What iOS 8 Means for App Design

Zack Simon

4 min read

Oct 1, 2014

What iOS 8 Means for App Design

While the visual design of iOS 8 remains similar to its predecessor, it is packed with features that require special design attention.

Start at the Very Beginning

With iOS 8, developers have access to features like TouchID, CloudKit, WatchKit, HealthKit and HomeKit, so designers must think about where (or if) these features fit into an application during the planning stages. In particular, the inclusion of designing for Apple Watch can be a large undertaking, so that should be considered far in advance. By doing this, more time can be devoted to designing for edge cases, which are often a side effect of added functionality.


iOS 8 introduced extensions that require design attention as well, like third-party interactive notifications and Notification Center widgets. Again, these will likely require minimal visual design. However, understanding what content is displayed, how it is displayed, and how the user can interact with these is crucial to the user experience.

Interactive notifications will allow the user to tap one of two actions or the top of the notification to go directly into the application. Since the latter may be overlooked, its important to remember to use these buttons for the most common features the user would need instead of simply navigating back to the application.


Widgets in the notification center will need a bit more visual design because of their potential for functionality. Note that these widgets allow tappable buttons, but cannot utilize the keyboard. Also, these widgets will come as a companion to the application and will not be standalone.

New Devices

iPhone 6 and 6 Plus

The introduction of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus with Retina HD screens satisfied the demand for larger phones, but these larger screen sizes can have a big effect on how users use an application, as you can see in the image below.

iPhone Thumb Reach

Approximate one-handed thumb reach across iPhones 5S / 6 / 6 Plus.

Take a hands-on approach when designing an app. Test your mockups on one of these larger devices and figure out what’s easy for the user to do with one hand, and design around that. If there is a particular action that you want the user to use often, put it where they can easily reach it. In addition to this, the iPhone 6 Plus also supports split views in landscape mode. This should definitely be taken advantage of, but it’s important to note that this is not supported on the iPhone 6 or 5S, so don’t rely on this functionality too much.

Apple Watch

The Apple Watch also brings a variety of brand new interface opportunities. With it comes a new, more legible typeface, a rounded translation of iOS and new physical interactive elements (digital crown, “force tap” retina display and “taptic” feedback). Designing for this device will, more than ever, be about merging the user interface with the physical device. For example, the experience of the digital crown could be greatly improved if the screen gave a visual indication for when it is turned.

Apple Watch interface cue

It’s also important to note that the Watch will also have two screen sizes (1.5 inch and 1.7 inch), so designers should keep legibility in mind when designing for the smaller size.

Adaptive UI

With the addition of two new iPhone sizes and the two Apple watch sizes, designers and developers will have to be more flexible in their layouts. This is where the concept of Adaptive UI will come into play. Adaptive UI is the ability to specify layout rules based on Size Classes, which are really just breakpoints set by Apple. It is comparable to responsive design on the web.

  • Layouts can now be more active and less static
  • Layouts, styles and interactions used to be built to target each device specifically. Now there are more targets.
  • This allows you to adapt the user interface to the strengths of each form factor.
  • There are two types of size classes in iOS 8: regular and compact.

How Does that Change the Way Designers Work?

  • Speccing interfaces should now be universal, rather than device specific.
  • Now there is a 3x image size for iPhones, including app icons. With the addition of vector support, PDF files can be used in-app for graphics that to be used at different scales.
  • Designers can attempt to bridge the gap between design and development by working with developers in Xcode 6 to help build the interface.

What’s New for Interface Builder in Xcode 6

Xcode 6 offers a GUI that encourages design to become involved in the development process. This is an excellent opportunity for design to learn about and communicate better with development and create a smoother process. Overall, there are a few key changes that affect how design can better use Xcode.

  • The same Storyboard/XIB is used for iPhone and iPad, rather than maintaining two separate (but similar) storyboards.
  • It is possible to preview devices and orientations while you’re actually building the interface.

Get up to Speed

For more information about designing for iOS 8 and Apple’s new devices, sign up for our week-long iOS and Android Design Bootcamp! If you’re looking to level up your development skills, sign up for our one-day iOS 8 bootcamps and Swift classes.

Zack Simon

Author Big Nerd Ranch

Zack is an Experience Director on the Big Nerd Ranch design team and has worked on products for companies ranging from startups to Fortune 100s. Zack is passionate about customer experience strategy, helping designers grow in their career, and sharpening consulting and delivery practices.

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