Apple’s Jony Ive has a beautiful design philosophy. But sometimes he gets carried away.

September 26, 2013

Jony Ive tries to fix tech design problems before you notice them.  (Paul Sakuma / AP)

There are two kinds of design problems. One is the kind that people like you and me — consumers — see all the time and wish somebody would fix. "This chair doesn't support my back." "Somebody should make a silicone version of this awkward spatula." "Why couldn't they have made this a twist-top?"

Then there are the design problems that only designers tend to see. Fixing them is often a personal challenge, whether or not the consumer ever noticed them, according to Jony Ive and Tim Federighi, Apple's top design wizards, in the just-published transcript of their Bloomberg Businessweek interview:

Ive: I feel that it’s lovely when as a user you’re not aware of the complexity. I think we feel our job is to try to solve tough, difficult problems, but we don’t make the complexity of the problem apparent in its resolution. I mean, there are so many examples of objects or solutions or software where they solve difficult problems, but goodness, it’s really clear how difficult the problem was they’ve solved.

Ive isn't trying to beat you over the head with his genius. He's trying to eliminate problems you never knew were there. In so doing, however, it's easy to forget just which invisible problems are the really important ones.

Take the blurring effect that happens when you use iOS's new multitask app-switcher. That issue came up a number of times in the interview, and it's clear the designers are proud of how they made it work.

"I mean, I — the complexity behind these blurs that move — you have no idea," says Ive. Federighi says the design team made changes to the iPhone's graphics chip to make the blur look the way they wanted.

Ive and Federighi are right that most users won't appreciate how much work went into making that change. But making the app-switcher a continuous scrolling experience (which demanded an efficient blurring effect) arguably hasn't done much to improve multitasking on Apple's devices, overall. If anything, it's now easier to miss the app you want to use as it flies right by. Apple may have gone to great lengths to create its new blur; to what end is unclear.

The designers likely spent a lot of time with a similar new iOS feature, Parallax — the optical illusion that makes it look as if the app icons are hovering over the wallpaper. It's the kind of subtle animation that Ive and Federighi would want to get just right before pushing it out.

Yet the movement of the icons can also be slightly disconcerting. Lifehacker anticipated it to be such a common complaint that it wrote a post explaining how to turn it off. "It's a cool parlor trick," wrote Thorin Klosowski, "but not really useful."

This is a great example of an invented design problem, a technical challenge that didn't exist before Parallax came to be (and a feature that people, including me, have taken to disabling). Parallax didn't fix an existing flaw, and it didn't make the iPhone more functional. But Ive wants us to know that the solution that led to it was very, very elegant.

Parallax grew out of a desire to build more depth into iOS, says Ive:

Ive: That was just the most phenomenal collaboration which required everything from motion graphics to sensing in the hardware to the most remarkable sort of algorithms from a software point of view.

He admits that people didn't really get what he was going for. Instead, iOS 7 got caricatured in the media as being "flat." The mismatch between Ive's intentions and what people actually saw in iOS 7 is emblematic of the way "designer" problems and "consumer" problems sometimes fail to overlap.

Invented design problems aren't necessarily a bad thing. Good ideas will always come along with challenges that need to be worked out. But Apple intentionally spends a lot of its time solving challenges without really testing the ideas that gave rise to them.

"You could spend 60 percent of the time actually debating the virtue of why are we doing this," Ive told Businessweek. "And I think one of the characteristics of Apple is that, if we’re faced with a hard problem—and the product is the culmination of many hard problems solved—if we face the hard problem, we don’t spend time debating why are we doing this. You know, the virtue of solving it. We spend all of our time just like trying to solve the problem."

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Timothy B. Lee | September 26, 2013