Messin’ with the iPhone

Published 10 years ago - 1

People are sensitive about technology they bond with and the iPhone is a recent example. Infoesthetics picked up Edward Tufte’s comments and critique of the iPhone and the reaction of Christopher Fahey, the information architecture practice lead at Behavior. You need not imagine the cat hiss of the commentary that follows either blog post, a quick glance reveals the emotional charge often experienced when pointing at people wearing t-shirts that read, “Don’t mess with Texas.”

Tufte drops some gems at the end of his video commentary:

To clarify add detail.

Clutter and overload are not an attribute of information they are failures of design.

If the information is in chaos don’t start throwing out information, instead fix the design.

Something he credits the iPhone for doing while critiquing that some applications leave the user in what I think of as a Jelly Bean Land. Things look great, smooth, glossy and colorful, just like the high polish of Jelly Bellys. In a wonderful call back to the ways of academics, Tufte pulls together some readily available visuals to illustrate his point – quite likely the work of his protégés. Messin’ with the iPhone is dangerous and exactly why someone needs to do it.

The two examples are the market view and the weather application. In short, each could offer higher data density, leveraging the characteristics of the high-res screen of the device, consistently reinforcing the uniqueness of the iPhone, not just relying on the improved touch screen, which will eventually be everywhere. However, people like Jelly Bellys and that is a tough argument. Many people like high fat, high-cholesterol, high sugar foods, but then are upset at their obese kids. Just because we like it, or that no one is complaining, is not a valid argument that it is right. In fact, there are plenty that agree, Tufte’s points are worthy, but his visuals leave too much and too little to the imagination.

His stock example is illustrated with a printed page (possible a portion of a printed page). The point is, see how much information could be displayed? Visually, it was awful. Everyone reveres the point, his text on sparklines and data density is biblical.

Lesson 1: When messin’ with the iPhone, offer visuals that are as esthetically pleasing as the ones in which you refer. It reduces the need to overcome the dissonance.

Tufte’s weather example actually draws upon lesson 1 (good job to whomever mocked up the improved weather experience). While not perfect, it demonstrates the added data density while maintaining some of the luscious visuals of the original weather experience. He adds a high-resolution weather animation below. It is a bit too large and reminds the viewer of low-def TV signals on a high-def, high-res TV. Conceptually fine, dangerously too real and hence offensive to those understanding it less as a direction and more as the solution.

Lesson 2: When messin’ with the iPhone, stay consistent in your accordance or violation with lesson 1. Again, it reduces the dissonance that the viewer has in understanding the presentation – consistency is highly explanatory.

Humans are fascinating creatures forming meaningful relationships with inanimate objects, often the ones that are soon perceived to be extensions of the self. Apple’s contribution to society is some of the best experience and industrial design ever, exactly what they are selling. Technically, it is all the same and yet they invest where people’s hearts are. A deeper reflection on Buddism and materialism reveals that there is no requirement to shed physically all material objects, but it is your ability to enjoy and simultaneously be indifferent of an object’s presence. Our appreciation for our present situation and detachment from it being so very necessary leaves a healthy mental balance. Many people will be buried with iPhones, but none of them will need them.

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One thought on “Messin’ with the iPhone

  • I disagree with Tufte’s last premise, “If the information is in chaos don’t start throwing out information, instead fix the design.” He doesn’t seem to be able to consider the possibility that there are situation in which more information is a bad idea. He has long been fighting a war to prevent the unintended loss or obfuscation of critical information in graphic design, a war for which I and thousands of other have long admired him. But there are many contexts in which the appropriate and necessary quantity of information is, in fact, quite small. Most iPhone usage contexts are of this sort.

    The debate has nothing whatsoever to do with the jelly bean/cartoonish appearance of the design and everything to do with ease of use. Tufte’s solution is, in fact, not as easy to use as the iPhone’s design for those users who only need to know the most essential information about their stocks and the weather. For those extremely few users who need to know those things in great detail, Tufte’s apps may be useful. I suspect, however, that he has reached a point of fetishizing the elegant display of large amounts of information at the expense of considering the context of usage of said information. I also suspect his critique is inspired by his particular design tastes.


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