4 Jan 2017

iOS Needs Simplification. Here's How to Do It.

iOS was a breath of fresh air when it entered on the scene. It freed us from the complexity and confusion of desktop OSs. But as time passed, iOS, like all software, has become more cluttered and confusing to use, especially for non-technical people. Which is sad when you remember that iOS was supposed to be a simple, easy-to-use OS for such people.

Here are some suggestions to simplify iOS.

Let's start with the home screen: iOS home screens tend to become unwieldy if not regularly tended to. App icons are strewn about, rather than grouped logically, and you can end up with many pages of home screens, making it even harder to find what you want, or even know what you have installed.

To fix this, iOS should prompt you to delete apps you haven't used in, say, a quarter. It should also offer to group infrequently used apps for you. New apps should also be installed in an appropriate folder. If I install a news app, and I already have a folder containing news apps [1], the app should go there, not on the home screen.

Get rid of Control Center. It interferes with vertical scroll gestures in apps, sometimes opening when you meant to scroll, and at other times not opening when you did want it to. Sometimes, to disambiguate, iOS shows a little arrow indicator at the center-bottom of the screen that you have to tap to open Control Center. And it sometimes disappears before you notice it and act on it. This is a hack, a sign that the basic design was ill-conceived. Let's not overload gestures, where the same gesture can mean different things. Let vertical scroll only scroll through the content of the app you're using.

On the topic of not overloading gestures, get rid of edge swipes in apps, where you swipe from the left edge of the screen towards the center to go back. That conflicts with swiping in apps, say in Google Maps. It's confusing for the swipe to mean different things depending on whether it started on the screen or off the screen.

If Control Center must remain, at least get rid of one of the two pages in it. So many controls have accumulated in the Control Center that a second page is now required [2]. Only adding things, and never being able to remove them, is a bad sign. It shows that you can't make hard choices that are an overall benefit. If Apple keeps tacking stuff on and never removing any of it, might future versions of iOS have even more pages, like three? I hope not. If Control Center must remain, simplify it down to one tab.

Then, get rid of Reachability — the annoying thing where double tapping (but not pressing) the home button, causes the contents of the screen to move down, leaving an awkward void in the top part of the screen blank. That's an ugly hack, and doesn't serve much purpose. Get rid of it.

On the topic of getting rid of hacks, iOS should refuse to install apps that are not optimised for the screen size: don't install iPhone apps on iPad, apps designed for smaller iPhones on the Plus, or 10-inch iPad apps on the 13-inch iPad. Having everything bigger, including the status bar, looks odd, inconsistent and broken. The keyboard is also different in such apps, because it's a keyboard designed for a smaller screen that's expanded to fit: keys are at different positions, which interferes with your muscle memory, preventing you from being able to type effectively [3]. Which is the last thing anyone needs. Get rid of this mess. Apple should give app developers a quarter's notice, and from April 2017, apps not optimised for the screen size of your device should no longer appear in the app store.

Moving on, the iOS Settings app has always been a mess, where settings are tossed randomly, rather than grouped in some logical way, as they are on Android. For example, put all the connectivity settings together — cellular, wifi and Bluetooth, including tethering and the data usage meter.

Another area where iOS can learn from Android is by having one place where you can see all the accounts you're signed in to, across all apps. That's useful when you're about to lend your device to someone. Even if you're talking just about your Apple ID, and not third-party accounts, iOS requires you to sign in in different places, once for iCloud, once for iTunes home sharing, and once again for FaceTime and iMessage. These are are in three different places in Settings. That makes no sense. Have one place where accounts are all listed, and then, for each account, enable or disable specific services like iMessage.

On the topic of iMessage, it has a long-standing area of friction: if you have someone's email ID and phone number, you have to decide whether to iMessage them on their phone number or email ID. When you get it wrong, the message bounces. Or, if you reply to an older message sent from their email ID, and they've now switched to using their phone number for iMessage, your reply bounces.

Why should you have to worry about this detail? The OS should take care of it. You're messaging people, not phone numbers, email IDs or other administrivia. If you have a contact card for someone with their phone number and email ID, that should tell iOS they both belong to the same person, so you shouldn't have to worry about whether to message their number or email ID. Or if the recipient has authenticated to Apple that the phone number and email ID belongs to them, you should again not have to worry about which one to message.

Moving on from Messages to Photos, third-party apps like Facebook should be able to show their photos in the Photos app, without having to physically store the photos in Photos or in iCloud. Then the Photos app will be one place to see all your photos, without regards to which service they're stored on.

Moving on, notifications should linger in the status bar, like they do on Android, so that you can see them and act on them, no matter which app you're in or the home screen. On iOS, you often tend to miss notifications, because they're out of sight in a pull-down drawer. What's the point of notifications if you can't see them? This is a completely broken design. I'm surprised Apple shipped this. In any case, fix it now. Do as Android does.

Let's move on a more fundamental question now: apps. On iOS, apps manifest in three different ways: home screen icons, widgets, and notifications. Widgets let you see the information you want without having to open the app. Unfortunately, they're hidden in a pull-down drawer, where they fail to serve their purpose. That's because you have to pull the drawer down before you can find the widget. You can instead open the app, with one tap, and in fact get much more information in return.

To fix this, widgets should live on the home screen. Get rid of the Today tab in the pull-down. That eliminates one of the two tabs in the pull-down screen, simplifying it. Put the widgets on the home screen. And, rather than having a widget and an icon for an app on the home screen, merge them. If an app has a widget, it doesn't have an icon. The widget can perform the role of the icon, which is to launch the app, in addition to performing any other actions.

Perhaps the app icon can occupy the top-left corner of the widget, with the rest of the area of the widget free for apps to draw whatever they want to. Or there may be no icon. This should be fine since there's anyway an app name to identify it. We don't need two ways of identifying an app. An app that has a widget could be free to no longer have an icon. iOS should increase the label to a readable font size, like 14pt.

A widget can be sized 2x2, which means that it takes up as much width as two app icons next to each other, and the same height as two app icons above one another. Or 4x1, or other sizes. This lets widgets fit cleanly into the grid of app icons. A widget shouldn't occupy part of an icon's space, since that will leave an odd gap in the grid. With this design, widgets can intermingle with static icons, anywhere on the home screen. Even in folders — if you open a folder containing news apps, you might see widgets showing you the news inline.

There would be a few fixed sizes. Users would be free to choose any size, and the app would make the best use of that.

One of the sizes would be 1x1, which is a dynamically updating icon. If you think that's too small, there are plenty of uses for it: a weather app could show the current temperature there. A chat or email app, the photo of a person who sent an unread message. A calendar app, the time to your next meeting. A fitness app, what percentage of the goal you've reached. And so on.

Unlike today's iOS, you shouldn't have to add a widget. An app that supports widgets should be allowed to dynamically update its app icon, while retaining its 1x1 size. You'll be free to increase its size to see more information, but big or small, an app that supports widget will always have a widget, no longer a static app icon.

I'm sure you can think of other ways to simplify iOS.

Taking a step back from these details, simplification is overdue. Apple should get rid of the complexity, confusion and frustration that has found its way into recent versions of iOS, and going back to the simplicity, ease of use and wonder of earlier versions.

[1] Only news apps, or mostly news apps.

[2] You get the paginated Control Center even on the 13-inch iPad, whether there's enough space for everything in one page. If Apple designs iOS for iPhone and makes a half-assed port to iPad, it becomes hard to take the iPad seriously.

[3] Well, you can't type effectively on any touch screen, but this is even worse.

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