The iPhone Report: Where’s the Interface Consistency?

May 11th, 2010

As you regular readers know full well, I have been seriously considering whether it makes sense to buy an iPad. I have one now, courtesy of Apple. It must be returned shortly, since that’s how their editorial loaner program works. But what about the future of Apple’s tablet computer, and will it survive after the demand from early adopters abates?

Now one of the things that concerned me on the iPhone, and has become all the more serious with the iPad in light of the various electronic reading apps I’ve installed, is the total lack of interface consistency. Before I get into specifics — and I suspect most of you know what I’m getting at — remember that one of the hallmarks of the Mac OS was its predictable user environment.

Indeed, Apple has almost always requested that developers adhere to its own human interface guidelines, although some, including Apple itself, ignore them from time to time. What this is supposed to mean is that the skills you master to learn how to use one app can be applied to another. This is where the Mac has always been superior to Windows, where user interface issues are not as predictable.

Now in building an iPhone platform based on a touchscreen from scratch, you’d think that Apple would have considered all of the pitfalls. Indeed, the review process is quite stringent, and Apple has gotten its lumps from developers who feel their apps were rejected for arbitrary reasons.

It does seem, however, based on my own experience and a recent usability study, that Apple isn’t doing a whole lot to make sure that those 200,000 products in the App Store adhere to a predictable user interface. This is particularly true for the ones that are used to read text. With iBooks, you know that you can just flick a page to the right or left to turn the pages of a book. With the USA Today reader, you scroll downwards to see the listing of stories, along with short blurbs. Once you click on an article’s title to open it, vertical scrolling lets you navigate through the text, and horizontal scrolling takes you to the next article. That also makes sense, since most everyone is used to scrolling through a Web page.

With Time magazine’s iPhone app, which has yet to be expanded for the iPad except as a retail product, where you pay for each individual issue, navigation becomes confusing. You can scroll sideways to check out the available articles, and there are buttons at the bottom of the window for different sections. But how do you read those articles? It’s not obvious, but you have to touch the picture that accompanies it. That action flips the page leftward to display the selected article, where traditional scrolling will take you through the contents of that article.

Now I don’t know about you, but my instincts tell me that clicking on the title itself should open the article, but evidently Time’s programmers had a different concept. Worse, Apple allowed that app to pass the approval process without bothering to question the interface consistency. I mean, it’s hard enough to train your fingers to act as a mouse, and certainly the end result is more immersive. You feel a closer connection to the gadget itself.

But when a touch means different things in different apps, who suffers? Everyone, of course. If an app is more difficult to use, you might not want to use it anymore. If it’s a retail product, you may not want to buy upgrades or any other products from the same company. For Apple, customers are left confused, and key benefits of the Mac OS, so strongly touted for the past 26 years, have failed to make their way to the iPhone.

I realize that starting a new platform from scratch is not an easy process. Granted, Apple might even strive to enforce greater interface consistency come iPhone 4.0, although that’s by no means certain. What concerns me is the fact that questions of this sort just aren’t being asked. Until I read that singular study, I hadn’t considered the larger issue of whether Apple needs to address the iPhone interface in a more consistent fashion.

Predictably, people who commented on that study complain about the sampling size, or whether the sites that published the story simply want to boost the hit counts by ganging up on Apple. The real issue is whether the survey is accurate or not, and it seems to me that valid points are being raised.

Certainly, the results have to be of singular importance to Apple. The majority of company profits these days come from the mobile platform. The more technical customers have long-since bought iPhones and are acquiring iPads as fast as they can be built and delivered. But as more and more less people who aren’t tech savvy consider whether a mobile computer makes sense, the things that make these gadgets more difficult to use become ever more significant.

Yes, there are other mobile platforms out there. Some, such as Android and RIM, are doing quite well, but I doubt that their interfaces are any better. Clearly here’s an area where Apple can excel, but first they have to admit there’s a problem.

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6 Responses to “The iPhone Report: Where’s the Interface Consistency?”

  1. dfs says:

    Gene’s point would be more cogent if all Mac applications (even those made by Apple itself) did strictly adhere to a set of guidelines. But of course they don’t. Small case in point. With most applications command + home takes you back to the top of the page you have open. With browsers, including Safari, it returns you to your home page, and to get to the top of your current page you need to do command + up arrow. What kind of “predictability” is that? And of course Mac ports of Windows applications can be all over the map when it comes to interface design. Interface uniformity is a great ideal to strive for, and if a developer gets to far away from it the market may well punish him for it. But I don’t think this is something Apple should get too sticky about in accepting/rejecting apps for the Store. They have plenty (some would say too many) of such criteria already.

    • @dfs, You’re not seeing the forest from the trees. Yes, there are loads of fine differences among Mac applications, particularly the ones ported from other operating systems. But with limited function iPhone apps, when even the fundamentals, such as how to call up an article in an app produced by a magazine publisher, aren’t consistent, we have some serious problems here.


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  3. PXLated says:

    When it comes to reading apps, especially magazines, my impression is Apple is letting them try to be individualistic, just like they might be in print. Not sure if anyone (including Apple) can predict what works, what doesn’t. Of course, the common page turn is understood by everyone. At some point I think several methods will become standard by default.

  4. AdamC says:

    My take on this is it is not the hardware that is the problem but the software.

    But then if each app is no different from the next then where is the creativity and originality.

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