On its launch in 2007, the iPhone revolutionized the mobile phone market. With all-new features like a large, full-colour, multi-touch screen; the ability to take photographs; send and receive emails; play music and – let’s not forget – make actual phone calls, the iPhone quickly became the latest must-have gadget. Early smartphones had tended to simply migrate the look and feel of the PC interface onto the small screen. They had also relied upon fiddly peripherals like the once-ubiquitous stylus. The iPhone, however, was the game changer. It managed to incorporate the functionality that was promised – but not quite delivered – by its predecessors within an intuitive and finger-friendly touchscreen interface.
Developers used the new technologies at their disposal to create apps with consistent and universally understood interfaces. iPhone early adapters, still feeling their way around this nascent technology, were reassured that the gestures and interactions they learned with one app would be applicable across the others. They were, you might say, being trained.
As the app market gathered pace, brands made ever more energetic attempts to get their app noticed. The clean and consistent look that was provided (and jealously guarded) by Apple’s native controls was beginning to seriously hinder a brand’s ability to differentiate itself. Meanwhile competitors began to appear, seeking their own share of the Apple pie. Android had emerged from an ugly duckling infancy and was later followed by Windows Phone.
Android’s spare, utilitarian and yet customisable interface and Windows Phone’s dynamic live tiles appealed to users who had become disenchanted with the iPhone’s cluttered and static layout. These users, by now fully trained on standardised user interfaces, were now looking for more from their apps.
App designers have largely abandoned skeuomorphic design principles, finally admitting that by replicating the green baize of a real-life poker table on screen they’re on a hiding to nothing and would be better advised to innovate in order to create a look and feel that’s more appropriate to the technology. Brands know that they need a bespoke interface to attract attention, and that, on occasion, a brilliantly unique interface alone can generate interest. They realize, too, that only tailor-made design can maintain their hard-won brand equity. Consumers want to interact, to be engaged by a brand, and brands themselves now recognise that off-the-peg apps can no longer generate the personal interactions and re-enforce the recognition that they need. Developers now understand that smartphone users are willing and able to experiment; that by onboarding initial instructions, users are able to apply their learned methods of interaction to new interfaces.
As an example of how far apps have come, we can look to the humble alarm clock, tracing its evolution from the iPhone alarm to the new Rise alarm app.
In its day the standard iPhone alarm contained a number of features that felt revolutionary. The relatable skeuomorphic elements that made the transition from a point and click to a touch experience easy and intuitive still function well. However, the lack of further innovation means that using the alarm is no longer a compelling experience. Switch buttons and picker wheels have usability in spades, but the dearth of personality and the reliance upon using analogue solutions to digital problems seems rather anachronistic, especially when dealing with marketing brands.
The Rise alarm is essentially a two-three screen app that eschews the need for the iPhones conventional UI. There are no navigation or menu bars. Buttons have been replaced by minimalist iconography and navigational elements are accessed via gestures. Visually it looks clean, uncluttered and modern.
Most of the functions are very intuitive, but hidden, which is why it requires a fairly in depth on-boarding process during initial set up. However, once this initial barrier has been overcome using the interface becomes easy and instinctive.
Custom user interfaces have allowed developers to experiment with layout and function in a way that would have been impossible in the iPhone’s infancy and this has produced a slew of apps that are both usable and beautiful. The combination of bespoke interfaces, imagery and typography has enabled brands to really express themselves, and to capture their audience’s imagination – and their engagement – as never before.
Head of Mobile Development
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