Design Blindness

John Gruber quoted an Android user who is perplexed about why iOS users have affection for wonderfully designed and polished apps.

Gruber then continues:

That’s like asking for “measurable criteria” for evaluating a movie or novel or song or painting. I will offer another quote from Kubrick: “The test of a work of art is, in the end, our affection for it, not our ability to explain why it is good.”

I agree with Gruber’s entire article about apps, but I would amend Kubrick and add that works of art, or apps, or fonts can actually have many explanations for why they are not good. Critics do this all the time. A film where there is nothing or very little to criticize might be a great film. Less than great films can be picked apart, if they are even worth the time and effort. (Maybe Gruber is saying that there are not enough third-party Android apps in the Mastodon and RSS Feed Reader categories to even bother?)

I think apps are much the same as films, for example. When you launch some unfamiliar software and immediately get taken out of the experience, this is akin to unintentionally breaking the fourth wall with poor filmmaking. This can happen in many ways:

  • crashing bugs
  • glitches
  • UI weirdness
  • frustrating inability to intuit how or where or why
  • need for workarounds
  • failure to anticipate the user’s needs
  • unintuitiveness (hidden gestures, requirements to read the manual even for simple apps)
  • failure to do work for the user that could easily be automated by the software
  • fiddliness, jankiness, jumpiness, wonkiness, wobliness
  • inconsistency with system controls
  • lack of detent in slider or knob controls
  • making the user do things manually or painstakingly
  • lack of dark mode
  • failure to integrate with the system or hardware features
  • lack of orthogonal features that multiply to allow sophisticated workflows and flexible integrations (e.g. multi-select, keyboard shortcuts)
  • poor information design or layout (too dense, not dense enough)
  • clunky transitions (or no transitions)
  • lack of springiness (like my bank’s app on my phone)
  • large download sizes without commensurate content, usually to ship a massive cross-platform framework for what should be a simple app, or to include ad-network code
  • ugly or thin or whispy or unrecognizable icons

If you quickly run into one or more of these issues, and you keep finding more, even if the app does what it purports to do, you still know that the developers are just ticking boxes and don’t give a damn, or don’t even know how to give a damn, or, if we are being charitable, are not allowed to give a damn. (Or the users don’t care either and will not pay for better software, so no one can afford to put the effort into making better apps, which appears to be the case for native-only third-party Android apps. Large-player third-party apps such as Disney+ or whatever on Android might be mostly fine, but these are not native-only. iOS has tons of iOS-only native-only apps.)

Explaining Poor Graphic Design, Typography and Poor Fonts

To switch gears, the quote highlighted in the DF article could be slightly modified to explain (often technical people’s) similar misunderstandings and perplexity about typography and font choices:

What on earth is he asking for out of these [fonts]? How do you objectively compare one [font]’s “panache” with another? If I [were] a developer [writer or designer], what are the steps I can follow to program some “comfort” into my app[‘s typography]? These complaints seem so wishy-washy and underspecified.

Then he leaves with the Kubrick quote: “Sometimes the truth of a thing isn’t in the think of it, but in the feel of it.” We’re fully in the realm of mysticism now, this is not an attempt to fairly compare or measure anything. [...]

I think if he’s going to praise some [fonts] and dunk on the other ones, he should compare using measurable criteria. Otherwise, it’s only one person’s opinion. Just saying “[Font] X feels right” is like saying “[Font] X has a better chakra energy.” What is any developer [writer, designer] supposed to do with that feedback? The whole article could have boiled down to “I personally like these [fonts] and I don’t like those.”

As mentioned above about being able to explain what is wrong with an app or wrong with art, or a film, when a typeface (such as Papyrus) has a lot to criticize, especially regarding technical aspects then it is objectively a bad typeface, or fails to find any valid usage scenarios.

To make this more clear, there can be boring fonts that are technically perfect, but no beautiful fonts that are technically flawed. A truly beautiful font must be technically well-executed and have some character, some panache, some swagger.

Helvetica’s capital R at the left, and Arial’s capital R on the right

Compare Helvetica and Arial. Arial shares all its metrics with Helvetica and even if we grant that it is technically acceptable, which capital R makes your heart sing, and which looks like a flaccid eggplant?

It’s not arbitrary. Helvetica’s R has a better balance horizontally but Arial’s juts out to the right awkwardly, and makes kerning worse. So in Helvetica the word “Right” in Arial at a glance looks like “R ight,” or worse the “R” touches the bottom of the “i.” Arial copied the entirety of Helvetica and then changed a few glyphs for no reason (or worse, to claim that it’s not actually technically identical), and certainly made few if any improvements.

Typography and information design can be criticized candidly too. Bad kerning, illegibility, weird contrast issues, bad size hierarchy and poor alignment, overuse or misuse of formatting such as both space and indentation for paragraphs, use of underline instead of italics, use of built-in fonts, lack of polish with layout and spacing metrics, typos and missing hyphens, lack of title-casing, and on and on, all of these give away the game that someone is a visual amateur and hasn’t even seen or noticed that some design works and some just doesn’t. Some design punishes the reader or user. Trips them up, like a piece of uneven sidewalk. Makes them think, instead of having the designer, writer or programmer do the thinking up front. It’s akin to not speaking the native tongue versus being fluent.

It’s not just arbitrary snobbism or rule-making as a shibboleth. It’s called learning to see and learning human empathy.

Maybe the opposite should be called design blindness?