Apple minimalist design and the iOS 4 unified inbox

Apple minimalist design examples: Over the weekend I finally got around to upgrading my iPhone 3G to the new iPhone operating system -- iOS 4, specifically iOS 4.01. I expected the iOS 4 to be slower than the iPhone 3.x operating system I was running, but to my pleasant surprise, it actually seems faster.

Another real surprise was the format of the iOS "unified inbox" in the iPhone Mail application. I knew there was a unified inbox in iOS 4, so that wasn't a surprise, but how they implemented it is a surprise. Specifically, the surprise is that when you look at your iOS 4 unified inbox, there's no indicator to show what mailbox each message is in.

For instance, I currently have two email accounts, a Yahoo account and a Gmail account, but when I look in my unified inbox, there's no indicator to show that a given message came into my Yahoo account or my Gmail account. That seemed weird, I thought, can you really get away without showing where each message came from?

Apple minimalist design - The iPhone iOS 4 unified inbox layout

Pardon my bad formatting -- I don't feel like creating a graphic here today -- but in the iOS unified inbox summary view I expected to see a layout like this:

Gmail, *, Message Subject, Date/Time
Yahoo, -, Message Subject, Date/Time

(Where the '*' or '-' would actually be a small image to show whether a message was new, or had already been read.)

But, to my surprise, what I saw instead was this:

*, Message Subject, Date/Time
-, Message Subject, Date/Time

with no indicator of which mailbox the message was in.

The Apple design minimalism approach

I suspect this is another example of the Apple design minimalism approach. I'll guess that the design process worked like this:

  1. The original designer either showed the mailbox in their design or not. Tight on space, I'll guess they left it out;
  2. There was a group discussion about whether it should be included;
  3. Someone with the minimalist design mindset said "Leave it out until it's proven that it's needed";
  4. During testing people realized they didn't need it, so it was left out.

Personally, I love the minimalist approach: If you're not sure if something is needed, leave it out until it's proven that it's needed.

The anti-minimalism approach

As a means of contrast, here's how 98% of my former customers worked:

Customer: "Al, you left out the Gmail and Yahoo Mail column in the unified inbox."

Me: "I thought about that, and I don't think it's needed. I made some sketches ..."

Customer: "Yes it is needed. We can't possibly go into testing without it! In fact, there are some other columns I want to add here ..."

Scouts honor, I've worked with hundreds of customers, and that's how 98% of them think -- more is better, and in fact, more is necessary.

Whether you're a consultant or a regular employee, it takes a strong designer to fight back here and say, "Please, I'm the designer, and you're the business person. Let me do what I do, I think I'm right here."

Apple minimalist design - Summary

I'll try to keep digging up more examples of Apple minimalist design, but if you have an iPhone, take a few minutes to look at their unified inbox, and imagine the discussions they went through about the columns that needed to be seen there.