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Apple Takes A Step Backwards From Flat Design

Hate minimalism? A new option in iOS 7.1 developer preview allows users to turn on "button shapes," bringing back a bit of skeuomorphism to Apple's latest OS.

Apple Takes A Step Backwards From Flat Design

[Image: Flickr user Robert S. Donovan]

Back when Apple announced it would switch to a flat design language, we asked seven prominent iOS developers what they thought of the change. "Even though our app puts content first and has a minimal design, switching to Helvetica and putting our icons on a diet did little to make it feel like a good iOS 7 citizen," one developer told us anonymously (to preserve his developer NDA with Apple). "One of the biggest challenges we encountered was to follow the new design gestalt without becoming too generic and sterile."

As it turns out, generic and sterile were minor issues when compared to usability. Without button shapes, users familiar with iOS 6 may have trouble identifying which areas of the screen are tappable controls—an especially salient issue for the hard of sight. Now that Apple has seeded iOS 7.1 to developers, it appears that its designers have added in the option for users to turn on button shapes behind text-only buttons, which appear like rounded-rectangular shadows behind the button text. Here's what button shapes look like in the Calendar app:

Calendar List Viewvia Cult of Mac

A tech writer named Steve Aquino says that while a lot of design snobs will criticize Apple for this move, it's more important that Apple stay true to its roots of building handicap-accessible devices, rather than adopting a certain aesthetic just because Jony Ive likes it. Writes Aquino on his blog:

Most of the commentary I’ve read on this change has been from designers who are upset that the borders are ugly, and they question why Apple chose to add them. From a pure design perspective, aesthetically speaking, it’s perfectly reasonable to criticize the new shapes. They are indeed ugly, but the overall importance of this new addition trumps the way in which they’re presented. That is to say, regardless of how the buttons look, the sheer fact that they add a level of desperately needed contrast makes the buttons a huge usability win, and likely—rightfully—will garner much praise from the visually impaired segment of the accessibility community.

Prior to his death, Steve Jobs was said to put his team through hell just to get the right wood-grain or leather pattern, much to the ire of people inside and outside Apple. But Aquino points out that his slavish dedication to real-world surfaces was at least more user-friendly (if visually overwrought) when compared to iOS 7's new flat design.

From a AX perspective, what the new Button Shapes do is restore a sense of explicitness to iOS 7′s interface. These types of visual cues are so important to many visually impaired users, myself included. Whereas previously I struggled in identifying whether a label was an actionable control or simply a label, iOS 7.1′s Button Shapes hearken back to the iOS 6-style, This is a button. Tap me!, level of usability. And therein is the point: usability. As I stated, it’s perfectly valid to wince at and decry the visual design of the new buttons, but make no mistake, the addition of this feature is a tremendous improvement for visually handicapped users such as myself. These buttons will make iOS 7 infinitely more usable than it is today, and Apple absolutely should be applauded for addressing a serious issue—not only for me, but even for the normal-sighted as well.