Essays & Articles


Apple’s products are getting harder to use because they ignore the ​principles of design.

I’m a long-term fan of Apple, having used their products since the days of the Apple II computer. I loved the products so much that in 1993 I left my University job and moved to Apple where I established the User Experience Architect’s Office. Afterwards I became Vice President of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group. Indeed, I am typing this on an Apple computer.

I was once proud to be at Apple, proud of Apple’s reputation of advancing ease of use and understanding. Alas, these attributes are fast disappearing from their products in favor of pretty looks, or as designers call it “styling.”

Apple has gotten carried away by the slick, minimalist appearance of their products at the expense of ease of use, understandability, and the ability to do complex operations without ever looking at the manual.

Today, the products are beautiful, but for many of us, confusing. The fonts are pleasant to the eye, but difficult to read. The principle of “discoverability” has been lost. The only way to know what to do in many situations is to have memorized the action. The screens offer no assistance in remembering whether one should swipe left or right, up or down, one finger or two. Or three. One tap or two. I frequently have to “re-read the manual,” which means going back to the control panel to review the multiple finger swipes — which are not even the same for all devices: the magic mouse is different from the trackpad which is different from the iPad.

Inscrutable icons litter the face of the devices even though the research community has long demonstrated that people cannot remember the meaning of more than a small number of icons. Icon plus label is superior to icon alone or label alone. Who can remember what each icon means? Not me.

The modern gesture devices lack feedback, they lack “undo.” Menus were banished, evidently because they might detract from the lovely minimalist appearance, despite the conflict between that minimalism and the essential prompts and signifiers that simplify the person’s ability to use and understand the product.

Fortunately, most of my comments refer only to the gesture, iOS devices — iPhone and iPad, but similar changes are appearing on the desktop devices.

Unfortunately, Google has caught the same disease in its Android designs, although Google still allows menus (and an indicator of the menu’s presence on the screens).

I’m not alone in these views. Many ordinary users of Apple devices agree. Several senior, well-respected designers with whom I have discussed this agree. My good friend Bruce Tognazzini (Tog) agrees. Tog is a long-term friend, partner in the Nielsen Norman group,  and Apple’s first interface designer (he was Apple employee number 66).   He and I are writing a critique entitled “How Apple ruined design.”(See Tog’s Wikipedia entry and his blog.)

Meanwhile, my complaints have been noticed. Ayesha Salim interviewed me and published my views in her column on the IDG Connect website: Design guru Don Norman slams Apple’s ease-of-use ‘disservice’.

Which means Tog and I better get busy and complete our more detailed, more comprehensive article.

November 2015:  We finished it — Fast Company has published it.

How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name