On iOS, texture is something you should never notice, unless it’s missing. Its purpose is to accentuate the experience and make it more pleasing on the eye. Apple is a company that has always been obsessed with texture. Early versions of Mac OS X were draped in horizontal stripes. iTunes, Safari and later versions of the Mac OS X Finder ushered in the era of the brushed metal texture. Today’s Mac OS X Lion installs are still covered in textures, but not as necessarily in your face as those earlier versions of the OS.
The textures (and “lickability” of Aqua) are what helped separate the modern Mac experience Apple was offering in 2001 from the solid, single color experience that Microsoft put out with Windows.
On mobile devices, texture has become even more important to Apple. The Reminders app has a subtle leather background that is visually appealing and gives the app a more inviting feel to it. Similarly, the Notification Center background is the “linen” texture that Apple seems to fancy more and more these days. It may not be a perfect choice for some the stuffy designers out there, but just offering a solid gray background would look completely out of place in the iPhone experience.
On the other end of the spectrum, Apple has the not so subtle leather textures in Find My Friends. Despite its over the top nature, the texture gives Find My Friends an inviting feel that somewhat disguises the fact that the app is designed to let your friends keep track of your every move. That potential creepy factor is dialed down by the UI design.
This is why it is so puzzling when I discover new apps that are draped in solid colors and sans any texture whatsoever. The latest version of the Sirius XM app1 is such an example of this. The application is draped in a fully custom blue and white interface that matches the Sirius XM branding. Short of a few oddly angled gradients, the app has solid colored navigation bars, harsh shadows behind text and weird custom interface designs.
Look at my current whipping boy around these parts, the Sports Illustrated iPad app, and you’ll see something similar. Error messages don’t pop up standard
UIAlertViews. Instead the app uses solid red rectangles with the error text rendered in white. The issue procurement interface is also filled with solid colors and just a few gradients. Again, not much texture.
In both of these cases we are dealing with applications from major companies. These are also applications that are on multiple platforms. If you look at the Sirius or Sports Illustrated experience on an iPad or Android tablet, you won’t notice too many differences.
On other platforms where texture isn’t as important a characteristic such as Android, the solid color stylings of these third-party apps is a better fit. With Android 4.0, Google’s design focused is more towards a dark, futuristic tone. Solid colors rather than gradients or texture are the norm on Android. I think it’s a good looking experience based on the screenshots I have seen,2 but I am sure it turns of quite a few iOS fans.
With Windows Phone, Microsoft again focuses on solid colors and large pieces of text. Panorama views3 don’t have texture in the iOS sense, but they do usually have a large photo that stretches across the control to give it more vibrance and make the experience more inviting. In terms of visual styling, Windows Phone differs the most from the other two platforms, which is possibly why it has seen a slower adoption rate from major companies building for their platform.
These are three different platforms that offer three uniquely different visual experiences. That’s why it is so frustrating to see major media companies focus on building an experience that is unique to their brand, but doesn’t look or feel like it belongs on any specific platform.
I understand the desire to offer a unified experience across multiple platforms, but there are ways to do it while still respecting the unique features and attributes iOS, Android and Windows Phone offer. Facebook is one of the few larger companies to do a relatively decent job of this.
If you look at the Facebook Messenger app for Android and iOS you will see that the general layout and style is similar between the two platforms, but both offer visual elements that look like they belong on their respective platforms.
It was certainly extra work for their millions of designers and the engineering team to craft experiences that felt unique on both platforms, but the end result is something that delights both Android and iOS users alike. With these apps that offer a completely platform-agnostic user experience and color palette, the bean counters may win by keeping a project under budget, but the users ultimately are offered a much less enjoyable experience.
Spotify also translates between platforms nicely. Their iOS and Android experiences are somewhat similar, but their Windows Phone app looks nothing like the others. Instead, it looks like something built from the ground up for Microsoft’s smartphone platform. Not only does it offer a better experience, but it’s more respectful to that platforms’ users who don’t have to feel like second-class citizens with a half-baked port of yet another iOS app.
Mobile isn’t to a point yet where cross-platform HTML5 based apps are the acceptable norm, and I hope we never get to that point. Desktop computing suffered because we had a single, dominant platform powering 95% of the PCs in the world. As Apple has started to chip away at that dominance with Mac OS X you are starting to see more apps, but more importantly you are seeing apps that are designed for Mac OS X, not just ported to it.
Mobile is young enough that we’ve got three vibrant platforms that offer uniquely identifiable experiences jockeying for position. If your goal is to reach all of those customers, do it with respect and taste. Build something tailored specifically for them, not something that is just “good enough” for all three.