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.

14 Comments on “Cupertino, we have a design problem

  1. Because I was so irritated having to flick up and down to see what action the rotor was on, I turned off Mail for my accounts in the Mail app and downloaded the Gmail app instead. Sure, I have to switch between accounts and deal with other interface differences, but at least I know when I am deleting stuff or not.

    • It’s a little eerie and probably not coincidental that I just received notification from Gmail about switching to their app . Until I downloaded iOS 11 , I thought it would be an unnecessary change but now I agree with you that it could be the best alternative if Apple continues to ignore our feedback about this problem .

  2. I also understand from a partially sighted user that he is having serious issues with texting I have not as of yet downloaded this update, and am going to wait a bit before I do.

  3. The amount of inconsistencies and bugs in iOS 11 is probably one of the scariest and largetst I’ve yet seen. My problems aren’t only that. My iPhone 7 acts like my iPhone 5s did on iOS 10.0. This isn’t something that I can understand and, despite its lack of updates, the position (in this case android) doesn’t suffer from nor should it.
    This is really frustrating and, at least on the accessibility side if not anything else, is very un apple like. I come to apple because things just work. Now, though most things still work fairly consistently, I have had resprings on a device that is a year old, despite a restore. I have had actions not work as intended (messages is a good example).

    I maybe shouldn’t be bringing this up here, however…

    Recently I have started playing with android more. My last foray was back in 2013 and I really have to say that the experience, at least for basic phone use, is quite usable and nice compared with how it used to be. Customizable gestures are now possible in talkback and the frustrating circular menus are gone, replaced with a more list like layout. Gestures seem to be a lot more responsive and the sound scheme is a lot more pleasant to the ear. I’m running a galaxy s4 on android 5.0.1 running the latest talkback. I have played with an s8 for a few days but my daily driver these days in android land is a sub 300 dollar unlocked Motorola moto g 5 plus. It’s something to consider for those looking to switch and not break the bank. Android itself has huge, glaring inconsistencies though – especially if we’re not talking stock android vs. samsungs touch wiz or voice assistant. Different gestures for both screen readers though the basics are the same in my opinion.

    Just some food for thought!

  4. Hello,
    While I understand that the change even took me a bit to get used to, I’m not entirely ready to swich to android for this. I have been using apple for so long, and when I have tried android, I have to admit it’s ben a struggle at best, because if you want stock android, you have to pay just as much for one of those phones, as much as an IPhone. I’m probably going to write to apple about this change, in the hopes that somewhere down the line it will be fixed. I personally think that more atension should be given to google and Microsoft by the NFB for there glaring accessibility issues. Android is so inconsistent across phones, that to say that android is accessible is a bit confusing, particularly when it’s ease of use, is soly dependent on what type of phone you get, and who makes it. Apple despite this change, is clearly both useable and accessible, and they continue to make there new products accessible out of the box.
    Also, as far as training godes, I also work with stduents who have many different disabilities. Most of them prefer apple devices and i have yet to meet a student that is full-on android.

    • You wrote:
      if you want stock android, you have to pay just as much for one of those phones.
      100% false. Not trying to throw an operating system battle around, but motorola runs about as stock android as you can get and their phones, unlocked, start at under $300 with 64 gb of built in storage and micro sd.
      Every android phone, apart from maybe 0.002% of Chinese knockoffs, are able to start talkback with a two finger tap and hold. Google has come leaps and bounds thanks to Victor coming into the talkback team and working on the eyes free mailing list. Not every android phone is going to be the same from every manufacturer – similarly, if apple contracted out, Motorola’s iPhone would be different from apples own and there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.
      Sorry if I offended anyone here – I’m just wanting to straighten recent android development and accessibility out. Also keep in mind this is coming from someone running an iPhone 7 full time.

  5. Completely agree with this post, Jonathan. Ios 11 has very serious other bugs also, some of these specific to some languages like Italian: these bugs have been reported during the beta cicle, but apparently with no success.. apple software design is deteriorating, its true…

  6. I used to think VoiceOver had many useful features especially for someone like me who uses Braille every day. The fact that Apple didn’t adequately test their changes to iOS with Braille displays shows a disregard for the blind community. To make the matter worse, Apple tried to claim that the problem is my Braille display because it is a new product. The tech support person didn’t believe me when I pointed out that I had the same problem with multiple Braille displays. I do accessibility testing for a living and feel I need to work with a wide variety of Braille products. I think competition in the Braille market is good so that Braille display vendors can learn from each other to create inovative products. The fact that it took me a half hour the other day to write a comment on Facebook using a Braille display is deplorable.

  7. Hello,
    First of all I would like to thank you for reminding me about the shake to undo feature. I had completely forgotten about this one and it appears very handy when accidentally deleting emails as I’m doing quite regular basis unfortunately.
    I think that if the rotor would not distinguish between threads and individual messages, I could very well live with the change Apple has made.
    The announcement that the new public beta makes when a message is removed, was there in earlier versions of iOS, but somehow it has left it in I don’t know which version.

  8. Thanx for a great post. I also completely agree; this kind of inconsistency is very difficult to get used to and is just poor user experience.

    I’ve heard that sighted folks are also experiencing lots of UI bugs in this iOS release.

  9. Hello. I agree. This change is annoying at best. Now, I have to check the actions to make sure that I double tap on the right one.
    I assume that the beta testers have reported this issue. Just to cross the ts and dot the eyes, I’ll contact Apple Accessibility.

  10. Great post Jonathan! I believe there is also a knew way to lock the screen on iOS11, I used to be able to press the top right key on my Bluetooth keyboard, but now due to the changes, this doesn’t work. I can’t find any information on how to do this now.

  11. Great and thoughtful post. I totally agree about how disturbing this behavior of the action menu is in mail. When a “default” action is no longer the default across the interface we’re all in trouble and can never be confident about what functions our actions will perform. This issue has led to accidentally deleting many mail messages and now slows me down because I have to check the state of the action menu before performing any action in mail. I was hoping that this was a bug rather than just a poor design decision. Obviously Apple didn’t consider much user feedback before implementing this if it is considered a “feature”. If this isn’t changed soon I’ll be using another mail app.

    Let’s see what happens.

    –Petetkaing ac