iOS7: Can We Maybe Have Just A LITTLE Bit Of Chrome?

So I’ve been using iOS7 as my everyday OS for a couple of months now. And I am consistently frustrated by the fact that whenever anyone asks about it, or whenever I see anyone writing about it, they ignore the ninety percent of iOS7 that is “amazing technical advances under the hood” and concentrate solely on the ten percent that is the redesign of the user interface.

The guts of iOS7 are amazing. Huge advances like CoreText, OpenGL 3, MapKit, and CoreMotion are going to change forever the way people interact with their mobile computers. And yet … all anyone blathers on about is the new UI. Like they are all brain-dead monkeys who can only see the pretty shiny thing and ignore the pile of nutritious food behind it.

So guess what? Today I’m going to be a brain-dead monkey.

Yep. I’m going to eschew everything else and talk about the new UI, which is beautiful, but which also has a serious problem that no one else seems to want to mention. That serious problem is the complete and utter lack of chrome anywhere in the system. That’s not “Chrome” the web browser… that’s “chrome” with a small “c”, which – in case you aren’t hip to the terminology – refers to all of the visual bits that surround data on the screen but which aren’t actually part of it.

Now I understand the mindset here. When talking design, simpler is better. This is definitely how the wind is blowing in the world of design right now, and for good reason. And for the most part, UI chrome is useless at best and distracting at worst. But once in a while, especially on touch-based systems, a bit of chrome can help the user understand how they can actually interact with the data. Take a look at the built-in clock that has always been a part of iOS:

Screenshot of the iOS6 (and earlier) timer wheels

The chrome that surrounds the actual numbers in the timer is shaped like thumbwheels in a housing. This is good – it is a common and familiar visual cue that lets us know immediately that you set the time by rotating the wheels. Instead of distracting, it’s subtle and helpful. It’s exactly the kind of thing that screen chrome should be used for.

Now look at the clock in iOS7:

New chrome-free timer wheels in iOS7

Suddenly, how you interact with the settings gives you pause. If you have already used iOS before, you are going to figure it out. But if you are new to the platform – and the iPhone 5C is certainly going to be targeted at newcomers – you could be left wondering. The fact that you turn the “wheels” is no longer obvious at all, because the faded and parallaxed numbers don’t have the same familiar mental nudge as a picture of a wheel.

A far more troubling example is the switch to move between “photo” and “video” in the Camera app:

Camera interface in iOS7

It used to be one of those obvious “toggle” switches that have been part of iOS from the word go – obvious and easy. Now, however, it is another “invisible” thumbwheel, and the smallish size of the wheel means the “fading” that should give you a visual cue is now nearly undetectable. If you hand an iOS7 phone to someone – even a current iOS user – and ask them to change from photo to video, they are probably going to try tapping instead of rotating, much to their frustration and dismay. Without that crucial bit of chrome, there is no actual clue as to what is going on.

So why are none of the reviewers who are gushing over iOS7’s new design mentioning this? Because every single one of them has used iOS before. They already know how to do things. Taking the chrome away doesn’t affect them, because they no longer need any visual cues – they have done these things a million times before. But new users could be left frustrated and unhappy.

And frustrated and unhappy is not what Apple is all about.

2 comments

  1. Lyla Miklos says:

    Just downloaded the new OS on to my iPhone4. Thanks for the heads up on the changes to the camera app, but I can’t quite figure out how you close apps now. You used to double click the the toggle and then press on the app icon and the red X would show up so you could close it. Doesn’t do that now and I’m not exactly sure how to close it????

  2. Lyla Miklos says:

    Ahhh . . . no worries. Found a website that showed me how. I just wasn’t swipping quite right. I figured it was a swipe, but I just didn’t give it quite the right flick of the finger. All good now.

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