Thoughts on ‘Button Shapes’ in iOS 7.1 Beta 2

I spent the majority of today away from Twitter, but I did catch the news that Apple released iOS 7 Beta 2 to developers. The biggest addition, feature-wise, is the inclusion of a "Button Shapes" option under Accessibility. If enabled, what this toggle does is puts borders around the heretofore plain text, non-bordered UI buttons.

Most of the commentary I’ve read on this change has been from designers who are upset that the borders are ugly, and they question why Apple chose to add them. From a pure design perspective, aesthetically speaking, it’s perfectly reasonable to criticize the new shapes. They are indeed ugly, but the overall importance of this new addition trumps the way in which they’re presented. That is to say, regardless of how the buttons look, the sheer fact that they add a level of desprately-needed contrast makes the buttons a huge usability win, and likely — rightfully — will garner much praise from the visually impaired segment of the accessibility community.

From a AX perspective, what the new Button Shapes do is restore a sense of explicitness to iOS 7′s interface. These types of visual cues are so important to many visually impaired users, myself included. Whereas previously I struggled in identifying whether a label was an actionable control or simply a label, iOS 7.1′s Button Shapes hearken back to the iOS 6-style, This is a button. Tap me!, level of usability. And therein is the point: usability. As I stated, it’s perfectly valid to wince at and decry the visual design of the new buttons, but make no mistake, the addition of this feature is a tremendous improvement for visually handicapped users such as myself. These buttons will make iOS 7 infinitely more usable than it is today, and Apple absolutely should be applauded for addressing a serious issue — not only for me, but even for the normal-sighted as well.

To universally pan Button Shapes based on aesthetics alone is shortsighted (no pun intended). As for me, I’ll definitely be enabling this feature on my 5S; I think it’ll be fantastic. I’m tired of beating this dead horse into oblivion, either in print or on my podcast. Again, kudos to Apple for doing this.

Update 12/13: The original version of this piece included a screenshot of the Border Shapes option enabled. It’s been removed so as to respect Apple’s NDA rules.

Update 2: I wanted to touch on a point that I should have addressed originally but didn’t. I appreciate good visual design as much as the next nerd, but in this case, I truly believe usability wins over design. Ideally, sure, it would be nice for Apple to make the button borders look pleasing, but all things considered, I’d rather iOS 7 be usable. Accessibility and design needn’t be mutually exclusive, and I apologize for implying such an idea, but my point was just to emphasize how big a deal Button Shapes are in terms of its usability.