Bad Apple

This entry is part 40 of 43 in the series Words

I don’t own, nor have I ever owned, any Apple products. I tell people I’m not cool enough to own anything Apple. Indeed, as I was writing this post, I just also wrote a Windows batch file; very not-cool.Rotten Apple

For a long time, I felt marginalized. But with the latest versions of Android and Windows, I am finally starting to feel a bit more cool. And I like Windows 10—this update brings many subtle interface changes which, taken as a whole, make my computer much more usable.

In a previous post, I discussed skeuomorphism: the attempt to make a computer screen look like a physical object. Apple played with skeuomorphism, some say to excess. User-interaction gurus despise gratuitous skeuomorphism like master Stickley cabinetmakers despise wood-grain vinyl. But Apple finally got away from this, eliminated much decoration and made user interfaces more usable.

But now Bruce Tognazzini, of Tognazzini’s Paradox fame, says Apple has now gone too far in that direction and lost its mojo. As Apple’s first User Interface Evangelist, Tog has the chops to make everyone sit up and pay attention. And he is joined in this by Donald Norman, the author of the bestselling book The Design of Everyday Things, and an early pioneer of software usability.

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Both continue to make major contributions to the art, science and engineering of computer usability.  They are both, in my view, heroes.

  1. Given this blog is about the usability of medical software, and
  2. given that medical software overall gets about a D+ grade for usability, and
  3. given medical software vendors seem oblivious to current usability practice, and
  4. given poor usability of medical software causes error and kills people,

then perhaps you will find my attitude understandable.

Their article at has been linked all over the web, including at The Verge and in Fortune and on Slate; I first became aware of it from a post on slashdot.

The main complaint is that Apple is emphasizing coolth at the expense of usability. They say

Once upon a time, Apple was known for designing easy-to-use, easy-to-understand products. It was a champion of the graphical user interface, where it is always possible to discover what actions are possible, clearly see how to select that action, receive unambiguous feedback as to the results of that action, and have the power to reverse that action—to undo it—if the result is not what was intended.

No more. Now, although the products are indeed even more beautiful than before, that beauty has come at a great price. Gone are the fundamental principles of good design: discoverability, feedback, recovery, and so on. Instead, Apple has, in striving for beauty, created fonts that are so small or thin, coupled with low contrast, that they are difficult or impossible for many people with normal vision to read. We have obscure gestures that are beyond even the developer’s ability to remember. We have great features that most people don’t realize exist.

I rather expect that Tog and Donald Norman will be roundly criticised for this by Apple fanboys. After all, fanboys probably think that more coolth at the expense of usability is just fine.

I often quote from the first edition of Alan Cooper’s book About Face: No matter how cool your interface, less of it would be better.

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But if coolness is more important than usability, this simply doesn’t hold. And if you feel this way, you also probably will wear a really cool-looking watch even if it doesn’t keep accurate time. After all, you can always check the time on your late-model iPhone.

And the idea that iPads are good for a medical office or hospital, particularly in the emergency department, then goes out the window. Confuse Stratford St. with Stafford St.? No biggie. Confuse lamasil and lamictal, or nitroglycerine and nitroprusside, or µg and mg? Could be a giant biggie. As Tognazzini and Norman write:

Today’s iPhones and iPads are a study in visual simplicity. Beautiful fonts. A clean appearance, uncluttered by extraneous words, symbols, or menus. So what if many people can’t read the text? It’s beautiful.

And in the ER, cool kills.


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This entry was posted by kconover on Monday, November 23rd, 2015 at 5:55 pm and is filed under Tutorials . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Comment

  1. mentatNo Gravatar says:

    While I agree with the premise that Apple has lost some of its usability in the recent past, I don’t think this statement necessarily follows:

    “And the idea that iPads are good for a medical office or hospital, particularly in the emergency department, then goes out the window.”

    In general, my opinion is that even if Apple takes a step back, the consistency of UI (among other attributes) still offers benefit over alternatives. The appeal of Apple for the “fanboys” has never been “cool” but rather UX. (The rise of AAPL writ large, on the other hand, does have a lot to do with cool factor and marketing.)