Apple’s Design Trap

There’s an excellent discussion about design vs practicality going on currently within the Apple community that gathers around the Mastodon water cooler. It was kicked off by Matt Birchler responding to a post from Daring Fireball’s John Gruber commenting on how far ahead third party iOS apps for Mastodon were than those on the Android platform. Birchler filled out his thoughts in a post called The Shocking Stage of Enthusiast Apps on Android.

John Gruber continued the thread on Daring Fireball with an excellent post called Making Our Hearts Sing. That in turn prompted Frederico Viticci to pen a post on MacStories called The Practicality of Art in Software. I’d highly recommend you read Matt, John, and Viticci’s posts.

Beyond a brief summary let me just say that I’m in profound agreement with each of the posts. There are differences in the arguments, but they all aim at the same larger point about Apple.

Yes, in my view Android apps for Mastodon pale in comparison to iOS apps. As backed up by my own experiences, I do feel the general design of Android apps also lack what Gruber calls “the artistic value in software and interface design” that he sees in iOS apps. AND, as Viticci says “As a computer maker or app developer, you have to strike that balance between the aspirational and the practical, the artistic and the functional.”

The two cents I’m about to add to the discussion isn’t in contrast to what these three have laid out. Like I said I’m in agreement with the points in each argument. Think of this as tangential to the discussion.

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So here’s the tangent.

Design is key to any endeavor that’s creating a product. We can talk form following function, or practicality, or art for art’s sake. Doesn’t matter where you enter the discussion. It’s key. And the posts I’ve mentioned above do an excellent job of hitting those points.

Apple has captured, captivated, seduced and perhaps suckered many of us with its approach to the design of its products. In my opinion I think they’ve largely succeeded. If you “think different” then I won’t question your taste, but I’ll just acknowledge that we sail on two different oceans. That said, Apple is also masterful in the design of the marketing and rollout of products. In many ways the product and the marketing of the product are inseparable.

But I think Apple has designed itself into a predicament in the same way many tastemakers do. Once you embody an asthetic and it becomes not only your brand but your essence you create almost impossible semiotic expectations. You’re no longer designing just your next creation, you’re designing to meet the expectations you’ve created. It can be a trap when you follow that path OR if you deviate from it.

And that’s where the trap gets tricky. Be real with me here. When you see amazing and beautiful screenshots of a new app I’m sure you’re often as tempted as I am to push the Buy button before you even read and understand the description of what the app offers. Especially if the App is from a developer you’ve had good experiences with in the past. It’s no different than following any other artist in any other medium. Favorite singer, buy the next album. Favorite author, buy the next book.

Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying all app developers, Apple, or other artists are trying to pull one over on us. (I’m sure some are but that’s another topic for another day.) Using a combined appeal to our senses and our reservoir of good feelings from past experiences is what designing products is all about. The successful designers know just how to reach us and build a following. Some would call it maniuplation. They’re correct. The intent of most art is to maniuplate a response.

Take Weather apps for example. Goodness knows how many of those I tried just because those radar displays looked gorgeous in screenshots. The well worn cliché of not buying a book by its cover certainly applies to App marketing and we all know how clichés get started.

And then there are the artists and designers that break the mold. Try something new. Take a different, sometimes radical approach. That may work in the long view once a more full body of work can be viewed from a distance. But it’s risky in the immediate market of expectations, which is why its viewed as a departure. But strike gold and the risk can pay off.

Play to our attactions to the pretty. The shiny. The well designed. The well packaged. Play to our desires for something familiar while yearning for something new. Create tension with those competing desires and debut that “departure” inside a wrapping of the familiar and you get a double bang for the buck. And here’s where Frederico Viticci’s long, and well documented struggle with Stage Manager works so well as the prime example in this tangent.

Stage Manager is Apple’s attempt at a windowing solution for iPads and Macs. iPad users have been yearning for a windowing or multi-tasking solution for awhile. What they’ve been yearning for is something most are already familiar with from experiences with laptops and desktops. Surely this would be beautiful in a “think different” sort of way. But not too “think different” in the practical mechanics.

If you’re an iPad user I am reasonably sure you were awed by the demo of Stage Manager when you first saw it. It looked magical. It looked magical in that Apple way. It looked like the solution many iPad users have all been waiting for. I know it did for me. And it was rolled out in all the ways we’ve all become accustomed to.

But the practicality of Stage Manager on the iPad largely failed to live up to the promise of those expectations once users got their hands on it. Frankly, I find it more than a dissapointment. But the design from demo to packaging of the idea was certainly alluring and seductive enough to get us (me) in the door.

I won’t go into the ways and wherefores of that beyond linking to Viticci’s excellent chronicling of his experiences. His feelings and thoughts are shared by me and many others.

So to wrap this up and get back to the points about design asthetics, practicality vs pretty, and Mastodon Apps on competing platforms let me say this. I’ve downloaded and followed the development of many of the iOS Apps for Mastodon. I’m genuinely excited by what I see and feel.  Although there are differences, some are starting to morph a bit into the same look and feel but the feature sets (currently) set them apart.

After giving a spin to some of the Android Mastodon apps I’ve been dissappointed in the smaller selection available and also the lack of strong design statements in those that do exist. And again, features sets give them distinction. I’m sure others feel differently and vive la differénce.

This difference though cements my thinking that the expectations and semiotic differences between Apple and Android design philosophies are  baked in at this point in the game. Apple has created such a deeper dependency on design prowess. Android’s “come as you are” approach leaves more room for less when it comes to the art of visual design. Fundamentally there’s nothing wrong with ether approach from a user perspective. Choose what you’re attracted to and have fun with your choice.

The larger and more precarious point with this tangent is that Apple’s rich design expectations, as powerful as they are, are also Apple’s Achilles heel. Great artists aren’t afraid to fail. Great product makers who use great art as a selling point need to tred more carefully to avoid the level of disappointment that can turn a legacy into a burden.

Author: Warner Crocker

I stumble through life as a theatre director and playwright as well as a gadget geek...commenting along the way. Every day I learn something new is a good day, so I share what I find exciting, new, stupid and often worthwhile.

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