2010-07-21 16,351 10

5 Usability Flaws in iPhone OS 4

"Clutter and confusion are not attributes of information, they are failures of design." -Edward Tufte

By the end of May 2010, Apple exceeded Microsoft by market capitalization to become the largest tech company in the world. Cue sinister music.  Are they now too big to fail (at design)?

I am a dyed in the wool Apple devotee who daily asks himself questions like "What would Jony Ive think of this UI?"  So maybe I've been spoiled by Apple's long streak of design genius.  Or maybe I've gotten pickier with my pixels.  But I was disappointed to encounter several usability flaws in iPhone's OS 4 update.

It's tempting to just point out the flaws and excoriate Apple for losing its way.  But usability design is tough enough. It doesn't call for back-seat driving.  So I've cooked up simple design fixes and workarounds.  There are, of course, more elegant solutions out there and I hope you'll chime in with your ideas in the comments section.

1. ZOMG Folders are Cluttery!  Imagine if all the desk drawers and organizers in your house were completely transparent.  You might go crazy staring down your stuff.  That is how I feel about the appearance of folders.  The action of dragging one icon onto another to make a folder is elegant enough.  So to be fair, perhaps showing the contents of folders is meant to help novice users understand how foldering works. But for the design OCD flock, Apple should add the ability to assign icons to folders to hide that clutter.  Default folder icons of varying color and texture themes would be a fine start.  After all, people use folders not only to contain files, but also to abstract away their contents.   Out of sight, out of mind.

2. Wait? There's no Close (x)? Multitasking was supposed to change everything. Again.  But so far, it's just slowed down my phone with background apps I forget to close.  The proverbial ball was really dropped on the multitasking UI.  Suppose you open Maps, tap the Home button, then open Safari.  Well, Maps is still running in the background, draining your battery and cluttering your immaculate psychic environ.  Closing Maps is quite a rigmarole: Double-tap the Home button to reveal the task manager, find the Maps icon, tap and hold the Maps icon until it shakes to reveal a minus sign, then tap Maps to close it.  That is a lot of work. Especially since most of the time, I have no intention of multitasking.  I am done with Maps and I want to close it and not leave it running.  Aye but there's the rub.  You can't close the app you're currently running!  That's right kids, there's no Close (x) control on the foreground app.  What happens if you invoke the multitasking UI while Maps is running?  Maps does not appear in the apps listing so it is uncloseable.  Okay solution time.  For one, Apple could add the foreground app to the list of apps in the multitasking UI.  Or, Apple can add a "Close (X)" to the foreground app whenever you are in the multitasking UI.  But my preferred solution is that Apple close apps by default.  If you really want to keep one running, hold down the Home button to return to the home screen.  Currently Home button tap-and-hold is reserved for Voice Control. meh.

3. Screen Orientation Lock looks like an iPod button.  People love that iPhone is by and large intuitive enough so that you don't need a manual to figure out its basic functionality.  You can stumble upon them.  But how you turn on and off screen locking is awfully confusing.  Tap Home twice to activate the multitasking UI.  Swipe left or right and the last screen has 5 icons:  Refresh, Last Track, Play, Next Track, iPod.  Ok, I'm grokking these as music controls, and Refresh is random track or shuffle mode.  RIght?  Wrong.  "Refresh" is screen locking.  This becomes abundantly clear when you tap Refresh and it then appears with a lock inside the cycle symbol.  Solution: this could have been avoided if Apple had chosen a more specific icon for screen lock and not the universal Refresh icon.  A quick fix would be to add an unlocked lock inside the cycle symbol so there would be no semantic collision with universal Refresh.

4. A broken clock is right twice a day. I have an iPhone 4 and the retinal screen on it is just amazing.  To show off its capabilities, Apple redrew all the basic icons with crystal clarity.  Including the icon for the Clock app.  On an older iPhone I was already irked that the clock icon failed to tell the correct time. After all, Calendar app's icon manages to show the correct day of the month.  But on the retinal display, Clock is just taunting me because I can read the time and numbers on it *so* clearly.  It's 10:15.  This reminds me of a useful design rule I learned from Scott McCloud, the Understanding Comics guy.  Don't bring more detail into an abstraction than is purposeful.  Solution?  A working clock, or artfully prevent the Clock icon from having a time.

5. Giftwrap.  This one is not so much a usability flaw as what I regard to be a missed opportunity.  I've been yearning for the ability to gift an App to friends for two years.  Sending someone an iTunes gift-card for $0.99 so they can buy Screen-Clean Pro was an awkward workaround.  In iOS 4.0, you can now gift an App to your loved one, which, drum roll please, sends them an email with a redeem code.  meh.  Come on Apple, whatever happened to showmanship?  Now here's how I want it done.  Don't send me to "email" -- the dark alley of the iPhone.  Don't spoil the gift contents for me in the ugly email.  Ping me with iPhone notification: "Mary wants to send you a gift.  Accept it?"  Then, add a gift-wrapped app to my home screen.  Don't ruin the surprise for me either.  I click to unwrap it, and get to read the message in the card.  You get the idea.  This would be true gift-porn.