New UI Patterns in App Design: A Blessing or a Curse?

Software design has made some interesting strides lately. It’s possible that we’re beginning to see Apple’s role in setting UI standards give way to the innovation of third party developers.

Unfortunately, this shift makes for a much more complicated scenario for developers and designers. Tempers rise, fingers are pointed and even users begin arguing about the difference between inspiration and theft. When trends are set by third party designers, is it acceptable to follow them?


The arrival of OS X brought a complete paradigm shift for app designers. Realistic “Aqua” icons began replacing the old OS 9 cartoony style and brushed metal textures took over everything in sight.

Before long, everything in OS X started to look pretty similar, just as it had in previous Mac OS versions. All Mac apps “looked” like Mac apps, which was in effect a good thing. Users like familiarity because it makes an operating system easier to use.

This “Apple” look has gradually evolved over time with a few major jumps, defined for the most part, by Apple. The biggest influences were likely updated iterations of OS X (Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, etc.) in conjunction with new iLife versions. Each OS X brought large, overarching design changes that just about every developer was expected to follow. iLife on the other hand, represented Apple’s best UI suggestions for structuring your apps. Suggestions which developers eagerly took and users eagerly adapted to.

Take iPhoto as an example. iPhoto represents a quintessential UI pattern for OS X users. We’re familiar with the layout, the colors, and everything else that makes iPhoto look and feel like iPhoto. We’re familiar with it not only because of iPhoto itself, but because the same UI was then picked up and used in just about every app with an image gallery. When we have an app that contains lots of photos, screenshots, etc. we both want and expect it to look like iPhoto.


iPhoto, LittleSnapper and Flickery

The same is true of Mail, not technically an iLife app but certainly designed with iLife shifts in mind. In OS X, Mail set the standard for apps that featured lots of text-based content that needed to be sorted through and read quickly. Email clients, database apps and RSS readers all directly cloned the Mail interface and used it for their own purposes.

A New Game Changer

Every now and then in this history, a third party app would come along and set a standard. We’re still seeing the effects of Quicksilver’s influence on launchers and Transmit’s influence on FTP clients.

One of the most notable of such events recently took place in the case of Tweetie/Twitter for Mac. Twitter apps were once a dime a dozen, but Loren Brichter came along and gave us one that shocked us in its beauty and simplicity. It struck out on its own, leaving behind standard UI rules that we had all grown accustomed to.

The impact of the interface can be seen in the sheer volume of users Tweetie still had right before it became Twitter for Mac. Despite the fact that development had seemingly gone stagnant, leaving Tweetie completely void of standard Twitter features that every other client possessed, thousands of people like myself found that we simply couldn’t switch to any other client!

Tweetie Takes Hold

We’re now starting to reach a point where others have decided to jump on board this wagon. The Tweetie interface that we knew and loved was perfected in Twitter for Mac, and is being directly applied to apps across several categories.


Twitter, Sparrow and Reeder

The image above shows Twitter, Sparrow and Reeder, three apps in three different categories heavily influenced by Brichter’s work (Brichter was even directly involved with Sparrow to some extent). I can’t name any other non-Apple UI pattern that made such a quick, cross-genre leap!

Reeder Sets the Standard

The Reeder interface shown above is a scaled down view and actually wasn’t even added until fairly late in the Reeder beta stages. Before that, Reeder was busy blazing its own trail. As with Twitter for Mac, this pattern was very quickly picked up by developers and is well on its way to becoming the new standard for RSS clients, leaving behind the tired Mail metaphor.


Reeder and its progeny

The Rise of the App Developer

Tweetie and Reeder represent an important piece of Mac history. They seem to mark a rise in the influence of third party developers as standard setters that don’t necessarily subscribe to Apple’s standard UI patterns.

Think about it, here we are faced with Lion, a brand new operating system with widespread UI implications across the board and yet I’m writing about how the App Store is looking more and more like Tweetie and Reeder every day! This is a major shift from events surrounding previous OS releases.

We can trace this back to the iPhone and its revolutionary App Store. The iPhone not only reinvigorated software development, it brought it to new heights. Developers are rockstars like never before and that has spilled over to the Mac. These days, it’s almost as if Apple is looking to what’s popular in app design and basing their new design decisions on that rather than the other way around!

The Problem

With this shift, a huge problem arises in the form of intellectually property. When Apple sets the standard for app design, developers are actually expected to follow suit. No one suggests that LittleSnapper “ripped off” iPhoto, instead we write reviews about the “gorgeous iPhoto-inspired interface.”

This is not the case when the trend setter is a third party developer. If we post a review of anything that looks remotely like Reeder, commenters immediately cry out for the blood of the offending designers, longing to see them hanged for their crimes.

The thing that needs to be decided is, where do we draw the line between theft and the widespread adoption of a new and better UI pattern? Throughout the history of software, the masses have duplicated the efforts of the innovators. But what incentive is there to innovate if any successes are immediately cloned and occasionally even improved upon, making the innovator’s app anything but unique?

What Do You Think?

This article is merely meant to point out a trend and the resulting problem, not offer solutions. Frankly, I don’t know the answer. However, I’m quite curious to hear what your solutions are.

If Sparrow really is a better way to structure an email client, at what point should competing apps meet user demands and adopt everyone’s new favorite structure? If the Reeder model has improved upon the email UI we used to use for RSS, should other developers maintain the old system or join the revolution?

Eventually, standards have to be set. You can’t really make the argument each and every app developer should create unique interfaces. Imagine if every app on your Mac presented you with a drastically innovative UI. Wouldn’t that crush usability? Don’t we love Macs because of the consistency of the design and experience? So, who should set the standards and how do we know when something is a new standard and when it is intellectual property that shouldn’t be duplicated?