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AskTog, March 2009

Apple's Flatland Aesthetic, Part 2:

iPhone, iPod Touch & Apple TV

How a Simple Idea is Causing Complexity

In Part 1, I discussed the ill-effects to the Macintosh of Apple's Flatland aesthetic, a visual simplicity that threatens to bury Apple's users with unnecessary clutter and complexity. This month, it's time to turn our attention to Apple's other devices, beginning with what users are faced with when it’s time to upload images.

En route from iPhoto

I currently have 13,000 digital photos, pared down from some 50,000 I have taken over the last 10 years. They fit on our iPhones, Touch, and AppleTV, but getting them there is sheer agony.

I first needed to create a separate smart album in iPhoto for each corresponding album I wanted to appear on my iPhone, etc. If I did a proper breakout of all my photos, clustering various albums in folders within folders, I would end up with perhaps 2000 albums, with no photograph more than four clicks or touches away. However with iPhone and the other devices, no folders are supported. That means that a reasonable upward limitation on albums is around 70 to 80, a number cumbersome, but at least scrollable. Thus, the Flatland aesthetic begins to complicate matters.

I organized my own 80 albums with one per state, one per country, and a dozen or so theme-based, like Family and Friends.

As a result, I have albums with as few as 20 pictures (last Christmas) and as many as 2000 pictures (China), and the time I spent creating hierarchical keywords was for nought, because none of these devices understand keywords, or photo titles, or anything more complicated than pictures, the ideal interface for a two year old, or at least a two year old with $40 a month for a data plan.

Who’s talking?

Bruce Tognazzini was hired at Apple by Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin in 1978, where he remained for 14 years, founding the Apple Human Interface Group.  He remains a major Apple fan, which is why, when they're doing wrong, he feels compelled to talk about it.

Getting the photos to the iPhone/Touch/AppleTV

Since the photos were all organized in iPhoto, it only makes sense that you sync them with...iTunes! If you understand the history of the iPod as a music-only device, you can understand how this came about. Brand-new users don't understand, and, because there is no responsive help offered, they are on their own with this and every other concept and problem.

Adding injury to insult

When the user does finally manage to sync the photos, all the albums come out in a jumbled ordering. Back to iPhoto. No, the albums are in the perfect order! Sync again. Still jumbled.

Maybe it’s in iTunes somehow. No, there’s nothing in iTunes that says anything about photos. No luck there. Back to iPhoto again.

The best thing to do now is to just give up, because it is only after surrendering that you are likely to tumble onto what's going on. It is the following Tuesday, when you are desperately trying to overcome some problem in syncing your music with iTunes, that you happen to notice a whole row of tabs that you never found before, even though you tried. That's because those tabs only appear if iTunes has properly detected an external device and are quite invisible otherwise.

There, on one of those tabs, it says, "Photos." Clicking the tab displays all your albums, and they are all in a seemingly random order. Thus you learn the awful truth: It doesn’t matter what order you placed the albums in iPhoto, you must order them again in iTunes! And you have to drag them into position, one at a time, with no auto-scroll when you reach the top of the window, so that manipulating a new album from the bottom, where it first shows up, to the top, where you might want it, may take three or four rounds of dragging to the top, then scrolling, then dragging to the top, then scrolling, etc.

Of course, each album must be separately dragged, since there is no moving more than one album at a time. I guess an advanced concept like group selection is more than they think the average Apple user is smart enough to handle.

Try sorting 80 folders like this sometime, and then try doing it over and over, because you have to do it for every device separately, and, in our household, we have four of them now—two iPhones, a Touch, and an AppleTV. That can easily come to a thousand drag and scroll combinations just to get the albums in the exact same order they were when we left iPhoto to begin this dance.

When you get done, you now have 80 albums to scroll through every time you are looking for a particular photograph. And reaching an album is only the beginning, since you are then presented, for example, with all two thousand photos in your China album on your iPhone screen. Try finding your picture of the snake and duck tongue casserole in that little collection.

What Apple needs to do

Because properly-designed hierarchical structures can start out as simple, flat structures, new users will continue to experience a beginner interface that is just as simple as now, while more advanced user will no longer be tortured by a misplaced aesthetic and what borders on contempt for the intelligence and capabilities of the users.

iPhone/iPod Touch Home Screen

You'll see the now familiar Flatland ethic on the home screen of the iPhone and iPod Touch, where it's impossible to, for example, drag all your games into a folder. Instead, you are offered eight distinct, flat, unlabeled pages that you must spin back and forth through in search of that one elusive program.

Apple has thus created eight faithful copies of the Windows ‘95 desktop, where new icons cling to the uppermost, leftmost corner of the screen like helium balloons in a leftward-blowing wind.

At least with Windows ‘95, you could also have folders, not just Apps and documents, on the desktop—not where you wanted them, true, but at least they were there. However, the iPhone/iPod Touch desktop doesn’t even allow folders, part and parcel of the endless prairie of Flatland.

This flatness mania is damaging Apple developers. When the App Store first opened, I was buying everything. I’ve now stopped buying. I no longer have anything I want to throw away and nowhere to put anything new. I’m an early (and compulsive) adopter, but millions of others will soon reach this same point. The gold rush is going to suddenly be over, and it has nothing to do with people getting bored or the Apps becoming less interesting. (See, "Right Study, Wrong Prediction," below.) It’s just that Apple has failed to give people a means of storing what they might buy.

To copy such a poor example of design as the Windows ‘95 desktop, ten-plus years later, is almost unbelievable, and I’m quite confident that, as with George Harrison copying “She’s So Fine” when composing ‘My Sweet Lord,” it was inadvertent. However, it was also naive and misplaced, and it needs to be corrected before Apps sales collapse on their developers.

What Apple needs to do

Human-error is a constant problem in all of life, and having users lay out differing patterns of icons in each container, rather than having them all bunch up toward the upper left every time, will go a long way to enable users to instantly recognize when they have reached an unexpected screen.

This doesn’t mean you don’t provide grids; it just means people can leave holes in the grid where they want. It is those patterns of fills and hollows that enable people to instantly recognize the screen they want.

Apple seems to sometimes forget that a lot of selling takes place far away from the Apple Store. It occurs in people’s houses, on planes, in restaurants, etc., where potential customers ask experienced users how they like their devices. Apple’s razor-sharp focus on new users is a smart and successful strategy. Apple needs to bring that same focus to bear on Apple’s huge, unpaid sales force—experienced users. Apple should continue applying their Flatland aesthetic to the new-user experience, but it should be coupled with a new depth of capability for people further down the path.

If I were at Apple, I would put together a team to identify where this Flatland aesthetic, almost certainly unconscious in origin, is damaging the company, and then I would take steps to root it out. This would not result in making life difficult for new users, which is neither necessary or desirable, but in making life excellent once again for all users.

For all the other designers out there, we have much to learn from Apple's error. The flawed aesthetic that is leading to all this has probably never even been voiced at Apple; it is probably just a shared assumption. (I doubt that the term, Flatland, has been bandied about much.)

The kind of trap Apple has fallen into can be particularly destructive. It's important for designers, when approaching new revisions, to reexplore who your various user populations are and what their unique needs are. Apple's singular focus on new users, correct at a distant time, is now threatening the very existence of external developers, as well as limiting positive word-of-mouth about Apple products, critical to future sales.

Right Study, Wrong Prediction

The press gobbled up a recent study that showed that most iPhone/Touch Apps are not used after the first day or two, and much was made of the fact that this signalled an eventual death knell for the whole Apps movement.

The analysts don’t get it.

The whole buying process can be a joy in itself: Exploring all the possibilities out there, laughing and wincing at the user reviews, plunking down your 99 cents or maybe your zero cents, then unwrapping your bright and shiny new App are all pleasurable experiences for many of us. Then, there’s that brief time of actually learning and playing with the App, also often (but not always) pleasurable. At the end of all that, I’ve gotten my 99 cents (or zero cents) worth. If I end up using the App forever, great. If not, I don’t feel any more ripped off than I do by a purchase of a Snickers bars that lasts less than five minutes.

The big problem with “empty calorie” Apps is not the 99 cents, it’s what to do with them afterward. Again, Flatland rears its ugly head. You certainly can’t leave them on the iPhone, because there’s soon not enough room. Back in iTunes, there’s no sorting them or viewing them except as great big clunky thumbnails, ensuring you can’t see the forest for the trees, and no way of sorting them into, oh, I don’t know, FOLDERS! (Yes, I am shouting.)

The first runs at 2nd generation, complete-solution iPhone Apps are already appearing, but the 99 cent throw-aways are not going away, and they are not going to spoil the App Store phenomena, either, anymore than Snickers Bars at the checkout counter cause supermarkets to close their doors.

Only Apple can slow down sales at the Apps Store, by continuing to make the user experience complex through rigidly sticking to the surface-simplicity of the Flatland aesthetic.


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