Can the iOS Get Too Confusing?

January 3rd, 2012

When the very first iPhone arrived, it was a revelation compared to most existing mobile handsets. You didn’t have to endure a painful process in configuring your device, mastering that tiny physical keyboard, and coping with inept user guides to figure out the hard stuff. Indeed, for most of you there wasn’t any hard stuff. It was intuitive enough to get the lay of the land pretty quickly.

Of course, the very first iOS also didn’t have all the features people wanted. It took three major revisions to get us to have cut, copy and paste, and the first iteration of Push Notification was downright frustrating. Suddenly you were stopped in your tracks with a modal dialog that required a click to dismiss. This is the sort of thing that you had to endure in the original Mac OS, and, still, in Microsoft’s Mac applications. The iOS was supposed to be the future.

It took to version 5 for Apple to set things right with those notice prompts, and today’s Notification Center is reasonably user friendly, and not at all obtrusive. Or at least that’s my take on the situation.

Certainly, iPhone and iPad users continue to collect wish lists, the things they hope Apple will ultimately add to the iOS for versions six or seven and beyond.

Now with a traditional desktop personal computer OS, there’s plenty of room to add stuff without making things too complicated, at at least not much more complicated than they already are. I do think the additional gestures for OS X Lion are a bit much, though, and I protest by simply not using them, although I realize Apple is just transferring, in part, what you already discovered with the iOS. This OS unification may help people get up to speed on a Mac in short order if they’re new to the platform, or maybe the things you hate on the iOS will simply make you hate Lion too.

However, the danger on a tiny touchscreen is that there will be so many features, you’ll be frustrated making your fingers do the walking or figuring out the magic tap that enables you to activate them. Indeed, it may well be that we’re already reaching a potential saturation point when it comes to managing text in an email or other text app.

Now when you open a message, double tapping on the content will give you a Copy or Define pop up, which access further functions depending on how they’re used. All right, that’s simple enough to cope with. When you actually enter text, the popup gives you Cut, Copy, Paste, Suggest plus a right arrow. You with me so far? The right arrow offers B/U for bold and underscore, Define, and Quote Level. Click the left arrow to return to the previous menu.

Now I suppose these options are simple enough to grasp with a bit of experimentation. But say Apple wanted to add additional formatting choices, such as different text size, or the ability to use multiple signatures. Would there be another arrow’s worth of options, or would some sort of multiple finger swipe of some sort produce those choices?

I am not an interface designer, and do not intend to become one. I just try to cope and to explain my experiences to my readers in the hope that you’ll find the information useful, or perhaps worthy of future comment.

But I also wonder how far Apple can take a simple interface, dump loads of features on it, and risk confounding iOS users. Have we reached a user friendly plateau yet, or does Apple hope to find yet more finger movement and tapping combos with which to flesh out the iOS even further?

Now having used those other touch-based OS alternatives on occasion, mostly Android-based, I can see where the interface can get ungainly and scattered. But it’s not just what you tap and what fingers you move to accomplish a particular function. Responsiveness is a key element of the iOS that Apple got right with the very first iPhone, and only gets better over time.

With an Android device, the tap may deliver an abrupt response, or none at all. I also noticed this on an Amazon Kindle Fire that was set up in demo mode at a local office supply outlet, and its OS is based on Android 2.2. Dragging things around seemed ragged, and you always felt you were fighting with a reluctant machine, rather than something that did your bidding in a calm, respectful fashion. The friendly interaction between human and machine has always been a goal at Apple. Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they fail, but at least they try.

You get the impression in using competing products that the companies only care about mimicking the features and interface elements as much as they can get away with. And Apple is letting them know by dint of its regular lawsuits that maybe they went too far. But there is something about being a responsive tool or a reluctant tool that challenges the best interface and hardware designers, or at least the ones for companies who care. That is also the difference between Apple and most of their competition.

So as the iOS continues to mature, I hope Apple doesn’t lose focus on the simplicity factor in the goal to add all the features you and I want. I think the danger point is close, and I hope iOS 6 will not take is too far in the wrong direction.

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2 Responses to “Can the iOS Get Too Confusing?”

  1. WIlliam Timberman says:

    I disagree. There’s a very sophisticated logic underlying the way Apple extends the interface of both its OSes. If you’re already familiar with the previous iteration of an Apple OS, there’s almost always an intuitive path to learning the extensions. Even in cases where a user’s instinct differs from the designer’s, it doesn’t usually differ by enough to impose a high learning curve. More importantly, if a user is coming to the newest version of the OS without any experience of prior versions, the initial learning curve is quite simple, making the bare bones of the interface accessible with relatively little effort, and leaving the sophisticated bits to be discovered later, as the user becomes more comfortable. I think the assumption is that an incurious user won’t be actively harmed by what he doesn’t know, but the curious one will be able to extend his knowledge at his own pace.

    The fact that Apple manages this successfully more often than not is remarkable, possibly even unique in the history of interface design. And perhaps Lion, which makes big but necessary changes in order to prepare for what I think will be a discontinuous jump in the near-term evolution in interface design, shouldn’t be judged as harshly as you seem to judge it. (Think of Siri out of beta, on the Mac, and combined with a sophisticated vocabulary of gestures on a large panel sitting where the keyboard now sits, which can become a keyboard — and a good one — whenever you wish, and accepts stylus input as well, input with a broader range of capabilities than a current iPad accessory stylus does.)

    • @WIlliam Timberman, With a touch-based OS, I think there are practical limits of where ease of use and expanded features collide. If Apple can avoid that collision for an extended period of time, great. I’m sure that was the intention in the design of the iOS. But I think it was fair to consider possible warning signs.


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