I played with iOS7 today for a bit and discussed the flat design with a couple of Stack’ers. I also read Matt Gemmell’s review, and John Gruber’s take on flatness.

The unifying sentiment seems to be: in the early days of smartphones (say 2007), buttons needed to look like buttons so we know where to click. Since then, we’ve all become familiar with the idea of tapping icons, so perhaps we don’t need to make the affordances quite so obvious.

We can go less literal, in other words. Microsoft called this ‘authentically digital’ in its designs for Win Phone 7.

Users will tap. They don’t need training wheels. We’ve grown up.

Here’s the problem: this all needs explaining. If it needs explaining, perhaps it’s not as intuitive as we think.

Think of it as cognitive overhead. How hard does a user have to work to understand what is clickable or not? If it requires explaining, if it causes hesitation, or if something simply never gets clicked, that’s cognitive overhead, and a user is prevented from succeeding at the task. So perhaps dumb, obvious, unsophisticated buttons aren’t so bad,

But perhaps then iOS7 will obviate that notion too. The notion of a ‘click target’ will be de-emphasized. There are no buttons per se, just objects, like messages and pictures, to be manipulated. No affordances at all, just content. I wonder if that’s possible.