Is Apple’s design getting worse without Steve Jobs?

Science Friday
Macbook Air. Photo by Björn Olsson/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Macbook Air. Photo by Björn Olsson/flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For years, Apple has enjoyed a reputation for creating products that are both beautiful and easy-to-use, no manual necessary. Now one of the company’s own alums, usability consultant Bruce "Tog" Tognazzini, says that reputation might not be warranted anymore.

“Three or four years ago we began to see that that something was falling out from Apple,” says Tognazzina, who had founded the Apple Human Interface Group. 

Tognazzina used to work with Steve Jobs as Apple’s human interface evangelist. Now, almost five years after Jobs’ death, he worries that Apple has begun to sag in its design standards. 

“Steve Jobs was the final arbiter of Apple design and after his death there was no one who took that position,” Tognazzina says, “There's a methodology that assures before you send a product out that that product is actually going to work. That process has been stopped at Apple. Jobs used to do that on his own. Now it's simply not being done and we're we're having products come out that have some serious usability issues that have not been flagged before they're in the market and then can take as long as a year to correct.”

One example of a recent design fail, according to Tognazzina is the ultra thin fonts in IOS7. The fonts, he says, were so gray they were hard to read, forcing many people to change the settings on their phone to ‘handicapped.’

“All they had to do is have one test subject come in who was a 50-year-old man or woman, sit down, tell them ‘We'd like you to do the following,’ and they would say ‘Well, I would love to but there's no writing on the screen. Can you help me out here?’ And they would have realized there was a problem,” Tognazzina says, “Instead of that they ship a few million phones and a lot of people discovered that morning that when they updated their software they had become handicapped.”

Another problem Tognazzina says, is Apple’s insistence on minimalist design has been too focused on the way their products look versus the way they function. 

“They went for the illusion of simplicity instead of actual simplicity,” Tognazzina says, “You just desperately want the screens to look so clean that, when people are considering buying the phone, those screens are shouting to them ‘This is going to be easy to use!’ But when you start hiding things in the process of making the screens clean, you’re actually making the usability more difficult and the user's tasks more difficult.”

What Apple needs to do to maintain its design reputation, according to Tognazzina, is to make sure it has a team of people in charge of testing products before release. 

“[Steve Jobs] did not put in place the people that would be able to carry on this particular function when he left,” Tognazzina says, “This is a management problem that Apple needs to have a vigorous human computer interaction group with the power to test products to ensure that this year's works at least as well as last year’s before they're released and so forth. This is the function [Jobs] performed on the side in addition to running this multibillion-dollar company and it was just simply left out. It needs to be in place.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday.