Apple’s Highest Priority Is Obviousness

Good piece from Sebastiaan de With, riffing on my bit last week regarding the tension between simplicity and obviousness. But I gently disagree with this:

For now, there is a middle ground. It only takes one look at the changes in recent iOS and Apple app updates to see that Apple is actually beginning to use gestures far more widely throughout the system, as well as actively reducing chrome where the content is the most important thing — like the Camera app. Apple doesn’t, however, completely hide its UI and leave it up to the user to ‘discover’ it. With its user base so large and (largely) untrained, it simply doesn’t have that luxury. It has to start somewhere. Tap the camera icon on the ‘sliding camera’ home screen in iOS 5.1 to see what I mean. That’s Apple educating its users.

Apple has started using gestures more widely, but they’re not requiring them. (iPhoto for iOS being a notable and perhaps problematic exception.) That’s why I like the analogy that gestures are to iOS what keyboard shortcuts are to Mac OS — an alternative way to do something as a convenience for advanced users. The default, true way to do things should be visual. So, yes, you can switch between apps on the iPad with a four-finger swipe, or go to the home screen with a four-finger pinch, but users who don’t know about these gestures — which is to say most users — can do things the obvious way, by tapping the hardware Home button once, then tapping the icon of the app they want to open.

The sliding camera button on the iOS 5.1 home screen is a perfect example of Apple favoring obviousness over simplicity and even elegance.

First, consider the problem. Many, if not most, iPhone users now rely on their iPhone as their primary camera. Often when we see something we want to take a picture of, time is of the essence — the moment is fleeting. In iOS 1 through 4, it took too long to get to the Camera app from the lock screen, especially if you lock your iPhone with a numeric code (let alone if you lock it with a passphrase). Too often, by the time one unlocked their phone and then found and tapped the Camera app icon and waited for the camera to be ready to shoot, it was too late; the moment had passed.

Apple’s solution with iOS 5.0: a shortcut to the Camera app directly from the lock screen, which you can invoke without unlocking the phone. (When invoked this way, you have no access to previously-taken photos; all you can do is snap new pictures.) That jump-to-the-camera button wasn’t visible by default, however. When you tapped the Home or Sleep/Wake button to turn on the display, all you saw was the same old “slide to unlock” screen from iOS 1-4. To get the camera button to appear, you needed to double-tap the Home button while on the lock screen. I presume that Apple went with this design to preserve the utter simplicity and elegance of the lock screen — by default, there’s nothing but the “slide to unlock” button.

The problem with this design is that there was nothing obvious about double-tapping the home button to get the camera button shortcut to appear. It was not discoverable. Double-anything is generally problematic usability-wise — consider how many people you know who remain confused about single- vs. double-clicking mouse buttons on the Mac and Windows.1 In fact, I did not discover this shortcut myself. I was excited about the feature when Steve Jobs mentioned it on stage at the WWDC keynote in which iOS 5 was announced. I installed the iOS 5 developer beta on my main iPhone soon thereafter. When I didn’t see the camera button shortcut on the lock screen, I presumed that the feature hadn’t yet been implemented in the first developer beta. Weeks later when the second beta shipped and I still didn’t see the jump-to-camera button, I asked a friend and then got the answer: you had to double-tap the Home button to reveal it.

I only found it because I knew it was supposed to be there. I suspect most iPhone users never found that button. So, in iOS 5.1, Apple changed it to an always-visible button on the lock screen. A reduction in elegance, but an increase in obviousness. To invoke the button, you must slide it upwards rather than simply tap it, for the same reason you must slide the unlock button rather than simply tap it: to avoid inadvertent invocation while the phone is in your pocket or purse. But if you do just tap on it, which is an obvious thing to try, you get a clever hint: the lock screen playfully jumps and bounces, suggesting visually that you can slide it upward. It’s not a gesture — you can’t swipe upwards from anywhere on the lock screen to invoke the shortcut — it’s a visual on-screen touch control. And it’s one of my favorite little touches from Apple in recent memory.

  1. Same goes for the iOS “multitasking” bar, which is invoked by double-tapping the Home button. It’s simply a convenience for advanced users. I’ll bet most iPhone users never use it, and many don’t even know it exists. They get by just fine, albeit a little less efficiently, switching between apps from the regular old home screen. ↩︎