Alonzo Wilkins is a Senior User Interaction Designer and iOS Developer. He is currently developing a new browsing experience that allows the user to glide through hundreds of results with a single swipe of a finger.
Khadijah Roussi of UI Palette: The most prominent change for me is the use of text throughout the app instead of using more iconography. I feel like a lot of the time the text is too small to be very useful. What do you think?
Alonzo Wilkins: I’d say iconography is really a language. It’s pictograms. The users do have that learning curve. A user, when they encounter a new icon, has to decipher it first. A lot of designers will say “we think it’s going to be this”, and they do this before actually encountering an ordinary user. So that creates a problem for a lot of people, and if you actually test the icons out there, you’ll find the number of people who’ve learned their meaning are very few in number. So, I’d say that using text is clean, clear, and obvious, it’s using a language that people already know. This is one of the areas where you might want to sacrifice aesthetics in order to provide a better user experience.
Khadijah Roussi of UI Palette: So you think it’s a good trajectory, then, especially with the globalization?
AW: Absolutely. A lot of people that look at icons as the new field for design who have this focus on making it prettier are often taking away essential features. Einstein once said: “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Sometimes, instead of having a fancy, artistic stop sign with a red octagon, just put the word “stop” there and see if that works.
UIP: So overall you like iOS7?
AW: iOS7, I’d say, is a mixed bag. There are some things that they got very right, such as the back-swipe, the increased font sizes that come with getting rid of borders. There are other things they got quite wrong – not being able to easily tell what’s tappable and what’s not. They also have made things less visible, especially on the lock screen. Overall, it seems to be not as fully thought out as previous incarnations. For example, the hard-to-read fonts that are on the home and lock screens…those are not really designed for backgrounds that have very strong blacks and whites, like striped wallpapers. People will throw anything on their background – a picture of their friend, or a cup of coffee – and not being able to figure out that we need a font style that looks good everywhere…that’s an area they missed, and that’s a pretty big area, I think. It worries me about the future of Apple’s design.
UIP: It’s like they took two steps forward, but a giant step backward.
AW: A lot of the decisions on the re-design where decisions taken from the print world, I think. Like, everything must be white and clean. In the print world, you’re working with clean paper, and it’s usually the best decision. For screens, however, you’re dealing with projected light, not just reflected light. So you’re now blasting a whole bunch of white light at the user’s face all the time, which makes it less comfortable and more harsh. It’s very subtle. Most people, ordinary users, wouldn’t detect this right off the bat. It’s one of those things where, over time, you just realize for some mysterious reason this device is more comfortable to use over this other device.
UIP: Doesn’t Android use a lot of white?
AW: Well, yeah, but I wouldn’t call Androids the most comfortable devices to use. They fail completely at those very subtle areas that you can’t quantify on a spreadsheet.
UIP: So you definitely think that iOS7 is ahead of the curve on design compared to Android?
AW: I think iOS7 is a mixed bag according to Apple’s standards. It still beats just about every major manufacturer that’s on the market, although Google is catching up, especially with its native iOS apps.
UIP: How do you bridge between the design and development world? What are the challenges for that?
AW: The tricky part there is that the two worlds don’t really talk to each other. They don’t truly understand each other. Design has no clue about the amount of work that goes into the fundamentals, the things you can’t see. And, for the engineers, it’s the same deal. So you’ll have this situation where something looks 90% done from one perspective, while from the other it’s 10% finished. I think that the best solution for this is for designers to become a little bit more technical. I believe that’s the biggest gap I see on the design field. For engineers, I’m a little bit more forgiving, because I’ve done both jobs, and engineering is really tough. Not to say design isn’t; it’s just a very different type of tough. The problem is, in the engineering field, there aren’t any designers there to make processes faster, easier, and better.
I think the biggest benefit to designers is learning what these machines can truly do, so then a designer is able to create UI that utilizes the device’s strengths. A lot of designers nowadays work on the web a lot, which has its limitations. You’re only able to throw so much on the screen at once. With native software, that changes completely. If you’ve played a game like a Call of Duty clone on an iPhone, then you have a really good idea of what the device is capable of doing. However, the video game field is a rare one in which designers actually have knowledge of the hardware, and they’re able to push things to their limits and work with engineers to bring us truly amazing experiences. If there’s a designer out there who’s looking at web design or another app and seeing it as mundane, I think it’s important for them to realize that they can do this too. A lot of those tools are available to “mere mortal” developers, so to speak. It’s becoming easier and easier for those guys to create these fantastic effects, and to move beyond just putting pixels on a screen and instead focus on crafting an experience and giving an app a special type of feel, where even interacting with it, you can tell it’s something special. There’s this field in art where they try to emphasize what’s not there (negative space). You can find this in ancient Japanese art, where an artist would leave the entire canvas blank, and with the fewest strokes possible show us a lake or a mountain landscape, and the viewer will feel like they’re there. It’s all about enriching the experience.
There’s this field in art where they try to emphasize what’s not there (negative space). You can find this in ancient Japanese art, where an artist would leave the entire canvas blank, and with the fewest strokes possible show us a lake or a mountain landscape, and the viewer will feel like they’re there. It’s all about enriching experience.
UIP: How would a designer approach learning more about the technical side when all most designers have are comparisons to what someone else previously accomplished by looking through apps or huge documentation that might be indecipherable to someone that’s not as experienced with the nomenclature?
AW: We’re looking at two pieces here. One’s the technical side, and the other is the creative part. I’ll talk a little bit about the latter first. When famous game designer Hideo Kojima was asked what his greatest recommendation was to aspiring game developers, he said, “Live.” Go out there and explore the world, go find what truly excites you, and take the best of those experiences and build up that treasure, so when you create that app, you can imbue those feelings into them. When I’ve designed an app, I might go to a memory of fog and clouds rolling over a mountain scape. So I’ll say, well, I can’t do the whole thing, but I want a little piece of that feeling in there. That helps to make the app feel a little less closed in, and helps the user feel more free and calm. Kind of like a houseplant put in the office.
Going outside of your normal comfort zone applies to technology. When you look at a very well done graphic presentation, or if you look at some of the templates built in to Apple’s motion software, or animated menus in games, there’s inspiration there. As Picasso said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” What that means is you take from places far outside the the industry and translate that into your design.
UIP: And the technical side?
I don’t suggest that every designer learns how to code. That’s its own animal. Most application platforms are built on top of a software stack. With every platform and with every device, there are some things that are easy for them to do, and some that are hard. For example, computers are great at drawing dots and lines. They can do hundreds of them, thousands of them, PCs can do millions. Someone could take this knowledge and say, “You could take these dots and lines and move them into this 3D space and do whatever they want with them.” And they might look at some line-art, or perhaps study pointillism, and say, “What if we try to translate that into software? Use it as a visual theme? A background flavor? A visual flourish that calls attention to our app?”
So, learning more about the technical side can open up a lot of doors and avoid the pitfalls in which you could come up with a design and an engineer says, “This is absolutely impossible!” On that note, a very enticing benefit to a designer familiarizing themselves with the technical, is coming back to that engineer and saying, “What if we tried this?” Because of their broadened perspectives, designers can come up with solutions to problems that engineers might not have even considered yet. Know some of the limitations and components of the equipment that you’re using.
UIP: You’re saying that this would push the product further, so that we can start developing more immersive apps, and make jobs easier, but harder if you have to learn everything?
AW: One of the most important things about this is that it does bring the engineers and designers together. For engineers, I’d recommend learning more about art theory.
What really slows down projects, and what makes the work hard, is when people don’t have a solid understanding about what they’re working with, or what the other people are working with, so they start to butt heads. This friction is what slows things down immensely, making everyone come home exhausted instead of energized from the day’s work. A little bit of preparation on everyone’s part, and being open to new ideas and inputs from your colleagues can make everything faster and smoother. This also means that you can make amazing things in a short amount of time, which is the holy grail in the software world. This also means that you’re doing less work.
Software, at its core, is nothing. It’s an illusion. It’s closer to theater than anything else, especially print design. In theater, everything’s made up. As soon as you turn the lights off, everything goes away, just like software. When you design, you’re putting on a show. Since there isn’t anything necessarily hard or rigid in there, you’re capable of putting forward any kind of concept to better help illustrate what’s truly going on underneath on a design. That’s why I think the trend that’s looking to flat print design is a phase. It’s rooted in a fundamental lack of understanding what software truly is.