UX Corner: Apple’s Simplicity Is Not Enough – Elegant Design Requires Ingenuity

If you know anything about User Experience (UX) Design, you’ve read Steve Krug’s popular book “Don’t Make Me Think”, now an industry manual on how best to approach Web usability. The basic premise of good UX, according to Krug, is to reduce the amount of thinking a user is required to do to successfully use a Web site. This is also known as the K.I.S.S. method (“Keep It Simple, Stupid”), and is today being applied not only to Web sites, but to all software, including mobile operating systems.

Hit the break to find out why this may not be the most elegant approach to mobile OS design.

Who Does Simple Best?

Apple, of course, is considered the king of simplicity. Stories of toddlers navigating iPhones like they’re diminutive Wall Street executives abound on the Interwebs. (Hmm, is that where the e-trade baby came from?) Apple’s iOS unquestionably changed the mobile landscape by bringing the UX ahead at least a decade. When mobile OS’s were stuck with awkward Start buttons, quirky stylus controls, and clunky directional pads, Apple produced a user interface that was so simple by comparison, it became the epitome of Krug’s mantra.

Fast forward half a decade and we now have Android in its current Jelly Bean form being praised for its improved UX, but still considered more complex than iOS. It’s an OS “for the geeks” they say. In many ways, that’s true. Android’s open nature attracts those who understand its benefits… geeks, nerds, hackers, tweakers, modders… but the general population has no idea, nor do they care, what Android is all about. They just want a device that works and is easy to operate. This is Apple’s biggest draw. Pass along the message that iPhones are easy to use, and people who don’t want a technical hassle will naturally gravitate toward that option. Who doesn’t want easy to use devices?

This Garden Has Walls

Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that these people are absorbed into a world where, yes, everything is beautiful, but it is a very controlled beauty. Stray a bit from the lines and you’ll bump head-on right into one of the walls of this beautiful garden. Not satisfied with one of the base elements that make up the garden? Too bad. That’s the way it is. You’ll use it and like it. Many people are fine with this. They like the simplicity and safety of this world. It is non-threatening. It is understandable, relatable, and most of all, easy.

Many UX practitioners call Apple’s design “elegant”. If “elegant” simply meant “simple”, I’d agree. But the definition of the word includes the phrase “pleasingly ingenious and simple,” and this is where I believe Apple falls short and Android is starting to pull ahead.

It’s obvious what side of the wall I’m on, and for a professional UX Designer, I believe I’m in the minority. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years working in Silicon Valley, it’s not to underestimate the user. Sure, in most cases we have to design for the lowest common denominator because “if they can use it, anyone can”. Traditional UX and usability principles all reinforce this way of thinking. But when we’re talking about a product that is used by millions of people from all levels of expertise, the lowest common denominator may actually be too low.

Less Is Less

The Cupertino approach is to simplify by removing options that could be confusing to some. For example, iOS does not support widgets on their home screens. As a matter of fact, the home screen is simply a grid of icons each representing the actual app that is installed. That’s easy to understand, but the functionality has been reduced to provide that simplicity. Android has one level of abstraction with its home screens since they contain app shortcuts that can be added and removed without affecting the installed app, as well as home screen widgets, which can be thought of as pieces of an app that can be displayed right on the home screen without having to launch the app. The complexity lies in having to have a way to manage your shortcuts and widgets… a problem Apple avoids all together by not allowing this feature.

Elegance Requires Ingenuity

Elegant design is one where a user is made to feel like the UI is just at the right level to be able to discover new features easily and not get lost. The experience needs to feel tailored to their level of expertise. Rather than removing functionality to make it easy for everyone, why not hide the more advanced features where those who know where to look can find them? That seems a lot more “pleasingly ingenious” to me. Simply designing for the lowest common denominator is more of a brute force approach of only including the bare minimum. It is denying the more advanced for the sake of keeping people from thinking too much.

I’ll be the first to admit that Android is not without a slight learning curve. Most versions of Android have a ways to go before becoming the simple candy colored shell that hides the more complex chocolatey goodness inside. Versions prior to Ice Cream Sandwich spill their chocolate all over the candy shell, exposing advanced options right alongside the options everyone would use daily. Add to that some of the manufacturer skins that change some of basic Android elements and you have an inconsistent design across multiple devices, adding to the noise.

But Google has been consistently honing Android’s UX for the better, making it more accessible for the mainstream, while maintaining the more advanced options for us geeks. Pre-ICS Android devices included four device buttons (home, search, menu, and back). The Menu button in particular was a huge UX problem since the user had to remember to try it to see if the app had any hidden menu items. ICS and Jelly Bean have reduced device buttons to only three (home, back, and multitasking) and exposed the Menu icon in the app’s action bar instead, greatly improving the discoverability of menu items.

Developer options have been further hidden in Android 4.2 by requiring the user to actually unlock it with a series of touches. Non-developers would never be bothered by confusing and very technical menu items, but developers would know to unlock those options.

The Future Is Elegant

There’s still a way to go to find that perfect balance between iOS simplicity and Android functionality, but seeing the current direction Android is headed, it won’t take long. Under the leadership of UX guru Matias Duarte, Android is certainly in good hands. It might be a bit behind in ease of use when compared to iOS right now, but keep in mind how much of a head start Apple has had, and also remember that Google is not removing advanced functionality for the sake of user experience. It wants to keep both, and in achieving that, it will certainly earn the badge of “elegant design”.

About the Author: Ed Caggiani

Originally from the East Coast, Ed now makes his home in San Jose, California. His passion for technology started with his first ColecoVision and Atari gaming systems, and has grown stronger through Tandy computers, IBM clones, Palm Pilots, and PocketPCs. Ed's love for Android began with his first HTC Hero, then blossomed with the original Evo 4G, and now the Evo 3D and Motorola Xoom. He graduated from Syracuse University with a B.S. in Communications, and is now a professional User Experience Designer working in Silicon Valley. In his spare time, Ed enjoys video games, jamming on guitar, and spending time with his wife, two cats, and Logitech Revue.

  • Anyone who has used iOS can easily use Android. My friend who never used Android device got a Nexus 7 and started using it. Even my little sister picked up my Nexus 7 and started using it without any instructions.

  • Jason Schupfer

    Personally I find Android easier due to the Menu and back buttons

    • jcauseyfd

      My wife just got a new iPhone to replace her Blackberry. As she has been learning how to use it during the past few days, one of the things she has been complaining about is the lack of an easy way to back out of whatever she has gotten into. The “home” button is the only option and she is very frustrated with that.

  • My friend, very good article! I enjoyed reading it very much! Very well written.

  • RTWright

    All I can say is, there are FAR more Android users out there now than there are iOS. So the UI isn’t an issue. iOS is for one group of people and those only, the people that want that silly recognizable logo and name. Android’s UI is as good as it gets ( Excluding all of the OEM based UI’s which we could do without ). Google hiding the advanced sections of the devices is good, because you have to think if you have children and they get into that area of the device and they can mess you up quickly and that’s never good. People that know, will find those functions no questions asked.

    This article sums up pretty much everything except it somewhat sells Android short in simplicity which really is in the eye of the beholder like beauty. What one finds simple, another finds complicated. I don’t care how you dumb it down, I know people that can’t make heads or tails of the iOS at first but just like anything else, they learn. Yes, due to Android having the ability to use Widgets, Multiple Screens, Adding Folders to Screens with Apps inside them, really opens up things quite a bit versus the highly restricted iOS. So there is a learning curve, but it’s not that much.

    And I don’t classify Matias Duarte any kind of Guru, he’s more of a hindrance in many ways. He’s quite frankly the very reason I refuse to by a Nexus device. His downplaying of the consumer and general user really upsets me because in his eyes, you’re all stupid and couldn’t figure out even how to use a SD Card slot if it was given to you. So his line of thinking is very much night and day different than myself and as long as someone like him is allowed to make such decisions for “The WORLD” then that’s what some of you have to put up with. This is why there are a lot of choices we have as Android users and are not stuck with just one OEM like you would on the iOS platform….

  • Guest

    Please more articles linke this. One nicht not habe the same opinion as the writer, but it is always nice to read. More enjoyable than roaming through the same headlines as on other sites.

  • johnsaar2005

    i have had android since the droid eris came out for verizon that was about four or five years ago. recently i have been forced by my company to use an iPhone and i refuse to carry two phones and i wanted to save 80 dollars a month so i deactivated my galaxy s3. i will be the first to tell you that IOS is not as simple as you think! another person stated not having a back button is beyond frustrating that was my first gripe with IOS. not having a menu button to quickly access advanced features of the OS is a pain in IOS because you have to navigate to the screen that your settings app is on. Navigation is just horrible on IOS and does not compare to google navigation on android, waze uses to much battery life to quickly same with google maps for IOS even their 2D modes drain the battery like crazy. i know GPS can be a battery drainer so i let this one slide a little. but my number one gripe with IOS is its browser and no flash support i like to view desktop sites on my phone sometimes and every browser has to be just like safari according to apples regulations so yes there is dolphin browser on IOS but it acts just like safari for IOS. what i also noticed in the past few months is that apps for IOS have 100x more ads and offer less features for free than their android companions. one example of this is angry birds starwars the android app gives you almost the whole game for free with minimal adds the IOS version gives you like six levels of six different boards in the game but you get adds that pop up over your whole screen like every two minutes its very annoying makes me not want to play the game. this leads me to my last gripe with IOS being able to manually close apps to save memory and battery life i cant get over that there is no task manager for IOS having to restart your phone because pandora stopped working is not cool with me i should be able to just close the process. I honestly tried to get past these things and give IOS a try but i just cant get over not having any control over my device and i wait for the day i can run over this iphone with my car.