In late 2012, Scott Forstall was let go from Apple. Forstall had created iOS and led the team until then. Forstall was in a way responsible for the skeuomorphic design staying in iOS long after Microsoft and Google had abandoned it in favor of a more authentically digital look. With Forstall gone, Jony Ive became responsible for the design of both the software and the hardware for all of Apple.
It wasn’t a coincidence that, less than a year after Scott was let go, Apple introduced a more flat design for iOS in iOS 7. It was a stark transition from the gradients and shadows of iOS 6, and it took a long time before I was comfortable with it.
But something bothered me more than the transition away from the comfortable familiarity of Apple’s previous skeuomorphic approach to the UI. It was immediately apparent when I used the OS: there was a certain quality that was lacking in the way the various UI elements were designed. They felt slightly rough, not quite as polished as Apple’s efforts to date. At first, I dismissed this as a side effect of Apple designers’ inexperience with designing for a flat style. Apple’s designers were fantastic at creating incredibly detailed elements with perfectly rendered shadows and gradients that seem to follow a fixed light source somewhere out of view. Flat design requires discipline and restraint, and it’s not easy.
Still that explanation didn’t sit easy with me. Google and Microsoft had accomplished the same in about the same amount of time, or perhaps a bit more. Microsoft had launched the Metro design system in less than a year. Google had switched from the skeuomorphic Apple-like design of Android Gingerbread, to the flat, digital design language that they called Holo in Honeycomb.
With iOS 8 and 9, Apple did tweak their design language for iOS further, and it did seem like things were getting better. The UI looked more refined, even as they added more features. But then iOS 10 came out, and along with it a sudden change to the design language that didn’t quite make sense.
For one, Apple introduced a new style for their notifications that matched the more data heavy design of the Android notifications. But unlike Android, the notifications had larger, more rounded edges, edges that seemed to mimic the shape and roundness of the iOS devices that they were displayed on. In addition, the design of the Control Panel that slides up when you swipe up from the bottom was now split into two, with bigger buttons and elements, and additional artwork for the music player that felt redundant and extraneous.
The design changes didn’t make sense. The more rounded corners made the notifications seem busy and clunky. The extra artwork for the music player that apparently necessitated the need for a separate tab/screen for it, were superfluous, and actually made it a little harder to play/pause music or use one of the quick actions (flashlight, alarm/timer/stopwatch, etc.) that previous had just been a swipe and a click away. It was a change that was unnecessary and seemed only to be there to unify the look of the UI with that of the industrial design of the devices, usability be damned.
It was only one small aspect of many design changes that Apple had implemented under Jony Ive since Forstall left. There were others. And there was also a change in the approach to design that was starting to veer away from what Apple had done in the Steve Jobs/Scott Forstall days. There was more of a focus on form over function, and a strong focus on flash and style over ease of use and usability.
I knew that Forstall leaving the company had something to do with the many of these changes. Forstall, for all his personal shortcomings in the way he dealt with people, was very much like Jobs in that he was relentlessly focused on the user. Ive by comparison was an industrial designer that loved beauty, as is evident in everything from the bondi blue iMac to the Apple Watch.
But there was something else. And it finally dawned on me after the launch of the new Macbook Pros with the touch bar, and the switch to the MacBook keyboard that I’ve found to be more painful to use (at least in the limited amount of time I used it) due to the reduced key travel.
Ive is the highest designer in the company. No one else in the company has the authority or the power to critique his design decisions like Jobs and Forstall did. And that’s unfortunate. Jobs had collaborated with Ive on almost every design decision since he returned to Apple in 1996. The former had been a valuable partner in helping to critique and temper Ive’s design decisions, and the end result was nearly a decade and a half of amazing, thoughtful, delightful, and beautiful design. And Forstall’s relentless focus on the user ensured that iOS and OS X were beautiful but also user friendly and accessible to boot.
Without Jobs and Forstall, there is no one else left in the company to temper Ive’s design decisions. Tim Cook is a fantastic operations and sales leader, but he’s not a design leader. And without that feedback loop, Apple’s design philosophy has veered away from user focused to more of an Ive-focused approach.
I’ve heard of other companies where the death of a partner caused a downward spiral in the quality of their products. After the death of Walt Disney, Walt’s company floundered until it found renewed life and success through the partnership of Frank Wells and Michael Eisner. But when Wells died unexpectedly, Eisner struggled and failed to maintain the same quality of leadership without his partner, and eventually was pushed out of the company.
And it started me thinking about the importance of having a partner or colleague, someone who believes in your vision, but is willing to critique, provide feedback, share ideas to improve that vision and work with you to achieve it.
A month ago, I joined a new company as the sole UX designer. My previous gig was with Slalom, a consulting company based out of Seattle, but with local offices in many large cities. We had a team of UX designers, lead by Tracey, who was not only incredibly passionate and knowledgable about UX but an amazing mentor. She helped me get out of my shell, and pushed me to do more than I had thought possible. As the team grow, and with it the needs of the UX team, I found it harder to get time with Tracey, sharing ideas and getting feedback on my own vision of UX. Thankfully, a couple of years ago, Tracey had hired a brilliant and incredibly talented UX designer/developer named Marcelo.
Marcelo and I hit it off pretty quickly. We had very similar interests and approaches not just in UX and interaction design, but in other aspects of our lives as well. At one point, he joined a project that I had been working on for a couple of years. It turns out that our desktop setup was identical, right down to the laptop, Apple USB keyboard, and the identical model of Sennheiser headphones that we had each bought independently, unaware that the other had done the same. It was eerie, like meeting my twin from an alternate reality. Except he was smarter, and seemingly a decade ahead of me in the goals that I had set for myself.
Marcelo became my people manager, for the last couple of years. While I missed spending time with Tracey, I relished my meetings with Marcelo. We could have candid, spirited, sometimes heated discussions about UX, careers, interaction design, dealing with colleagues at work, without either of us becoming offended or feeling slighted. Thanks to Marcelo, I pushed forward with projects like BFF and prototyping in code, and I learnt a lot about myself and what I wanted to do with my career, and where I wanted to go.
A month ago, I left Slalom for a new company. It wasn’t an easy decision. I knew that I would be leaving behind a group of people that I had come to accept as my friends, folks that I trusted, and loved, and a company where I felt comfortable. Slalom was the first place in a very long time where I truly felt like part of a family. I would be leaving all that for the uncertainty of a new company, a new culture, and hopefully new friends, and the hope of establishing a UX centered approach in this new place.
But ultimately, what pushed me to leave, was the desire to grow as a user experience leader. I had felt that the task would be difficult, if not impossible at Slalom where, I always had this incredibly talented and supportive team to fall back on, and I couldn’t tell if I was succeeding because they were always there to catch me when I slipped or made a mistake, or if I was truly growing as a user experience practitioner.
Over the last many years, we have talked a lot about failure, and how important it is to be willing to make mistakes and fail, because only by making lots of mistakes, learning from them, and changing ourselves and our actions can we hope to succeed in our goals and our dreams. My decision to leave Slalom hinged on the conclusion that if I wanted to become a user experience leader, I had to make mistakes without the luxury of knowing someone would be there to catch me, and that by doing so, I would learn from my mistakes, and grow into a leadership role.
But I wonder if I was wrong in assuming that I had to make those mistakes alone. I’ve been listening to a
UX podcast for the last month,
What is wrong with UX. I couldn’t have
stumbled on this podcast at a better time. Since leaving Slalom, I’ve found myself racked with self doubt over how
I’ve been approaching in UX in my new company. For one, I had joined the company because I was eager to solve some
of the problems I had heard during the interview. Turns out I was wrong. Those were not the problems in the company;
the people that the company had hired are fantastically talented and forward thinking and had actually already
thought about those problems and solved many of them.
The actual problems were different, and much, much harder to solve. And I wouldn’t be able to establish the UX methodologies and way of thinking that I had struggled to learn, and accept, and champion, and refine at Slalom so easily, and definitely not in the first month! There’s a lot of groundwork to set first, a foundation of design tools, workflows and relationships with those already at the company, folks who had already implemented some UX centric ideas, but had done things a certain way because of the realities of the market they were in.
I’ve felt that old standby, imposter syndrome, starting to creep back in. And I miss my UX colleagues from Slalom. I miss having someone else on the team that understands what only another user experience designer could understand and feel, to vent to, to bounce ideas of off, to critique my ideas, and vision, and goals, to tell me “Sherif, you’re wrong, and here’s why ...”, but also to tell me what I can do better, or how I can salvage my strategy.
And going through this complex mix of emotions, it dawned on me that the path to UX leadership doesn’t have to be a lonely one. I had mistakenly assumed that to become a UX leader I had to make the mistakes alone. But the problem with that approach is, there is no one there to tell me when I’m wrong, when I’m making a mistake, when I’m failing. I have to figure it out myself. And as I struggle to recover my self confidence and reassure myself that yes, I am qualified to do this, I’ve come to realize that on the road to becoming a UX leader, I need a partner, a mentor, a navigator, someone more experienced than me, who can help me find my path to leadership, and guide me in the right direction when I feel lost. And in Tracey, and in Marcelo, I had that guide, and mentor, and partner.
As I struggle to establish myself as a user experience leader at my new company, I will have to find just such a partner. It might be someone in the company, or I might have to reach out to my friends and former colleagues for advise and mentorship. And hopefully someday, when I am mature enough, and wise enough to lead my own UX team, I hope that I too can be that mentor and guide to someone.