Look what they’ve done to my app, ma: “upgrade” ruins Dictionary.com for the iPhone

And here is where I add “iPhone/iPod software reviews” to the list of stuff on my blog!

It’s all motivated by my deep appreciation of a good user interface, and my recoiling at bad ones. But what really galls me is when perfectly good ones get ruined in a so-called “update”. Case in point: one of my former fave apps on my iPod Touch, the Dictionary app from Dictionary.com.

The version I’d used up to now was one of my favourites and one of the most-accessed apps on my iPod Touch. It was the clear winner of various competing dictionary apps, with an incredible depth of word listings – the most obscure words in some old novels I was reading always were in there – and its inclusion of word origins/etymologies for each listing.

The update, though, should have been summarized thusly: “Now uglier and harder to use! New pointless functions you’ll never need!”

A look at the “before and after” shots above should make the damage clear. As it stood, the app had a clean and pleasing design. The word you’ve looked up – the core raison d’etre of the app, after all – is bold and black, easy to read on a white background. The pronunciation key follows, smaller but equally readable. Finally, the definitions, and etymology set off in a grey box. Buttons at the bottom are clear, with bold function names below the icons. Everything is well spaced out and nicely positioned.

Now? For starters, the clean black-and-white-with-a-touch-of-blue colour scheme has been turfed in favour of a porridge of greys. All the various background shades do is make everything harder to read.

The word itself is now white… on a grey background! I believe page 1 of the Big Book of Usability says, “White text is hard to read, white on grey even more so.” Oh, but there’s a touch of embossing on the letters. Yeah, that’ll help. And it “sits” on a darker grey area that gradates back to the mid-grey. This only makes the area busier-looking, further reducing overall legibility.

Just below the word itself, the pronunciation key is smaller, thinner, and also white on grey. You can barely distinguish the bold from the regular font. Squint and the entire thing disappears entirely. In short, useless.

The former single button for “Speak this word” has been replaced by three, including a Favourite option and one for external actions like Share on Facebook or Twitter. Switching to the Thesaurus is now a toggle switch over on the right. I don’t have any problem with the new functions, but the rendering of the buttons is atrocious – stuck in too-snug and unnecessary boxes, and attached to the left and right of the screen in a most unappealing manner.

The definitions themselves are the least botched part – they are on the lightest grey so they are the least difficult to read. The font size appears to have been notched down a level, though, which doesn’t help matters.

Finally, at the bottom, the main-function buttons have also suffered the white-on-grey treatment, with the contrast for the button names so low (and the font size smaller too) that they’re exceedingly difficult to read.

Other areas of the app that I saw continue the grey-porridge theme, i.e. an unnecessary dark-grey “bevel” under each of the suggested words that are listed as you search for a word. It’s all very dark, heavy-looking, and over-decorated.

I can’t believe that the same people or persons who designed the original app are responsible for the new look. They’ve mucked it up with design choices that seem to indicate a complete ignorance of – or willful refusal to follow – the basic rules of legibility and usability. In this case, at least, more is less – way less.

Newly added options, like the ability to speak your word instead of typing it in, are potentially brilliant uses of the technology to solve the age-old issue of how to look up a word you’re not quite sure how to spell. But for me, the terrible design changes are too high a price to pay for any such improvements. (Anyway, it’s a paid service after the first 15 tries, so I’m happy to try my hand at spelling it out).

In short, they’ve taken a formerly favourite app of mine and pretty much ruined it. Luckily, though, I was able to downgrade to the old version by using these helpful instructions. Until I see an update that says “old interface restored due to user complaints”, I’m sticking with the pre-“improved” version.

(For those who don’t know the reference in the title, give this a listen. A very early radio memory of mine and still fondly remembered!)

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