Why iOS 7 forced developers to redesign their apps for experienced smartphone users

Last week I looked at app counts and submissions to the App Store to gauge how much of an impact Apple’s iOS 7 has had on development teams over the summer. What the numbers didn’t show was why iOS 7 had such big an impact.

While there are certainly some programming changes that developers must contend with each time there is a major update, what I found after talking with developers this week was that iOS 7 also initiated more than a few complete redesigns for apps in the App Store. And these initiatives had a lot more to them than just flattening the look of the app.

Evolving API changes that were expected

An example of one of the big differences under the hood with the iOS 7 transition compared to iOS 6 that developers had to contend with is how device identifiers are being used. In prior releases, the methods developers used were deprecated, meaning Apple strongly suggested that developer stop using them, but they were still there all the same. In iOS 7 they have been completely removed.

“As an app marketing platform, the only major change we’ve had to accommodate is the shift away from UDIDs and MAC addresses that iOS 7 makes final, which has been underway for more than a year.” said Craig Palli, chief strategy officer at Fiksu. “Our SDK is fully integrated with the IDFA (Identifier For Advertising) and the Limit Ad Tracking feature and it is already up and running on iOS 7. In fact, slightly more than 1 percent of our traffic is already on the new operating system.”

Since WWDC in June, developers have been installing iOS 7 on their registered devices. Fiksu is already seeing 700,000 marketing events per day coming from such devices that are running iOS 7.

iPhone users are more experienced now

While every major release is certain to come with changes like this that developers need to adjust to, there seemed to be another reason that so many teams have been sent back to the drawing board this summer. With a subtle message from Apple to developers that iPhone users are more accustomed to the operating system than one might think, apps started undergoing major redesigns this summer.

“As soon as we installed the first iOS 7 developer beta on our phones, it was immediately clear that iOS 7 was much more than a design change.” said Raphael Ouzan, founder and CTO at BillGuard. “Like it or not, we knew iOS 7 would shift overnight what people expect. So we put our app roadmap on hold and immdiately started work on our iOS 7 version.” What Raphael was referring to was a major update to the iOS Human Interface Guidelines defined by Apple. These guidelines specify how developers design apps.

Failure to comply to these guidelines could result in an app not being approved for the App Store. “iOS 7 guidelines and design paved the way for a much lighter app experience,” Ouzan said, explaining how the new guidelines target a user community that no longer needs to be instructed on how the iPhone works.

“Content first, design second,” he said. We removed the unnecessary ornaments on navigational buttons. Translucency and the layering engine enabled us to eliminate design clutter and create better hierarchies.”

Rethinking every element of the user interface

It is one thing to publish a document stipulating that developers make some changes to how their apps are designed, but Apple did much more than that this time around. The company changed the code in such a manner that it truly influenced the way developers thought about solving design issues. The entire flow of the app needed to change.

“All of the previous major updates introduced features and comparatively small design changes, like supporting the larger screen height of the iPhone 5. With iOS 7, we had to comb through every screen in our app and rethink every detail to make sure that we were following the new aesthetics,” said Roman Karachinsky, CEO at News360. With all of the rumors about how much of a change iOS 7 was going to be early on, Karachinsky and his team were planning on undertaking a massive overhaul of their app this past summer.

What they did not plan for was an iOS update that eliminated the need for so many navigation controls. Focusing more on content, News360’s iOS 7 redesign will have less of an emphasis on navigation. “We made a big effort to have the app ready by the time the GM hit” Karachinsky continued, “we are pretty confident it should be in the first wave of apps approved for iOS 7.”

Design changes that extended beyond iOS

Getting apps submitted to the App Store in time so that they will be there when the public starts upgrading was a key part of every developer’s strategy that I spoke with. “We’ve been prepared for two weeks now,” said Anand Iyer, head of product at Threadflip. “Our iOS 7 build was submitted to Apple shortly after the Gold Master was released on Tuesday.”

While Iyer was prepared for updating its iOS app, what he was not prepared for was how adopting the changes to iOS 7 would affect its mobile web site as well. “We were forced to think about how we could vastly simplify our experiences across the board, even for the web. We have even started to rethink our mobile web experience.”

The code wasn’t broken, the design was outdated

Not one team that we had an opportunity to speak with acted like the changes being made were the result of a broken app that they had to fix because of iOS 7. Instead, there was more of a tone of excitement as they were finally able to abandon may of the visual elements that were initially there just to teach users how to use a touch-based smartphone. Following Apple’s updated iOS Human Interface Guidelines was no small undertaking. In some instances it has even influenced redesign efforts on other platforms like the web.

A final race to the App Store

The only question that remains is how many apps that have undergone such changes this summer will Apple be able to approve in time for the release. Looking at the data from Shiny Development that tracks app approval wait times, it appears that the count is currently at six days and is trending upward. This indicates that developers that have not already submitted their iOS 7 update to Apple likely won’t be able to ship updates to their users on September 18th.