The UI Controls Pendulum

Earlier this month Brent Simmons wrote about the advantages of using standard instead of custom controls in Mac and iOS apps. He points to the cost of developing custom controls and questions their benefit. Standard controls, on the other hand, have features like accessibility built in.

This makes a lot of sense. Just take a look Marco Arment’s new podcast app to see standard controls in a beautiful, functional UI. But I wonder whether this isn’t a cyclical thing tied to the lifecycle of the OS user interface design.

The first iteration of Apple’s iOS user interface was in market for about 7 years before the major refresh that happened in iOS 7. There were design changes during the first 6 major versions, but they were relatively small and evolutionary. The platform owner, Apple in this case, won’t make these major changes often, partly because they are hard and costly, but mostly because they don’t want to undermine the familiarity of the design among their users.

Early in the life of a new UI design language there is pretty much only upside to using fresh and new standard controls in your app. In fact, in the really early stages of an OS design refresh the apps that use standard controls are distinctive and in the minority. People will seek them out to get the new hotness. And the halo of freshness might extend well beyond that. We’re 10 months into iOS and it still feels new.

Later in the life of an OS design language this balance starts to shift. Now almost every app, even very crappy ones, are using the standard controls. And using them well. The great app makers who used the standard controls effectively have been copied by everyone else.

Also, the design language no longer feels fresh. Rather, it feels old fashioned. Staid even.

So at some point in the cycle custom controls start to become valuable again. Apps that use them effectively will stand out and will be hard to copy. Consider the discussions about TweetBot’s famously custom UI, or the raving about Loren Brichter’s beautifully simple Letterpress design. In the latter half of the life of the original iOS design it became positively passé to rely on standard controls for your app.

Every app developer will design UI in the context of their own situation — their goals, budget, capabilities, and brand. Some will invest more than others in being unique. But wherever they are on the continuum, it would probably be good to also factor the OS lifecycle into design decisions.