Cupertino, we have a design problem
I read a lot of technology news, and share some of the more interesting titbits of it on the Mosen Consulting Twitter account.
Since iOS 11’s release, I’ve been reading numerous articles espousing the view that Apple is no longer producing products with the consistency of design that they once did. The argument goes that these design problems range from minor visual annoyances to user interface incongruities. The catalyst for this discussion is a detailed article written by design expert Ryan Lau.
My initial reaction to these articles was to shrug my shoulders, mumble something like “that’s not so good”, and skip to the next article. Then it dawned on me. I believe users of VoiceOver, the screen reader that makes iOS accessible to blind people like me, are experiencing the negative consequences of Apple’s design inconsistencies and lack of respect for detail.
I appreciate that the hypothesis I’m about to advance is going to be a hard-sell for my readership. People who read this blog tend to be on the more tech-savvy side of the spectrum. That said, some of my tech-savvy readership are, like me, trainers, and hopefully will understand what I believe to be a significant matter of concern. And, if you struggle with these devices but hang in there because you understand their potential and their promise, you’ll get this post, no question.
The actions rotor is, in my view, another ingenious innovation by Apple, that makes contextually appropriate choices available to a user simply by flicking up or down.
The way this rotor has worked in the past has been consistent for the most part. The default choice on the actions rotor is usually to open an item. If you want to choose an alternative, you navigate up and down to locate the choice you want, then double-tap. When you’ve done so, the actions rotor is reset, so there’s no ambiguity about the fact that when you double-tap again, the default action will be performed. It’s simple, it’s straightforward, it’s easy to explain and it’s easy for people like me who train people in the use of iOS.
This behaviour continues as it always has in most applications, but Apple has changed its behaviour in Mail. For those of us who use Mail in a business context, it’s probably one of the most important apps on our iDevice. And there’s a lot to like. In my view, the unified inbox Mail in iOS offers is efficient, helping me to get through the large volume of mail I receive every day from several accounts.
When I started using the iOS 11 betas, I was slightly annoyed to note that after deleting a message in Mail, the actions rotor was not reset as expected. Having used the actions rotor to delete a message, if you double-tapped the next message, it might be deleted. I say “might”, because the system was full of anomalies. If you deleted an individual message causing focus to be given to a message thread, double-tapping would open the first message in the thread. But if you moved from one individual message to another, double-tapping after deleting the first message would delete the next one.
This was such unorthodox behaviour from Apple, and so inconsistent with the way the actions rotor usually works, that I was certain we were dealing with a bug which, once reported, would be fixed in good time for iOS 11’s release, hence my only slight annoyance. It was not, and some were suggesting that this behaviour was not in fact a bug, but a feature.
iOS 11.1 is now available in public beta form. There are some welcome accessibility fixes, but it’s clear, based on the extra polish that the actions rotor has received in Mail, that Apple intends for the actions rotor to behave differently in this specific app.
While there are a few remaining anomalies that could well be addressed before iOS 11.1 goes gold, I submit strongly that what Apple has done with Mail sets a dangerous precedent and should be reversed.
On the face of it, for those of us who receive a lot of email, it seems attractive to be able to double-tap message after message, thread after thread, to delete mail we don’t want to open. Anyone who’s read or heard my thoughts on technology know that I’m an efficiency nut. But how much efficiency have we really gained with this change? Since it’s so at odds with the way iOS works everywhere else, Apple will be adding more verbosity in the Mail app in iOS 11.1 to give you further confirmation of what you’ve done. Every time you delete a message, iOS will say “message deleted”, more verbiage we should be able to do without. If you delete a message thread, you’ll be told that the thread has been deleted and how many messages it contained.
What’s perplexing is that you’ll be told which item in the actions rotor has focus, but only after the entire message preview has been spoken. This makes the feature meaningless for most use cases, since often, people will know whether they want to open or delete a message long before they’ve sat through the message preview. Wouldn’t it be better to revert to the consistent approach and have users know that double-tapping an item will execute the default action unless the user expressly indicates that they want another option?
Many people have the capacity to get used to almost anything Apple chooses to throw at us. If the behaviour is predictable, many people will adapt. Unfortunately, those who will find it hardest are those who don’t find all this technology intuitive. When I talk to other trainers about iOS, the rotor gesture often comes up as a real problem for many users, who find it difficult to learn the gesture to change what the rotor controls. Now, trainers must explain to users who are struggling that double-tapping will always perform the default actions in Messages, it will always perform the default action in Cover Sheet, it will, in fact, perform the default action everywhere except Mail. Why? Who knows, but it is very poor UI implementation.
It’s already having a detrimental effect on my own usage. I use Mail a great deal, and now I am finding myself second-guessing what the actions rotor does in other apps, even though other apps are behaving as the feature was originally designed.
There is one other example where Apple has implemented the behaviour we now see in Mail, and that’s the App Switcher. If you close an app using the actions rotor, you can continue to double-tap to close other apps. So, if they’ve done it for years in App Switcher, why not in Mail? I think the difference is that the consequences of performing the wrong action are far greater in Mail. If you have left the shake to undo feature enabled, you can shake your phone to undo the inadvertent deletion of an email, but many people disable this feature because they find that it gets triggered when they don’t want it to. If you accidentally close an app, it’s a trivial matter to instruct Siri to open it again for you. Fooling with the actions rotor in Mail is a much greater change.
Apple has always been applauded for the consistency of its user interfaces, with justification. To take one of their most used and important apps, and contravene their own best practice, is saddening. When we pay the premium for Apple products, we expect thought to be given to this kind of detail.
over 80% of the blind population is over the age of 65. They haven’t grown up with this technology, and often find it a chore to use. Apple, you just made it harder for a lot of these people, and the right thing to do is give us the old, consistent Mail behaviour back.