Should you update your app to iOS 7?

With iOS's impressive adoption rate this question is really silly and the answer is of course, "yes". But, many developers seem to be of the opinion that updating their apps to iOS 7 means redesigning them to look like Apple's stock apps. In that sense the answer is, "not necessarily".

Making sense of iOS 7's design themes

iOS 7's design is based on three themes: Deference, Clarity and Depth.

Deference: The UI helps users understand and interact with the content, but never competes with it.

Yes, the content is prime and the UI shouldn’t compete with it. But it doesn’t mean the UI should become invisible and make accessing the content difficult. Whitewashing the UI and removing affordances do just that. Ultimately, the user experience matters. Roughly speaking, iOS 7 is a minimalistic skin applied to the detailed iOS 6; the structure of the UI didn’t change, only the looks. Regular users of iOS may not have much difficulty in getting used to the new OS. Yet, the experience wouldn’t be frictionless. When a user want to tap that borderless button (maybe we should call them links) he may have to spend a few more milliseconds to locate it than to locate a bordered button that is placed on a visually distinguishable navigation bar. Those milliseconds are enough to make his experience less than enjoyable. The UI should defer to user experience at least as much it does as to the content.

Clarity: Text is legible at every size, icons are precise and lucid, adornments are subtle and appropriate, and a sharpened focus on functionality motivates the design.

Of course. That means you should use a readable font at readable weights; use more contrasting weights to create a good visual hierarchy and use more ways to differentiate actionable elements instead of just relying on color (color tend to attract users' attention and can distract the user from accessing his content). Simply put, it means you should do away with scrawny fonts such as Helvetica Neue light.

Depth: Visual layers and realistic motion impart vitality and heighten users’ delight and understanding.

An indication of depth can really help orienting the users and thus make the UI more understandable; just like how a modal view in iPad keeps the user on track by dimming the screen around it. However using translucency to achieve depth can make the UI hard to use. Depending on your content and user it's better to completely do away with translucency and just use animation to indicate depth.

So what?

Deference and Clarity derive directly from basic UI design principles and should be lauded and followed. Sadly, in its current iteration the design of iOS 7 is in conflict with them; Apple itself is yet to fully understand and embrace these themes. Depth has a honest goal but it cannot be achieved with visual layers without compromising the other two themes. Maybe depth helps iOS stand out from the rest of the crowd than help to elevate the user experience.

iOS still remains a free society where apps of varying styles co-exist. Though Apple has changed the visual language of iOS it isn’t forcing it on other app makers. There are guidelines, no rules. Now is a good time to check if your UI use gratuitous ornamentation and remove them. But you know your users better than Apple and if you're sure that bordered buttons and textured UI make your users experience your app better, don’t change them.

To support iOS 7 these are the only things that are mandatory:

  • Change the app icon to 120 x 120 pixels.
  • Update the launch image to include the status bar area if it is not already included.
  • Support Retina and iPhone 5, if you don’t already do so.

The following are encouraged but not mandatory:

  • Make the navigation bars, toolbars, etc. translucent
  • Make the icons thinner
  • Make the buttons borderless
  • Use auto layout
  • Check if your app has enough space to accommodate Apple's redesigned UI controls such as switches.
  • Adopt dynamic text
  • See that you don’t associate the new system-wide gestures with different actions (follow this to make your app more usable)
  • Reconsider physicality and realism in your app

Follow the Human Interface Guidelines; but when you think it conflicts with basic design principles don’t hesitate to override the guidelines. Remember, just because Apple has whitewashed its UI doesn’t mean you should do it too.

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