7 Aug 2014

Losing the Plot on Smartphones

(Disclosure: I work for Google, but not on Android, and these are my personal opinions.)

When the iPhone app store first took off, mobile apps were a breath of fresh air. They were simple, uncluttered and beautiful, and let you elegantly and gracefully do what you needed to do without the confusion, head-scratching and frustration endemic in PC software.

But now, complexity has crept back into mobile apps. Descriptive buttons have been and are being removed, in favor of cryptic icons. Developers seem to have forgotten that users are here to perform whatever task they need to do, in the most direct and straightforward manner. This is not a game where users go on an adventure trying to unravel what the icon means. They are here to get their tasks done, not marvel at the UI. Designers shouldn’t forget that they are not artists whose work is admired in a gallery.

Visible navigation buttons and other affordances have been removed in favor of gestures, as in Moves:


Did you know that you can swipe left to see data for earlier days? I did not know that this functionality existed, and was about to uninstall this app thinking it tracked my movement every day but would show me only today’s data.

At least the double chevron icon on the right indicates that you can see the next day’s data, right? Actually, no — it takes you to today. That is, if you’ve gone back 7 days in history, the double chevron takes you all the way to today, not one day forward from where you are. For that, you have to swipe right. So, this screen offers three navigation options:

  • See the previous day’s data.

  • See the next day’s data.

  • See today’s data.

But only one of the three actions has any indication or affordance in the UI. Are users supposed to tap and swipe and rotate and shake their phones at random until something works? Imagine a microwave oven with unlabeled buttons that you just blindly press hoping something will work, and that it won’t burn your food. These UIs are as bad.

And they make users feel like idiots when they can’t figure something out, and have to try in vain making random gestures that may or may not work, because what you can do is not visible in the UI.

And a feeling of stupidity is the last emotion you should trigger in your users. Great apps empower users, giving them a sense of control and mastery at using their tools to get their job done.

UIs have also become too sensitive, with very similar gestures having substantially different effects. For example, when you’re reading an article in Instapaper, you can swipe your finger right to go to the previous page. But this gesture sometimes does something completely different — it takes you out of the article you’re reading and to the articles list. (At which point the article you’re reading disappears into the hundreds of unread articles you have, so you can’t return.) And this would happen for no apparent reason. It took me some time, and frustration, to figure out that if the swipe begins at the left edge of the screen and enters the screen, it’s interpreted differently from the swipe beginning within the area of the screen.

How would anybody understand this subtle difference? We’re throwing away the simplicity and beauty of the smartphone, replacing it with complex apps that are stressful to use. It’s not the first time that I felt stressed when I have had to use a certain app, and relieved when I uninstalled it.

To some extent, the culprit here is designers and engineers who use their app every day, either because it’s interesting or in the process of developing it, and are intimately familiar with every nook and cranny of the app. And they lose track of the fact that no one cares about their app as much as they do, or use it multiple times a day.

The claim that users have now become comfortable with touch and so we can throw the principles of UX design out of the window makes no sense, either. First, only 1.3 billion of the 7 billion people in the world use smartphones. Most people are not familiar with smartphones by any stretch of imagination, and they are entering the market.

Even if someone has been using phones and tablets for years, it doesn’t mean that they have been using a particular app for years, multiple times a day, so it’s not a license for the developers of that app to make their app hard to use. In fact, that’s the whole point of smartphones — they are powerful devices that can do many varied things by installing the appropriate app. If you’re talking about a single-purpose device, like an alarm clock, sure, you can expect that users more or less understand it after years of use. But not smartphones, which can do so many things, which are moreover open-ended, as you install newer and newer apps. For example, I may have spent thousands of hours using smartphones and tablets, but I spent little time using Moves, so if Moves is hard to use, it doesn’t help that I’m a power user of both iOS and Android.

And then there are bugs. Instapaper, for example, often shows me a blank screen when I tap an article to read it. I have to restart the app to get it to work. This sometimes happens multiple times a day.

My iPhone doesn’t even dial 1800 numbers in my country, India, instead redirecting them to another country (USA). How did a smartphone that can’t reliably make calls, which even feature phones did reliably for years, get shipped? That too by Apple, of all companies?

When apps are so difficult that software engineers who have worked on mobile apps for years, on both iOS and Android, can’t figure it out, the industry is headed for disaster. It’s time for us to realize that we’re screwing up something magical that we built, by bringing in a frightening amount of complexity, and to stop and reverse course before it’s too late.

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