iOS: The User Interface Design Journey

November 15, 2019

Lauren Wong
UX/UI Designer

Taking a look at the influential power of the iPhone's user interface within the design world.

11 years ago, after 5 years of research and development, Steve Jobs revealed to the world a revolutionary product named the iPhone. A device that would impact our lives in countless ways, including the way that we think about design.

“The iPhone has brought design into the mainstream consciousness, more than any other product in history... There is no doubt in my mind that we can credit the iPhone for the design, experience and service revolution that is affecting every sector of the economy, and our daily lives as result.” – Yves Béhar, founder and principal designer of Fuseproject

To understand the influential power of the iPhone within design, I will delve into the major changes of the iOS user interface (UI). Covering (1) how Apple’s product UI has impacted the design industry as a whole, and (2) how the iOS UI design has set the design standards of what, we consumers feel comfortable viewing.

The Introduction of the iPhone, bringing in Skeuomorphism

It all began at the first ever release of the iPhone (iPhone OS 1) in 2007. Steve Job introduced a user interface dedicated to touchscreen technology; it was the first mobile to go without a physical keyboard or scroll pad (gasp!). Changing all that we knew about human interaction with digital products.

iPhone OS 1

During this period, Scott Forstall was the lead iOS UI designer. The iPhone’s UI had a complete skeuomorphic style; meaning UI features were designed to resemble real-life items. Gradients, drop-shadow and borders were added to buttons to make them seem 3D and clickable.

‍ Calculator metaphor where users transfer previous knowledge about physical calculators to the digital environment. Image source: theultralinx

Whether you think that this style is attractive or not, my hat goes off to Forstall as touch screens were a new phenomenon in 2007. He understood that it would take some time for people to get used to pushing virtual buttons on a screen, and skeuomorphism made it easier for everyone to do so.

Goodbye Skeuomorphism, hello Flat-Design

User interface screen comparison of iOS 6 (left) and iOS 7 (right)

Fast-forward 5 years later to 2013, when Apple unveiled what would be one of the most major design shifts in UI: the introduction of flat design in the iOS 7. After Forstall left Apple in 2012, Jonathan Ive (the lead hardware designer for iPhone products) took over Forstall’s responsibilities. This lead to the complete re-design of the iPhone’s UI, shifting towards a new design philosophy.

iOS 7

iOS 7 dropped skeuomorphism and the UI no longer took inspiration from the physical world. Instead, it was all about use of flat colours, drop shadows and the layering of elements to create the illusion of a vibrant, three-dimensional space. Everything from the typography to iconography was now much more minimal and abstract.

“We understood that people had already become comfortable with touching glass, they didn’t need physical buttons, they understood the benefits, … So there was an incredible liberty in not having to reference the physical world so literally … to create an environment that was less specific.” – Jon Ivy on the iOS 7 user interface changes

Despite the early criticism around the iOS 7 over-simplistic style, most of the world has now come to embrace this new design era. Businesses across the globe have moved away from their old skeuomorphic logos and websites, and adopted a modern flat-design style.

‍Skeuomorphism to flat design logo change for Instagram (left image) and Pepsi (right image)

So now what’s new for the iPhone X UI?

Now jumping to 2018, the world of digital product design is still supporting flat design. With the release of iPhone X, the home button has now been abolished; meaning that our reliance on UI design is stronger than ever. 

iPhone X

The iOS user interface (UI) design journey is one to admire. Throughout the iPhone’s life, Apple has consciously developed its UI to suit the digital culture’s needs; so as long as Apple continues to do so, we as digital beings will naturally adapt alongside it.