Fri 14 Jun
I’m working up to writing at greater length about iOS 7 because, well, blogging. In the meantime, I thought I’d make one specific point. The thing that bothers me most about the new operating system is the completely revised back button, which is now less of a button and more of a left-facing arrow that looks a bit like a compressed bracket, plus a text label. I’m not going to critique it extensively right now, except to say that my least favorite thing about it is that it’s not the old back button.
If you ask me, that back button, the one that has been with us since the iPhone debuted, was the best back button design of all time. Most back buttons, like the ones in desktop browsers, are just an arrow-shaped icon with a text label above or below that says only “Back.” If you want to know where they’ll take you, you usually have to click and hold on the button to reveal a list of the screens you previously viewed.
The pre-iOS 7 back button consolidated these things into a single button shape that tapers into an arrowhead on the left side, and it housed a text description of where the button would lead you. It basically did three jobs with a single element. First, it visually signaled the way back, so that even if you didn’t read the descriptor text, you would still recognize the button’s function instantly. Second, if you did read what it said, it gave you the title of the previous view, without forcing you to tap and hold or take some secondary action to reveal that information. And finally, unlike the new back button in iOS 7, it was explicit about what you could tap and where; the target area was clearly demarcated by the button shape, and managed to do so without crowding the title of the view to its right (by contrast iOS 7’s new back button text often seems to run right into the title of the screen).
Just as importantly, the old back button was a visually pleasing design. Its left side wasn’t just a standard, angular arrowhead — its angles were ever so slightly sloped, softening the shape just enough to suggest that going back would be smooth and instantaneous.
The effect was tremendously elegant, in a very subtle way, and it became a hallmark of iOS apps. No other operating system’s back buttons worked quite the same way, but even better most iOS developers who customized the look of this button would preserve its basic shape, size and function. They might have changed up the color, swapped in a new typeface, or even altered the dimensionality of the button so that it was flat or embossed, but they rarely strayed very far from the original. I always liked to look closely at third party developers’ renderings of this button, to see if they replicated those gentle curves on the arrowhead. In my mind, the very best designed iOS apps always captured that tiny but important detail.
I’ve been using the past tense here as if this back button has left us, passed on to that great big operating system in the sky, but of course it will be around at least until iOS 7 officially ships. I’m holding out a little bit of hope, though, that in the intervening months Apple re-evaluates both the old and new buttons, and realizes what a great thing it had in the former. Maybe they’ll give the old guy a last minute pardon, too, and bring him back from death row.