The Software Society

How digital technology is changing our culture and economy

Apple favors style over substance

Minimal progress toward reducing digital overload

I blogged before Apple’s World Wide Developers conference that I believed Apple was well-positioned to address the problem of  “digital overload,” the expansion of digital devices, features, and services that is beginning to overwhelm users rather than make their lives easier. Apple, with its range of devices, could unify the experience across devices, making using the different devices similar enough to avoid a new learning experience with each device. For example they could make an expanded and improved Siri a “ubiquitous personal assistant” available across platforms. [See my blog entries Ubiquitous Personal Assistants and The Ubiquitous Personal Assistant: The battle has begun or the deeper discussion in The Software Society.]

Instead, Apple choose to emphasize a visual redesign of its Macintosh and iOS operating systems. The visual redesign simply changed the look of the product in ways—to my eyes—that were more distracting than constructive, e.g., a translucent page that showed a fuzzy image of the page it overlaid. Icons look different, but does that significantly change the user experience? And providing the option of a male voice for Siri doesn’t change its utility.

The features that were added, initiated by various touch motions, run the risk of adding to digital overload. It is too easy to invoke an action one didn’t intend by inadvertent touches or motions, and then find oneself struggling to undo an unwanted action.

Apple did make some small moves toward reducing digital overload. The iCloud “keychain” which unifies passwords across devices and services addresses a common digital-overload issue. The company’s Pages, Numbers, and Keynote are productivity tools that work in a browser and thus across devices (even a Windows PC). Cross-device features help, e.g., allowing a navigation map for a specific destination created on a Macintosh PC to be sent to an iPhone easily. The company has integrated one additional platform, the automobile, with an initiative that places an iOS screen in automobiles, supported by Siri.

Siri can now control more iPhone functions, including turning on Bluetooth or increasing screen brightness, and the personal assistant can answer a wider range of questions. Adding things Siri can do with a simple, intuitive voice command can reduce the burden of learning how to use such features (or even discovering if they are there), but Apple made those features a minor part of their presentation.

Overall, some items in the announcement do move a bit toward cross-device and natural-language control of more features that will incrementally reduce digital overload. It’s a shame that Apple chose to emphasize visual candy over real nutrition.

One thought on “Apple favors style over substance

  • Tom says:

    This runs counter to the basic tenet of good user interface design espoused by Jobs, which is to design the device to accommodate the perceptual and psychological charactaristics of the user, not to make the user compensate his or her behaviour to accommodate the design of the device. It is disturbing that Apple would go this way. I would expect it of most other geeky software and computer companies but not Apple.

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