To fix what is not broken

For my work and for expanding my English vocabulary, I have installed on my iPhone a few apps of the Reference category, specifically dictionaries and thesauri. Among these, I have always appreciated the Dictionary.com app, an English dictionary and thesaurus that has been a pleasure to use thanks to its fast performance and its easy-to-read and easy-to-navigate interface. Speed, functionality and readability have been the three top reasons why I’ve frequently relied on this app more than others for my searches, and why I’ve recommended it to others (and yes, it’s also free).

I’m speaking in the past tense because since the latest update (3.0) all those good things have disappeared, at least for me. With version 3.0, in fact, the application has been redesigned and given new features — some of them of questionable usefulness, but this is ultimately a matter of personal taste and habits, so I’ll spare you the excursus.

Here are some screenshots of the old and new interface. I had to search the Web for the screenshots of the old interface, so I apologise if they are of a lesser quality.

Dictionary App old interface

Dictionary.com App’s old design. Thesaurus screen on the left, Dictionary screen on the right

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Dictionary App new interface

Dictionary.com App’s new design. Dictionary screen on the left, Thesaurus screen on the right

Again, I’m sure there are some people who love the new design, because it looks more polished and sophisticated. However, I find the bottom row of buttons to be less elegant and readable; the old design was more in tune with the standard Apple UI, it was more contrasted and readable. Perhaps it’s just my eyes and colour perception, but I find these new colours to be a much poorer choice (see especially the active state of a button). Switching back and forth from the Dictionary to the Thesaurus was also better executed in the old design, in my opinion. The Dictionary/Thesaurus switch button in the new design has a quirky placement and looks like an afterthought. You’ll also notice that in the old design, much more room was given to a word’s definition. In the example above, you can read the definition for perfection almost in its entirety, while the new design shows more (unnecessary) chrome.

The Recent feature is gone, now replaced by a History of the terms you’ve searched that appears when you perform a new search. Once again, I find word lists to be more readable in the old design:

Dictionary App old Recent feature

The old design’s Recent feature

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Dictionary Search new design

The new Dictionary.com App’s design makes word lists a bit more difficult to read, at least for me

But the major disappointment is the general performance and overall feel. The app takes longer to launch and feels much more sluggish than before. True, I’m on an iPhone 3G, but a well optimised app should work at an acceptable speed even on an ‘old’ iPhone such as mine. And what’s more, the app was faster before. Another thing I’ve noticed regarding the general feel: I’m no programmer, but the old version felt like a native iPhone app, while this new one feels like a Web application or an app that has been completely rewritten using Adobe’s Flash technology.

After noticing all these things, I couldn’t help but write a feedback email (there’s a convenient ‘Feedback’ button inside the app). I ended my message with these words:

I really don’t understand this urge to fix what is not broken. I guess I’ll have to look somewhere else to find what this app used to do for me.

And I found a very decent substitute: the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (free edition). In the end I think that a Dictionary application shouldn’t focus on bells and whistles, but ought to be a fast, no-nonsense tool, easy to use and with a clear, simple, readable interface. Just take a look at the interfaces of three other dictionary apps I have installed and am now using pretty frequently, and you’ll see what I mean.

Advanced English Dictionary & Thesaurus

Advanced English Dictionary & Thesaurus – elegant, simple interface

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Terminology Ph

Terminology Ph – a pleasing, easy-to-read interface, with good typography

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Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Merriam-Webster Dictionary – its interface is very similar to the old Dictionary.com App. It also has a fullscreen mode for better readability

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!