to look homogenous across devices
(even the ones that don't run Android). And Microsoft has, rather
confidently, proclaimed that the Windows experience should carry across
from table to desktop.
At Say Media we're fans of Device Agnosticism and an interface
platform that will allow us to start crafting experiences that maintain
their consistency, even when the context in which they are used differs
wildly. Over the last two years, we have built and learned a tremendous
amount and are facing similar challenges to anyone building interfaces
for the post-PC era.
This is a defining moment, where interfaces will feel as ubiquitous
in our lives as the physical objects we use to interact with them are.
We will interact with them constantly. They will literally cover our
landscapes, live in our cars and living rooms, and become part of the
architecture. They will affect the media we consume, the way we look at
the world, and how we learn and communicate. These interfaces have a
responsibility to make our lives easier, to make their presence wanted
and beneficial, to be beautiful and, more often than not, to get out of
the way. Here's to the Age of the User Interface.
Alex Schleifer is design and creative director for Say Media.