Norman and Tognazzini on Apple and design

Nov 29, 2015   #Apple  #Design  #iOS 

When Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini write that Apple is giving design a bad name, you sit up and listen. They write that Apple has thrown away well established design principles and gone for the pretty and snazzy instead.

They write -

The products, especially those built on iOS, Apple’s operating system for mobile devices, no longer follow the well-known, well-established principles of design that Apple developed several decades ago.


Apple has lost its way, driven by concern for style and appearance at the expense of understandability and usage.


Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty.

and, yup, in all caps glory -


Now, I’ve watched my son try to work the “slide to unlock” on my iPod touch when he was about 1.5 yrs old (he’s now 8) and recall thinking - “Wow! I’d love to make software that 1.5 year olds can pick up without instruction.”. So I had to dive in to what Norman and Tognazzini had to say.

What I note below are personal and anecdotal and quite surely N&T have more hard evidence than that.

The legibility of text

A woman told one of us that she had to use Apple’s assistive tool to make Apple’s undersize fonts large and contrasty enough to be readable.

The first iPhone version that I thought was worth buying was the iPhone 4, which has the retina display. The phone survives with me till date. While I’ve had difficulty negotiating my iPod touch on the go and didn’t use it to read much, I’ve read a lot on my iPhone 4. While I’ve spent countless hours exploring “the perfect font” for use on a laptop/desktop screen, obsessing with pixel level detail, especially for coding, the retina display seemed to just shrug and let me use any font I’d care to try without worrying about pixel artifacts. 1

Serif fonts, especially, are a pleasure to read on these displays and, for me, seem to permit smaller font point sizes than with sans-serif fonts. The sad part is that much of the web has gravitated towards sans-serif due to lower dpi resolution of laptop and desktop displays.

For me, using smaller light weight sans-serif font on an interface has become the electronic counterpart of “the fine print” which I don’t need to read.

That said, point taken that even normal folks are finding it hard to negotiate interface text in some apps.


There is no way to discover what operations are possible just by looking at the screen.

I’m practically at arms with N&T for saying this. I think this is too narrow a notion of “discoverability” to use.

The principle in this formulation was laid down when personal computing was in its early days, when there was a lot for people to learn and having options visible on the screen made a huge difference. I think we need to re-examine and expand the notion of discoverability in today’s context.

I’ve noticed a substantial difference in approach to computer interfaces by the previous generation and the current one - the generations being loosely defined as “> 20 years ago” and “around 5 years near now”. While older folks seem to handle these interfaces with the paranoia of “am I going to launch a nuclear missile if I accidentally did this”, the younger generation all seems to be about “just try it and find out”. This younger interpretation seems closer to the word “discover”. “Learnability” also resonates with me in this aspect.

The designs we’re seeing today are making use of what’s familiar to the generation born into yester-year computers. So, perhaps, familiarity is an intergral consideration for designing discoverability? 2

A second factor is that the use of ever-present menus on phone-sized displays to facilitate this kind of “discoverability” requires greater precision of access to these menus if the screen were to not be constantly blink away the task you’re actually on to. It’s a trade off, and unless N&T have better designs, I’m happy with the current trade off.


Out went undo. So guess what happened? People complained. En masse.

This is a biggie and super-valid one. I just mentioned “just try it and find out” and the ability to recover from mistakes is a big part of that being possible.

All you have to do to undo is to violently shake your phone or tablet.

It is surprisingly hard to do this, but I can’t recall when I needed to do it. It’s anecdotal, but I’ve needed undo more on desktops than on phones, mostly to undo typing in editors. Also, there are actions such as calling someone accidentally that I would love to “undo”, but simply can’t.

Paper has a beautiful undo interaction that works for me (mostly) - do a “rewind” gesture on the screen with two fingers on the screen. This is workable only on tablets I think.


Apple does provides a “back” arrow in some locations, but, unlike Google’s Android, where it is universally available, Apple’s undo and back buttons are at the option of the developer.

I’ve used an iPhone for a long time and I’ve recently been using an Android as my primary phone. I’m mixed on this. I like that the developer has the choice to design the presentation of context necessary to implement “back” properly. On Android, I’m still figuring out what “back” will do in any given situation on Android phones. When designing apps, “what should back do” is oft asked question. The verdict is certainly not clear.

The key to a predictable “back” button is that this navigation happens within a context and that context needs to be clearly shown - like using a breadcrumb trail, for example. Without such a presentation, guessing where I’ll land when I hit the back button is at best an entertaining game.

Treat HCI as a science, please

The rest of Norman and Tognazzini’s article is almost in a rant style, talking about how Apple doesn’t respect their earlier human interface guidelines, etc. I have no interest in the rant, so I don’t go there. On the contrary, I’m happy that Apple is pissing them off. I admit that’s a pretty strong comment, since the article serves as a useful summary of some well publicized design principles and I recommend reading it. Still, I wish their arguments were less along the lines of “Apple violated principles X/Y/Z”.

Peter Norvig famously said that when doing experiments you want to be wrong roughly about half the time. What is one to do to try and answer the question of whether design principles established in the early days should continue to be considered as carved in stone? Answer: Break the stone words roughly half the time.

There are clearly areas where Apple has chosen differently. Some have worked out and some have failed. That’s the whole point, and Apple is learning from breaking things while I only see other scramble to follow.

The ideal response I’d have liked to see from Norman and Tognazzini is to take this as an opportunity to re-examine the principles with new evidence that Apple has been providing through their design breakages, instead of declaring that they’re giving design “a bad name” by not sticking with the stone lettering.

That would be an article I would love to dive into.


  1. I just shifted my blog to Hugo and am still working out the details. So bear with me on my blog’s current appearance. ↩︎

  2. I recommend Jeff Raskin’s article which presents his thesis Intuitive equals familiar↩︎