Yellowball.

Is Apple’s website still the ‘Standard’

By Simon Ensor
Web Design 14.01.2020

This will resonate with anybody who has been involved in website design over the past decade.

If I had a pound for every time someone had used the Apple website as their favourite website example….I still wouldn’t be able to afford a pair of Nuraphone headphones. I suppose I’m not taking into account inflation or interest.

Regardless, the Apple website has been the default answer for longer than I care to remember. Most clients nowadays are even aware of it being the most stereotypical answer. It’s hard to argue with. For a decade, Apple has been the benchmark of minimalist product design which was duly reflected in their website. More on this later. What we thought we’d dive into whether Apple still represents this ‘standard’. The website has evolved over time and in some aspects delivers a very different user experience.

Let’s get one thing straight here. The Apple website is still very easy to use and obviously has great designers working on it. We simply want to look at how the Apple website has changed and what changes, if any, have had a negative impact. As such, we’re likely being overly critical.

The Apple brand is all encompassing

An important point to take into account is that the Apple brand permeates our lives on a daily, if not hourly basis. Thrust in to mainstream by the ipod and quickly replaced by the ubiquity of iphones, ipads and macbooks. Once a sign of a keen interest in technology, or a big bank account, Apple products have become a highly accessible accessory, whilst somehow maintaining a highly desirable status.

News on apple brand growth

 

Apple fans are not rare. You don’t become the first company with a trillion dollar valuation without a large following. The real contributing factor is the attitude of Apple supporters, not dissimilar to a technological version of Stockholm Syndrome, Apple can do very little wrong. Remove the headphone jack? There will be uproar, but immediate iphone sales won’t plummet. Sure, Apple might not be quite as desirable as it was 5 years ago and sales in the past 2 years are dropping/people aren’t upgrading at the same rate. However, I believe it’s very safe to say that the majority of individuals consider Apple’s product design to be….you guessed it, clean and minimal.

Where am I going with this? Well, Apple’s website designs have always been very good. The question is whether through a combination of incredible visibility, very strong brand loyalty and the ubiquity of their products, that the Apple website is somewhat placed on a pedestal. Perhaps. It also doesn’t feel like this would change any time soon. Frustratingly, I don’t have a direct answer for this so let’s move on. I simply wanted to make the point so that it can be taken into consideration.

How has the Apple website changed?

In a lot of ways the website hasn’t changed at all. They still use the product specific top level menu layout. They still use incredibly crisp imagery and punchy, staccato statements. They still evangelise product features on (reasonably lengthy) product specific pages.

It should be noted that the Apple website is in a constant state of adjustment. Almost every product iteration results in a slight change to the layout of the individual product page, although they will follow a similar brand style.

This is paraphrasing somewhat, but a common description of the Apple website has been, “It’s really clean, lots of whitespace and so easy to navigate”. The emphasis is usually on the minimalist, clean style. Has it changed?

What we don’t want to do here is to simply comment on changes that would happen naturally as design techniques evolve over time. Compare any website to it’s 10 year old counterpart and there will be differences. We want to explore how Apple has perhaps deviated from what users considered to be such an attractive design. If you want to explore how Apple’s website has changed over the years, hop on over to Wayback Machine:

Wayback Machine Screenshot

Imagery

Apple’s use of imagery is almost always spot on. They let their product design do the talking. Images of people actually using their product are particularly rare, especially on major landing pages. Unlike Nike, Apple are content with their site simply featuring high res product imagery, using the iphone/ipad/macbook screen to display any particular piece of functionality on offer.

This has worked spectacularly well for the tech giant over the years. Couple this with the all encompassing nature of the Apple brand and most people that visit the site cannot help but fawn over the product imagery. In our opinion it is the imagery that really sticks in people’s minds and is the primary reason why it’s everyone’s favourite website.

Apple’s imagery has naturally become more and more vibrant over time. This is easily justified through the need to convey the clarity and brightness of their Retina Displays, or the triple camera system of the new iPhones.
The difference this time? It feels more cramped.

The imagery is not only larger but has been provided less whitespace. They have perhaps pushed the boundaries of a more immersive experience at the expense of the minimalist design they are known for. We’ll dive into the details and comparisons when discussing the iPhone 11Pro page.

Apple website imagery

IPhone 11 Pro.

This is arguably where the biggest change has occurred. The individual product pages.

The iPhone 11 page brought with it an evolved look and feel. It still utilised super detailed imagery (the biggest selling point and narrative around the iPhone 11 Pro is the camera so this seems like a no brainer). It still had the same topline navigation. But at least in our opinion, it feels different……and not all in a good way.

Darkmode

This isn’t the first time that Apple has used ‘darkmode’ styling on individual product pages. In fact they’ve been doing it for a number of years, just look at the iPhone 7 page. The objection that we have is that when coupled with the parallax sections that have been utilised, it can often be a little difficult to focus on a particular piece of content. Furthermore, it is

We’re actually a big fan of darkmode, but it can often be more difficult to execute. Apple have fallen somewhat short of the mark here. It worked better with clearly defined sections like the iPhone 7 page.

iPhone 7 webpage darkmode

Very fast parallax

If I had to pick one the biggest issue with the current Apple website, it would be the parallax effect. It’s clear that they’ve tried to move away from a fairly static ‘sectioned’ website that displays very minimal sections such as:

 

iPhone 7 imagery

What they have ended up with is a page that has a confusing structure where the user doesn’t really know what they are looking at. Okay so you could argue that pretty much the whole page is about the camera, but that shouldn’t be an excuse. When I was scrolling down the page at anything above a 90 year old’s pace, it was incredibly difficult to keep track of the content.

In fact, a lot of the content is simply missed. It appears and disappears in what would be traditionally be scrolling maybe 30% or 50% of a screen (I don’t know if that makes any sense). Think half a scroll with a mouse wheel, or half a scroll on a track pad. Perhaps these screenshots display it better:

Parallax example 1
Two images used to show a comparison, appearing after a full bleed image.
Parallax example 2
The images are ushered away just as quickly, reducing their impact.

It all feels a but rushed. What’s more, it feels like it could have been easily avoided. Either reduce the speed at which the parallax occurs, therefore providing more time for the user to digest the on-screen content, or make it clearer when there is a new section/feature on the page.

Increased visuals

There are a number of ways in which visuals have been amended. They may not be new techniques, but it does feel like they have perhaps been overused or exaggerated:

  • Larger imagery
  • Video and parallax animation

Larger imagery

We’ve already looked at how imagery has naturally increased in size and vibrancy over time. The iPhone 11 Pro page clearly uses near full bleed imagery to evangelise the new cameras available to owners. However, they do seem to have increased the quantity and size of images of the actual phone:

Image of iPhone

Video and parallax animation

This is especially prevalent in the first 7 ‘sections’ of the iPhone 11 Pro page. Yes that’s right, the first 7 sections. We’ve commented on that below.

The page starts with a short video, followed by 3 parallax sections, and then a parallax-led swirl of the 3 cameras before another scroll-led animation of the cameras (and accompanying text).

There’s a lot going on. The high impact images, parallax effects and video seem to distract from the content. Perhaps that was the intention, to let the imagery do the talking. If that was the case, why have the text content on the page at all? It’s a little much.

 

 

It’s absurdly long

Even with this analysis which through necessity, meant that I had to go through as much of the page as possible, I’m still not sure if I’ve actually made it to the end. The length of this page is ridiculous. That’s pretty much it. No need for further discussion.

Mobile First

The majority of our criticism thus far has been based upon an unexpected desktop user experience. But what of mobile? After all, we live in a mobile dominated world.

It’s pretty clear that Apple have designed their site ‘mobile-first’. The mobile UX/UI is substantially better than the desktop one. Overbearing imagery is suddenly the correct size. Parallax transitions now make sense alongside tabs. Page sections now feel more precise.

We’ve included the mobile versions of the examples we’ve used above, along with some short commentary:

Apple watch screenshot on mobile
The Apple watch section on the homepage doesn’t bleed into other sections on mobile. Furthermore, the imagery of Apple watches on mobile is smaller, most considered and fits the frame.
Images of iPhone cameras on mobile
The collage of images displaying the iPhone 11 Pro’s camera are less intense, less overbearing. Much like the images of the Apple Watch, they fit the frame better.
Tabs used on Apple website
The tabs on mobile allow for quick comparison, without the need to scroll. They provide what users have come to expect as standard website functionality. We wonder why they didn’t use this on desktop?
Night mode comparison on mobile
This is a great example of how the parallax is far more effective on mobile than desktop. The comparison fills the entire screen, rather than the top 1/3 for a split second.

So, will people still use it as a reference?

Yes. Not only is the website still very very good, but the Apple brand is simply too powerful. It’s what comes to everyone’s mind when you think clean, minimal design.

Should it still be used a reference? In a lot of ways, yes. Great navigation, some spectacular imagery and high impact value propositions for almost every product.

In other ways, no. Let’s face it, we wouldn’t have taken the time to write this article if the answer was “yep, the Apple website is still the best”.  There are a number of areas in which the website is trying too hard. Too many snazzy animations, too much ‘in your face’ imagery, not enough white space.

The irony is palpable. Apple is famed for its simplicity, yet in places they have failed.

As a mobile website it is fantastic. As a desktop experience, it is somewhat underwhelming. Should our experience be so polarised by the type of device we view the site on?

We’ve mainly been talking about the Apple website being the standard when it comes to aesthetic design. However, there is one thing that the Apple website does incredibly well:  load speed. Take a look at the iPhone 11 Pro page.  It’s almost laughably long and incredibly image heavy, yet it loads quicker than most other websites. If web designers and developers were to take one piece of inspiration from the current iteration of the website, it’s this seemingly magical load speed. 

Clearly Apple have thought this through and the result is what appears to be a very heavy page loading instantly. In our opinion this significantly helps to elevate Apple as a tech firm, further reinforcing what people believe to be one of the main selling points of Apple products….they just work. Bravo Apple.

 

An anti-climactic conclusion

There are a few reasons why this conclusion might be slightly underwhelming.

Firstly, if we’re going to claim that the Apple website should no longer be the ‘go to’ example for website design, we should also pick the new winner.

Secondly, it is highly dependent on the type of device that you view the site on. However, we would argue that whilst we live in a mobile dominated world, we also live in a multi device world. The site should perform on all devices in order to be considered the ‘standard’.

Thirdly, we don’t actually believe that there should be a ‘standard’. Websites come in all shapes and sizes. We need to take into account what we want to achieve with website design. After all, it begs the question how many people actually buy their Apple products directly from the Apple website? Every single person that I know might look at the Apple website but would then find a deal on a separate retailer site.

So, what’s the point?

Well, this is a great example of how a site’s user experience can vary dramatically between devices. It works well on mobile, but is sub par on desktop. If you take anything away from this article it’s that you shouldn’t neglect any device and its accompanying design.

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