Do You (and Should You) Follow the iOS Human Interface Guidelines?

Peter North

iOS developers are most likely very familiar with Apple’s iOS Human Interface Guidelines (affectionately known as the “HIG”). Essentially, the guidelines are a long, detailed, comprehensive document (viewable and downloadable here) that defines in very precise terms how an intuitive iOS app interface should look and feel, as well as what functionality and programming methodologies should be used within the inner-workings of an app. In short, it’s a guide that defines how to build an iOS app the right way… according to Apple, at least.

What Do The Human Interface Guidelines Offer?

From an app user’s standpoint, the influence of these interface guidelines takes the form of common buttons, dials, and familiar swiping gestures and menus. Apps that follow the Human Interface Guidelines looks as if they were built by Apple. And, in a way, they were. The Apple Software Development Kit (SDK) is meant to offer resources that help you bring your idea to life, and the SDK and the guidelines work together to create a consistency across all apps that follow them. If you’ve ever opened a newly-installed app for the first time and breezed through the interface with a keen familiarity for the elements, you’re likely using an app that adheres strictly to the HIG.

The stock apps that come with any iOS device (as you might expect) are quintessential examples of interfaces that follow the HIG to the last letter.

From the perspective of an app developer, these guidelines can help you find solutions to complex interface problems and resolve dilemmas involving how to display content, how to take user input, and which common interface elements to use for your purposes. As much as we’d all like to consider our app unique, unprecedented, and revolutionary, you can likely meet your interface needs by following the standard design guide. It will almost certainly help your app make it through Apple’s stringent app approval process, and, as Apple suggests within the guidelines, it will likely result in higher ratings, more app sales, and happier users:

“People appreciate iOS apps that feel as though they were designed expressly for the device. For example, when an app fits well on the device screen and responds to the gestures that people know, it provides much of the experience people are looking for. And, although people might not be aware of human interface design principles, such as direct manipulation or consistency, they can tell when apps follow them and when they don’t. As you begin designing an iOS app, be sure to understand what makes iOS-based devices unique, and learn how to incorporate HI design principles so that you can deliver a user experience people will appreciate.”

Are There Downsides to the HIG?

There are clearly some strong advantages to following these interface guidelines, but there may also be downsides worth considering. Obviously, you’ll be sharing a common look and feel with thousands of other apps, which makes the task of making your app stand apart fairly difficult. For typical app purposes (list apps, social media apps, note-taking apps, etc.) there are usually dozens of apps or more for each purpose, which means that you can only distinguish yours by how you design your interface. If you and all of your peers are following the same exact guidelines down to the last letter, your apps could be strikingly similar, which offers little variety to users, crowds the app store with nearly-identical options, and ultimately dilutes your efforts.

It’s hard to overlook wildly-successful apps that do not adhere to these interface guidelines. Ubiquitous games like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja hold extremely high ratings and have sold millions of copies, but they clearly have deviated completely from the HIG and created their own interface in lieu of an Apple-style design. Part of the popularity and success of these and other “HIG-less” apps may be that their deviation from the guidelines makes them different in a tangible, immediately-perceivable way.

It’s hard to say whether or not you should accept and follow Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines for every iOS project. The advantages are obvious, but there are also prominent apps that have become smashing successes while completely ignoring the “rules” of intuitive, Apple-style design.

Do you follow Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines to the letter? Do you think that following them brings an intuitive familiarity and user-friendliness to your app? Or, does it constrain you into building a “generic” app that looks and functions like so many others?

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