Tech Trend: Sacrificing Usability for Design

I’m a big fan of tech. I built my own PCs back in the day. I was a huge fan of Palm handhelds, and made the leap to the Kyocera 7135 Palm phone when it came out. Smartphones are the epitome of tech right now.

I used an Apple Macintosh, again back in the day. You know, that rectangular gray box with the tiny monotone screen? But then my workplace used Windows, and I’ve stuck with that pretty much since – though I dabble in Linux on old laptops for fun. I like to dig into settings and customize things.

This screed comes after setting up a relatively current model Macintosh PC for a friend. There wasn’t much to set up – just plug in all of the cables into the all-in-one, and plug it in to the wall. But then – to my embarrassment – it took me five minutes to find the power button. I looked on the sides, and found the optical disk and SD card slots, nothing on the monitor base, nothing on top, nothing back by the cable ports … . I finally turned the whole thing around and scanned the entire back of the unit. There, on the left side, in the back, was a thin round cutout, flush, with a faint-gray (on aluminum gray) power symbol – the power button. You could not feel it from the front of the PC.

Okay, the Macintosh is a lovely design. Really. Very well made. But exactly why are buttons considered ugly by Apple? Why are any buttons and markings on, or openings in their products considered to be anachronisms?

Apple iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy Note8I have not touched or even seen the new iPhone X beyond pictures. Ditto the Samsung Galaxy Note8. Yet comparing their hardware designs showcases the very disturbing push by Apple for design over usability. Design that enforces control by Apple over their product and how it used.

The iPhone 7 removed the headphone jack, and the iPhone X doesn’t have it either. The X removes the home button – completely; it isn’t a hardware feature anymore, but they also decided to not have a software one either, deciding that hidden screen gestures were somehow better. The X therefore removes the fingerprint scanner as well. There hasn’t been a microSD card slot ever on the iPhone. The iPhone is waterproof with an IP68 rating.

The Note8 retains the headphone jack, microSD card slot, and fingerprint scanner. There is visual navigation courtesy of Android software navigational buttons. And beyond that, Samsung incorporates another input method, the S Pen. The phone is waterproof with an IP68 rating.

Beautiful design is subjective, but I think both phones are visually striking in a contemporary way, almost equally. Build quality for both is reportedly exceptionally high. However, the iPhone X limits options completely unnecessarily, evidently for reasons of design. Apple has decided that buttons, slots, ports, and visual cues aiding use are – what, ugly? Unnecessary? Old-fashioned? Not cool?

This extends to their operating system. Apple has decided their software future is with iOS, even for advanced productivity needs. iOS was designed for mobility: small form factor, ease-of-use using touch, and simplifying options, e.g., for a phone; it was not designed for writing documents, coding, editing graphics and video, creating spreadsheets, etc. Yet iOS is pushed to be “productive” on an iPad Pro … which needs a keyboard to be truly useful in a productive fashion, defeating the core reason of a touch-centric OS. And wait, isn’t a screen/keyboard combo a … laptop? But Apple refuses to enable touchscreens on Apple laptops in order to push iOS over macOS, which is a more flexible, capable operating system. iPads are designed like iPhones, removing functional elements. When they have done that on their laptops (and PCs), enthusiasts take them to task, rightfully, for removing slots, media, ports, cables, etc., necessary to extend productive functionality.

Apple states this is the future; they removed 3.5″ floppy disk drives, and they disappeared. They removed optical disk slots, and they – well, didn’t disappear. Still, they aren’t as necessary since USB flash drives and the internet make moving data easier. Headphone jacks are unnecessary because of Bluetooth (and dongles, I guess). However, future or not, it sure isn’t convenient they removed functionality.

These decisions don’t make using their stuff easier, they make it harder. There is no functional reason for not having the fingerprint reader on the iPhone X as an option that some users might prefer. Why not have a software home button? It might help people now used to home buttons on old (and current) iPhones!

The tech media hails these design moves by Apple as innovative and progressive, when in fact they are regressive. Good design can incorporate elements necessary for usability such as buttons, slots, ports, and jacks. Great design can make them beautiful, and we’ve celebrated such companies such as Bang & Olufsen, Harmon Kardon, Bose, Tesla, Sony, Samsung, etc., for doing just that.

Tech designers need to resist the Apple minimalism design philosophy. Bottom line is that much of contemporary minimalist design is just a lazy design ethos. If I had the money – regardless of operating system – I would buy the Note8 over the iPhone X because it is far more flexible and usable. Having a pen was useful on Palms beyond just text input. It adds flexibility and creates options for more functionality. Having a headphone jack means I can buy cheap earbuds in an airport if I forget mine at home. A microSD card lets me have 128 GB of music, books, photos, and videos when I’m on the plane, or in an area with poor service. Great design can make all of this functionality an object of beauty, including a power button I can find.