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How can you replicate the Apple experience across your products? Central to this challenge is the transition from platform-centric to ecosystem-centric standardization. Explore how to balance design rules and innovation.
Renowned for innovation, Apple is emerging as a symbol of excellence in designing a connected and cohesive experience across an extensive range of products, from iPhones and Vision Pro to the rumored "Apple Car."
Platform-centric standardization is crucial in molding user experiences in technology, ensuring intuitiveness and engagement in connected experiences. We spoke to design experts to learn how to draw inspiration from the Apple experience and explore how this model can be replicated across various products.
Gábor Némethi, a UX/UI Designer at UX Studio, defines platform-centric standardization as a system of stringent patterns, rules, and assets that guide designers in crafting uniform user experiences within a specific platform, whether iOS or MacOS. One example is the Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) that serve as component repositories to maintain that usability.
“Back when design consistency wasn't a priority for Apple, we saw many different apps with different experiences and patterns. Users will be frustrated if you have several apps that behave completely differently. Patterns across the ecosystem, such as a familiar input field or navigation elements, help to build user habits, ensuring higher usability confidence.”
However, over the past few years, Apple has been moving towards ecosystem-centric standardization rather than platform-centric. Initially designed for the Apple Watch, the evolution of widgets showcases a unified design and functionality across the platform lineup as these components slowly grew into the iPhone, iPad, and, lately, MacOS. This strategy, aimed at keeping users within a single ecosystem, is deliberate and efficient.
Oleksandr Valius, Head of Product Design at Qubstudio, emphasizes that aligning with a platform's design philosophy reinforces brand identity and trust and encourages user retention and loyalty. “This approach drives innovation within the confines of the platform's standards, allowing users to adopt and use interoperability quickly. For example, you can start playing music on a MacBook and pause it on an Apple Watch.”
The critical design challenge of introducing new product features across diverse devices while ensuring seamless user interaction aligns with Valius' assertion that simultaneous implementation is crucial to prevent frustration from inconsistent visual and interaction experiences.
Némethi warns of potential obstacles, noting the wealth of information can make designers feel restricted: “For example, while Apple's Action Sheet may be easier to implement, gaining stakeholder buy-in for innovative concepts is the challenge. There are also times when we try to reinvent the wheel for no reason. At the conceptual phase, the standards are more like best practices rather than rules for using these components.”
Valius agrees, emphasizing that he often sees designers skipping the low-fidelity ideation phase and begin designing with Figma components.
“Start with the napkin sketch, pick a Sharpie, and doodle, crafting a story in your mind before delving into the pixels. Make creative solutions, and only after that try to fit them to the standards, not otherwise. There’s no need to limit yourself too early.”
Design serves as the bridge in humanizing technology, acting as the interface between the user's intentions ("why") and the capabilities of technology ("what"). Valius emphasizes that the interface must evolve as technology progresses, establishing new standards and updating outdated design patterns.
He illustrates this principle and points to the Apple Vision Pro as a case study. “Despite being a new medium for Apple, the UI maintains the distinctive Apple feel, ensuring users find its functionality intuitive, even when introducing new features.
From Némethi's perspective, the launch of the Vision Pro offers an intriguing view of Apple's current influence: “I consider them to be influencers rather than innovators. They are very good at refinement through vast research and development, but they did not invent the tablet, the smartphone, or the smartwatch.”
Highlighting a positive shift in Apple's engagement with designers, Némethi states that while the designer community previously crafted every HIG element, Apple has now been responsible for structuring a UI Kit and has begun producing official components for designers.
Valius emphasizes the need for a delicate balance on standardization, noting that while rigid standards ensure control over design quality, overly tight standards can inhibit creative expression, and vague standards may compromise the distinctive Apple product identity.
“We need to understand the technical side of platform-centric standardization, which offers numerous advantages in constructing swift, intelligent, and interconnected products. This requires a lot of work, as every part of the standard should perfectly connect and communicate with the other parts of the ecosystem. Consequently, Apple needs to impose constraints that, unfortunately, affect design freedom.”
At the crossroads of innovation and consistency, Apple holds a unique position. Its timeless magic never fails to astonish, and it will be no different with platform-centric standardization. So, let the Apple experience inspire you to prioritize customer feedback, adhere to core principles, and let design mediate between people and technology in your pursuit of cross-platform standardization.