Obvious always wins

Luke Wroblewski explores a foundational lesson in interface design. In app layout, out of sight is out of mind. And that’s not a good thing. Great read.

  • marcintosh

    Menu items are not just unseen, they add taps. People think ‘Where do I tap to do X?’ not ‘Where do I tap and then tap again or scroll to do X?’

    • JimCracky


    • There are a few places that menus make sense, like Share icons; where the menu itself is the action, and the thing under it is just the detail. But the hamburger-detail view never works.

      • marcintosh

        Yes, if the user says ‘I want to do X.’ and the system responds with ‘How do you want to do X? and offers choices (like the Share icon), then menus are the the way to go. One action (Share) that leads to multiple options for that action (AirDrop, iCloud, etc.) But if the Share option is itself on a menu (Hamburger), which then presents another menu, then they messed up.

        • I almost added a hamburger menu to one of my apps at one point before pulling back from it. Literally in the last week of development; I caused a few bugs I had to fix in a subsequent release.

          But it was a lot better without it.

  • The Cappy

    Too bad the disappearing buttons in favor of colored text in iOS 7 & 8 fail that “obviousness” test.

    • Button shapes don’t add anything that coloured text doesn’t already have, except approximately how inaccurate your tap can be. But if you’re trained to look for button shapes by iOS 5, yes, it’ll be non-obvious.

      There are some places where the UI falls apart, though. Holding down on things, for instance. And video trimming in the built-in video capture controller is a horrible UI.

      • The Cappy

        I guess honest people can disagree, but I disagree strongly. It’s not like “button” functionality is the only place that colored text was ever seen, before or after. There have been numerous design critiques where they’ve produced confusing examples. And just looking at my own parents who used to understand the UIs effortlessly. Now they get lost, unable to intuit the loss of cues. iOS 5 didn’t train anybody to look for button shapes. It was ingrained in us long before then. And it wasn’t a carryover from old Mac/Win OS desktops either. Mac OS used buttons because they existed in real life and people recognized them. I think the loss of the visual cue lost something significant (maybe not a lot to you, but significant to other users) and gained nothing but a notch in the bedpost of extreme minimalism.

        • If you see coloured text being used somewhere other than an element you can interact with, it’s a bug. If you’re a developer, you should fix it… if you’re a user, you should report it.

          I totally agree with you on this point, though. It is misused. Those misuses are confusing, and need to be fixed.

          • The Cappy

            But it’s only a bug because it violates this very new, artificial, and arbitrary design constraint. Prior to this new design pattern, people sometimes used colored text. You might not like it, and I might not either, necessarily, but it was an aesthetic choice. Now in one fell swoop the designers of iOS take the entire notion of colored text and declare that it has one and only one legitimate use. I’m saying it’s not intuitive. It’s just that you’ve learned it. Buttons… everybody understood it at first glance. Also, maybe the exigencies of a given UI would look better if the button text was black. I think we wandered into the territory Mr Ive always said designers should eschew, which was designing for design’s sake and not for functionality. Minimalism can go too far. I take it that you don’t think it has. My parents, who are now confused with a UI that never previously confused them, probably disagree. Oh well.

          • And you may not like it and I may not like it (and I don’t, really, don’t get me wrong) but color is how you show a button on iOS now. An app not doing that is a huge problem.

          • The Cappy

            I’m just saying it’s not obvious. All I have to do is watch people new to iOS. It’s not nearly as obvious as buttons. And people who can’t grok the non-button UI won’t know to dig around and find how to turn the buttons back on

          • I wonder if part of it is that the philosophy of apps should be different. There’s very few things on the screen that shouldn’t do something if tapped, and the new philosophy lets you make that happen without becoming a mess of round rectangles.

            Maybe Apple needs to do more to distinguish between primary buttons and secondary/shortcuts buttons.

            Oh, and my observations of buttons being easily recognized in their current state is based on new iPhone users. 🙂 It’s the existing ones that have a lot of trouble with it. I think the new UI is probably almost equally clear for people new to the iPhone. But yes, some button shapes (without overloading) would be better.

          • The Cappy

            Interesting observation. My own experience seems to be that the new UI needs explanation, where it didn’t before. I don’t think a person completely new to a touchscreen UI would naturally think that colored text = actionable. Colored text exists in the real world without being anything more than colored text. The hyperlink argument doesn’t seem to apply to the obviousness question, so much as the transferral of prior expertise. Skeuomorphism has become a dirty word of late, but when used properly, it is a powerful fulcrum across which a UI levers that abstraction of obviousness that you and I seem to be at odds over 😉

          • I think we’re less at odds than you think. 🙂 I have no problem saying button shapes make things more clear. It’s just that my primary source of irritation at the moment is developers diluting that and throwing more confusion in.

            I have a friend developer who turns button shapes on in Accessibility. It should come as no great surprise that he needs to go to extra effort to make sure his apps are useful on devices without that switched on. I’ve talked to him several times about his use of the accent colour in non-functional headlines, for instance.

            I would love to see Yosemite-like buttons for major functions appear in a future version, and I absolutely think that would make for a clearer OS. (Though, frankly, I hope button shapes in the navigation bar are gone forever. We know what those are! We don’t need extra clutter there.)

          • The Cappy

            And for my part, I totally agree that consistency on a given platform is important. Whatever I think of one or another detail of the HIG, if you deviate from it, you sow confusion. If we want to train people to the idea that colored text = doing something, then make sure that’s how your UI works. Say I write an article though, and I think it would look nice for the section number to be black and the section title to be medium gray… have I mess people up? How many people will tap on the text thinking it’s supposed to do something? I have no idea. Maybe it’s zero. Maybe it’s a lot. Maybe gray is okay. But Pages.app has some very attractive templates where there are levels of headings that are colored. I think it’s sad to think that might be verboten because we eschewed other valid visual cues. I think the horse is dead, though. Maybe it’s time for me to stop beating the poor thing.

    • marcintosh

      Actionable colored text came first in the form of hyperlinks on the web. If you really miss button shapes in iOS 8 you can turn them back on in Setting > General > Accessability > Button Shapes.

  • Bob

    This guy doesn’t work for Apple, does he? That’s too bad.

  • James Hughes

    I still think there are ridiculously un-obvious things in iOS8. Like Messages. Tap and hold until “copy’ and “more…” appear. Then select “more…” look to the lower left for the trash can and tap it, select “Delete Message” from below to delete the message.


    • Yes, especially how in any other app this would be a swipe. But it was somehow more important that a swipe show the times of messages. This is just an absurd gesture for something so basic.

      • James Hughes

        Absolutely. Just put the times of each message above the message bubble. iOS 6’s way of de;letting messages was much clearer, although even in iOS 6 you had to select “edit” but once you did you could clearly see the trash can and election “dots”. I hope iOS 9 addresses some of these issues. I hope Apple actually SEES these as issues.

        • I’m not sure of that fix. Time stamps on every message aren’t necessary, either. There has to be something better than either of these options.

          Luckily, Apple’s pulling in billions and can figure that out.