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Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini: How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name

I’ve long felt that the iPhone has only gotten harder to use since its debut years ago—it’s a maze full of land mines (and associated iCloud bugs) that strongly discourage me from using it for more than basics.

Now the experts chime-in in a didactic way that is a long read, but powerfully articulated. Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini deliver a scathing criticism of Apple design in How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name. Selected excerpts follow, hiliting added by MPG.

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.


The products, especially those built on iOS, Apple’s operating system for mobile devices, no longer follow the well-known, well-established principles of design that Apple developed several decades ago. These principles, based on experimental science as well as common sense, opened up the power of computing to several generations, establishing Apple’s well-deserved reputation for understandability and ease of use. Alas, Apple has abandoned many of these principles.


Yes, once upon a time, Apple was known for its ease of use, for computers and applications that were understandable, powerful, and could be used without reference to any manuals. .... Apple’s design guidelines and their principles were powerful, popular, and influential.

.... Apple is destroying design. Worse, it is revitalizing the old belief that design is only about making things look pretty. No, not so! Design is a way of thinking, of determining people’s true, underlying needs, and then delivering products and services that help them... Apple is reinforcing the old, discredited idea that the designer’s sole job is to make things beautiful, even at the expense of providing the right functions, aiding understandability, and ensuring ease of use.

MPG: Over time and in this blog I’ve called it form over function and similar, with many specific examples over time. A good measure of what I’ve called Apple Core Rot has its root in design failures, most recently with the destruction of Disk Utility utility functionality (in a shocking and irresponsible new low, leaving RAID users hung out to dry).

Over two years ago in iPhone Viewing Tips for Presbyopia and Vision Issues I discussed one core design problem: unreadability of text on iOS. What Norman and Tognazzini point out matches my experience exactly:

So what if many people can't read the text? It’s beautiful.

A woman told one of us that she had to use Apple’s assistive tool to make Apple’s undersize fonts large and contrasty enough to be readable. However, she complained that on many app screens, this option made normal fonts so large that the text wouldn’t fit on the screen. It’s important to note that she did not have defective vision. She just didn’t have the eyesight of a 17-year-old. We suspect she would have been perfectly able to read the same text before Apple switched to type fonts with thinner stroke widths and less visual contrast.... What kind of design philosophy requires millions of its users to have to pretend they are disabled in order to be able to use the product?


The product is beautiful! And fun. As a result, when people have difficulties, they blame themselves. Good for Apple. Bad for the customer. Someone should write a book about this. (Oh, wait, both of us have—several books.)

Well, I don’t blame myself; I’ve blamed Apple for years on this site, in particular on Apple Core Rot. Some of my readers get so upset with me saying the emperor is naked that they write MPG with offensive ad-hominem emails.

Norman and Tognazzini go on beyond legibility to discuss discoverability, undo, users errors caused by design choices, service costs, feedback, recovery/forgiveness, consistency, encourage growth.

Just two weeks ago, I called Apple the “lesser of two evils” in terms of choosing a computing platform. Norman and Tognazzini:

The result of avoiding proper design methodology? Higher costs for service lines, for help. And the eventual defection of unhappy customers who may publicly still sing the praises of Apple’s simple interface while forking over the money for a different brand phone that they hope they’ll be smart enough to actually be able to use.

They’re spot-on: I now use Apple phones and computers only as best of the not very good. And that’s the thing: Norman and Tognazzini themselves point out that companies like Google are copying Apple—so we get to choose the least bad, which is a sad indictment of Apple’s former leadership.

This one hits home from personal experience: I’ve been helping an elderly friend for years and he still cannot use email or deal with photos (he has a truly brilliant mind in all other respects), and ditto for my wife:

Please don’t tell us stories of grandparents who can now use technological devices such as tablets whereas before they could never master computers. Just how much of the new technology have they mastered? Yes, gesture-controlled devices, tablets, and phones have easier barriers to initial use. But they have huge barriers to anything advanced, such as selecting three photos to send in an email, or formatting some text, or combining the results of several different operations. These and myriad other operations are far easier and more efficient on traditional computers.

Heck, I myself barely make the cut as competent on the iPhone. Well, my kids laugh at me and so I’ll take that back: I don’t feel competent with iOS. Am I just stupid, or is Apple design an oxymoron?

I can hardly get Google Maps to work any more, so much so I avoid using it; it used to be no problem and enjoyable. I guess it’s not just me after all:

The problem is not restricted to Apple. Google maps become more attractive and more confusing with each iteration.

... It matters when people end up thinking they are stupid because they can’t seem to use an interface that has been made to seem perfectly clear even though it isn’t. It matters that our leading products are going backward in both usability and usefulness. ...


The discussion of Dieter Rams and his design principles is particularly instructive. Taking just one point:

Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.

Usefulness is essential to Rams. Obscuring controls, eliminating vital functions such as Undo and Back, do not make a product useful. Quite the contrary.

... Forbes’ Apple iOS 9 Has 25 Great Secret Features — If these are such great features, why are they secret?

WOW. I have to hand it to Norman and Tognazzini: they have articulated the problems and irritations and frustrations that I’ve felt for years now. Congratulations to them on bringing it all together.

The one critical thing that Norman and Tognazzini missed entirely is the painful drop in software quality and reliability. Yet I see that as strongly correlated with Apple failure to design; it’s a juvenile mindset at work at Apple in which aesthetics trump everything, with the inevitable result of form over function forcing usability and its quality implementation into marginality—no one really cares much about function, just the form (aesthetics), so why would bugs matter much when a design is fundamentally mediocre? Witness this even in hardware with the 2013 Mac Pro.

Norman and Tognazzini may have made one error in their analysis (maybe they are blind to it perhaps because of age), and I too make this error, namely in assuming that “normal folks” are like me and them and other adults. But “normal folks” are actually teenagers and 20-somethings addicted to phones like heroin—only the fix lasts 5 minutes or less (the “iPhone disease”). These are the same people that are now designing Apple products: 20-somethings who were teenagers a few years ago, those so addicted and out of tune with the world that a large fraction of waking hours involves staring at a phone or tablet. For such users, who cares about design? Instagram and Snapchat and iFartedAgain apps abound.

See, it isn’t hard. Just think about how normal folks use the system.

But it is hard, given the demographics. The addictive nature of iOS and the huge market in the younger generation wholly addicted to “social media” (antisocial media?) makes the call for good design irrelevant, that is, until and unless a visionary company comes along (a new Apple in essence), one that beats Apple by using Apple’s own original design principles.

Joe M writes:

Steve Jobs advocated simplicity in design. However he felt a goal of this simplicity was making products intuitively easy to use. Since his passing, Apple's "new wave" simplicity has twisted and perverted Jobs' view of simplicity to a caricature, and a damaging one at that.

In the lemming-like rush toward UI minimalism, UI designers often refer disparagingly to ornamental elements as "chrome". This has created a sense of one-upmanship within the design community and a forced march toward non-skeuomorphic flat design -- no matter what the cost in UI efficiency. It has produced designs which flatter the artistic ego of the designer but which many users find sterile, unfamiliar, and puzzling.

Apple may pay lip service to Bauhaus design, which says "form follows function". However their actual implementation of flat UI design prioritizes form (the flat non-skeuomorphic look) *over* function (readability, intuitive elements).

In essence, it is a new version of the much-maligned "chrome", no different than other fads of the past like automotive tail fins. In reality it is "chromeless chrome", non-functional flat design elements which adhere to an austere UI doctrine, yet interfere with and obscure the underlying function. It is a repudiation of the intuitive ease of use Jobs strived for. It is mindless minimalism.

MPG: Absolutely! I had a bad reaction to the new flat design. I loathed the visuals (juvenile with a touch of tacky, like fancy bags of halloween candy to my eyes), but the insult to injury was difficult readability and arbitrary changes. The usability issues along with the feeling like I had a phone designed for a nine year old child for playing games really made it infuriating. The usability was so bad that I blogged on how to work around it in iPhone Viewing Tips for Presbyopia and Vision Issues. This year, it finally forced me to the iPhone 6s Plus—in good part because of rotten design (readability). Then there are the thoughtless bugs called features that have privacy implications. If thinking about usability at Apple were a yardstick, it would not be a yard in length; it would be one-inch long: that is now the conceptual limit of every aspect of Apple user interface and feature design.

It’s not just iOS; Apple does hideous things like bleed-through backgrounds which seriously impair usability. At least that garbage can be disabled (for now at least).

Back in my youth we had a Ford F150 pickup. It was in the heyday of Detroit building crap with wheels. But it had a big logo on the glove box: CUSTOM. I guess that’s what a designer adds when everything else sucks. Apple’s equivalent is a little fancier, but no different.

Jakes writes:

I have never read an article so perfectly in tune with my opinions on Apple these days. Between diglloyd, Norman and Tognazzini, this article is absolute spot on when it comes to Apple’s pathetic behavior as of late. it does not bode well for computing when we are forced to choose the “best of the worst”.

I really wish for Apple’s stock to tumble and their market share to suffer, maybe then those at the top would shake out the morons who give us stuff like Apple music and illegible fonts, not to mention thin, unholdable phones .Thanks for the great insights.

MPG: Taking the pulse.

Kit L writes:

My favourite “Apple-goes-bad” story? Since about halfway through the life of Yosemite, suddenly (and without me having changed anything) the Message App and the FaceTime App require a separate log in after restarting. Mail, and any iCloud-based apps work perfectly. The hysterical thing? I don’t use either of these programs, AND my correct login details are not recognized when I do try to enter them on the pop-up screens. My workaround? I press “cancel” on both pop-up screens. There are no solutions on the internet; all the extant ones I have tried. The same behaviours affects all three of my machines, all running the same OS.

Very disappointing, and I concur wholeheartedly with your criticism of the move to preference “form over function” (from a philosophical as well as practical perspective); this is just the Apple presentation of the triumph of form over function that characterizes our culture. Short, medium, and long term, it is a serious misdirection which will have to be paid for.

MPG suspects users just put up with and ignore the issues and thus become blind to them. Few even question behaviors as bugs.

Jim G writes:

Bless you for posting this because I couldn't agree more!

I have had Macs all the way back to the original 128k Mac and up until recently, I would upgrade to a new Mac or OS and feel comfortable that aside from a few niggles, they would work out of the box. It was always humorous to hear someone say "I don't read the manuals, I have a Mac". The computers and OS's always were a pleasure to use and felt ahead of their time. Third party hardware and software had to stick to Apple's guidelines which included an extensive list of human interface guidelines to ensure a pleasurable user experience. We used to chuckle when we heard stories from PC users about all the crap they used to go through working with them. Creatives would use Macs because Apple understood their needs and made things for them.

Fast forward to today. Apple's hardware and software give us almost as many problems as PC's. You need to read the manual because of all the "user friendly" features that Apple gives us. Third party providers are always chasing down Apple's design changes to the point I sometimes why they bother. Interface guidelines are now passé because Apple doesn't seem to know anymore what it's interface should look like; it's more a case of the look de jour than consistency and quality experiences. Apple has now decided to cater to the masses so they make things "easier" for the uninitiated. Remember the good old days when you used to be able to turn off color management for printing profile targets until Apple decided that color management should be automatic? Go to the MacRumors MacPro forum and read posts there talking about how frustrated people are with the new MacPro. There are a number of posts talking about going to or back to Windows. Apple's interest in the MacPro went from the jewel in their crown to who says we can't innovate (and at what cost?).

One really has to wonder what was Apple thinking with the Apple Watch. An iPhone wasn't small enough for reading purposes? Do we really need to keep track of our lives on a screen that small?? Someday, these 20 somethings who design this crap are going to get old and they will have poor vision from eye strain and carpal tunnel from thumb typing on all the iDevices.

At this point, I am even starting to get pissed at Apple. I am still using Mavericks while waiting for El Crapitan to get stable and consequently, I have sync issues with 2Do and Notability. The current version of 2Do requires El Crapitan and the version that works with Mavericks is crash prone and doesn't always sync accurately. Notability requires El Crapitan because it only syncs using iCloud Drive now since Apple is pushing developers to that instead of the plain iCloud. So much for easily syncing my iPad and Mac.

At this rate, Apple should be renamed to iWas

MPG: A bifurcation between loyal users and dilettantes?

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