iOS 5: Can It Replace Your Computer?
Apple took the wraps off iOS 5 earlier this month, giving many people the features they’d been requesting for years. Some of these features have already changed the game for some developers— potentially even sinking several companies by snatching their design right out from under them. And, hey, doesn’t the new “notifications bar” use a gesture that was snatched from Android?… Ahh, hell. It’s Apple, and we’re pretty used to this behavior by now.
New releases of iOS are special because iOS is such an important arbiter of UX on mobile devices. iOS an ever-changing product, a philosophy that pushes itself haltingly into new territory with each release. It isn’t in the business of grafting on features: iOS is, instead a careful study in restraint. Even when a new release comes out, it’s constructed around one (or two) specific features. In iOS4, it was the multitasking tray: apps were never the same. And in iOS5, it’s the idea of “PC Free”— between iCloud, a “real” notifications center, and the ability to use the device while syncing (and to sync wirelessly), the focus is on “cutting the cords” and reducing our reliance on computers. Particularly where the iPad is concerned, this is the key release that will push iOS onward for the next several years.
Can the iPad Replace Your Computer?
iOS had to gain numerous new features in order to replicate normal “PC” functions, and so it’s significantly ramped up some of its capabilities . More to the point, because iOS 5 offers such a complete “rounding” of its core feature set, this release is a great way to see how Apple re-responded to the challenge of designing a “full” operating system in a whole new era, and with a new interface paradigm.
So, where did they go right? Where did they go wrong? What challenges have they begun to solve, and what have they given up on?
iOS 5′s Most Important New Features
The first and most obvious aspect of iOS 5 is its enhanced notifications. You see them everywhere, and they are the first of several major shifts in iOS. No longer is this an app-centric, Zen process of choosing a task and then choosing another. Now, notifications occur without expressly demanding your attention— which most of us are thankful for.
But now, added to the Multitasking Tray at the bottom and the Spotlight search to the left, we have another, new main view: the notification center. You access this by pulling down from the top of the screen, which is fine, but there are two problems with that:
- if you fill the screen with Notification Center, there’s no clear method to get back to your apps (short of pressing the Home button). If you never discover the “pull-down” gesture, you’re basically out of luck;
- We now have three distinct “submenus” in iOS, but they are totally unrelated to each other. We read notifications at the top of the screen, switch tasks at the bottom, and slide the bottom part left to access music and screen-lock controls. We use a gesture to get to one, and a button to get to the other. Why? Is multitasking a “hardware” idea, and notification a “software” one? (It’s worth noting that the music controls used to involve double-tapping the Home button, but now involve a button press followed by an arbitrary gesture.)
- What if your most important message — the most recent email— is the only thing in your Notification Center? Do you need to pull the entire thing down to read it? (Yes.)
The Notification Solution
I would have preferred to see both menus integrated into a bottom-up menu that kept multitasking at the bottom (anchored) but which appeared first when the menu was brought up. The Notifications window would be a secondary layer just underneath this Multitasking pane (or, perhaps, a third layer after the music controls. This way, a quick thumb-swipe up would let you switch apps, but if you continued dragging, you could pull Notifications as far up as you like.
This solves two problems:
- It would help with sorting through many Notifications quickly: your most important ones, at the top, would be visible first. In Apple’s method, the least-important notifications (those at the bottom) are displayed first, which quite simply makes no sense. Try dragging down an empty Notifications Center with only the Weather widget showing: you need to get it down to the very bottom of the screen in order to see anything!
- It’s easy to understand: just keep dragging from the bottom for whatever you need. One gesture, one location. Apple’s already set the precedent that “bottom is best”: the OS X Dock and iOS Dock both hold your “important stuff”, the bottom of the screen is the most reachable for any user’s hands, and the app switcher is already at the bottom, too.
- It leaves open the possibility for the one change I always thought would make more sense: Spotlight search from the bottom of your App pages. After all, it’s not as though “Swipe Left from your first page of apps” makes any sense (what if you’re on the third or fourth?). But “swipe up from any page”– that’s both sensible and memorable.
One other big problem with Notifications is that they’re an all-or-nothing affair. There’s no way to keep certain ones visible while dismissing others. This is ironic, since the old-style “blue boxes” specifically asked you to cancel or read each one. Even weirder, you aren’t able to mark individual emails as read, meaning that you must switch to Mail and read each message before it will be removed from the Notification Center. This has the undesirable effect of making your Mail pane take up a huge amount of space, simply because you haven’t switched to Mail and tapped on every message yet. Yes, I know you can “clear all”, but the system should be smarter than that! In EVERY OTHER LIST IN iOS, you can “swipe to remove”, but not here.
Discoverability: iOS’ Growing Problem
At its core, Apple’s attempt at simplifying technology has hinged on presenting things as simply and consistently as possible. Apple’s success in interface design owes much to their practice of using standardized, repeatable techniques across multiple applications. The consistent behavior of the Source pane in iPhoto and iTunes, or the practice of a black, bottom-mounted control for switching views and a “Now Playing” button at the top-right, are all cues that help the user automatically understand important features in an app.
However, this devotion to simplicity breaks down when more layers of control are required. As an example, the multiple-window ideology of the original Mac OS in 1984 led to unnecessary complexity and, ultimately, chaos by the time OS X “Jaguar” arrived in 2002). This led to the creation of Exposé, to display open windows, and now Mission Control, to stack and contain those windows.
In the case of window management, Apple’s strategy was scalable. Take one view style that needs extra functionality, and add one secondary view that provides that control. But Apple’s insistence on simplicity doesn’t scale when there are many functions to present and only a few ways to show them.
In order to see the iPod music controls or take a picture when your phone is locked, you double-tap the Home button. There’s no reason that this action should be connected to the music controls, especially when tapping the Home button once does not have the same effect—rather, it has the same effect as pushing the Sleep/Wake button. Why doesn’t tapping on the Lock screen itself just bring up those controls? Why isn’t the other “interactive” part of the screen, the Unlock slider, a place to access those controls? This ambiguity is a sign of weakness in iOS’ interface design: it sets a precedent for making arbitrary design decisions which can permanently hinder discoverability.
One example of this is using two fingers to scroll inside of frames on a webpage. While extraordinarily useful, this feature remains undiscovered even by UI designers! Clayton Miller was surprised to find this feature:
… [I] quickly rushed over to my iPad to try it out… I didn’t realize you could do that!
If you can’t find a feature, you can’t use it. And if you can’t use it, for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t exist in the first place.
Popups and Other Controls
Because iOS now handles many more functions, its options panels have increased in complexity in order to present them all. Where it had once displayed just a handful of text functions, Mail now presents a scrolling, multi-headed hydra of a popup:
This is bad. This is bad on so many levels.
What went wrong? Too many options in one display. Mail’s now got to handle text indent/outdent (something I discussed with @TaylorCarrigan a few weeks ago) alongside three new formatting options (Bold, Italic, Underline). This in addition to its original functions of Select All, Copy, and/or Paste. And yet all these functions are crammed together in what is—get this—a MODAL POPUP. That’s right. Pick the Formatting button, and the only way to get back to your Copy/Paste control is to start over. Now, granted, you probably don’t do those two things together very often, and perhaps that’s why Apple chose to do it this way. But why not offer formatting as a separate control? Why not make formatting an integral part of the selection process itself, like so?
Another possibility would be to make text functions an extension of the keyboard. Documents to Go does this in a confusing and muddled way, but there’s no reason to think Apple couldn’t have pulled it off in a more practical way:
… But There Are Still Problems
Apple’s negligence in certain other areas of iOS 5 indicates to me that they only test user behaviors in certain predetermined sequences: often, one must go about doing a set of tasks in a specific order. This is perfectly fine in a phone operating system, but it is less acceptable in one meant to replace a computer. Attaching files to an email is one glaring example: you can only attach files when you begin the message, because the very act of attaching is what displays the message entry panel. Worse yet, you cannot find an attach button in Mail at all! If you have additional images to add, the only solution that makes sense is to revisit your images, add them to a new message, and then copy and paste one message body into the other. There is simply no reason for this. Whether through a button, a popup, or (the most straightforward) a folding panel up by the Subject line, this is a feature that just makes sense to include.
New UI Features, Done Right
iOS has taken on many features in order to be “PC Free”, some of them with greater finesse than others. The Storage view is a particularly great addition, indicating the amount of data taken up by each app. Simple and clear. (In a move I particularly approve of, you can’t delete apps from this view— because there is only one method to delete apps in iOS, and it involves directly manipulating them. This is the kind of minimalist, pure thinking that was so abundant in the original iPhone design: make things as simple, immediate, and specific as possible.
Another place where Apple’s commitment to minimalism shines through is, of course, with iCloud. I really believe that iCloud will give us a sort of “before and after” of mobile device ownership—not because cloud storage has never been done before, but because it’s so seamless and universal that it literally fades into the background. Dropbox does this on the desktop, and that’s one of the reasons for its incredible success. But iCloud does this with every app’s data, keeping things organized and synced on a very basic level.
Towards a new UI
Apple’s learned a lot from their refinement of the desktop UI over the years, and it shows in iOS’ level of detail. We also know that many of the ideas in iOS are headed “back to the Mac” when OS X Lion ships later this year. Among the more controversial moves is the reversal of scroll direction—which is about as disorienting a change as one can make. Apple wants to polish the Lion UI to be as simple and welcoming as iOS, a push that makes many nervous (myself included). But after playing around with Lion, I see why they’ve gone this route. As long as Apple never forgets to indicate where the “secondary layers” of control are—in this case, the menubar and Dock–they’ll be able to continue simplifying the UI. But I’m already becoming concerned with their insistence on tying basic functions, such as window navigation, to a “gesture” that one could never attempt to find on their own.
It’s been interesting to see how Apple scales back features in order to provide only the most relevant controls in iOS. (A fantastic example of this is Pages, which is missing quite a few features, but mostly ones you’d never notice.) Apple’s also shown they’re willing to remove or fundamentally alter basic features in order to advance Lion’s UX (such as Spaces and the direction of scroll movement). In some cases, this has proven to be problematic: in others, it heralds a new way of thinking about the computer UI. Ultimately, iOS 5 signals a faster, simpler way of handling many complex tasks: this despite its significant rough edges, where lack of imagination and inadequate testing have produced some careless design decisions. But it’s my hope that iOS will continue to refine and polish those edges: it’s just too damn good not to.
What do you think of the new iOS changes? Do you wish the OS could do more? Do you fear it getting too complicated? Let me know in the comments!