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Ceding the Lead

March 9th, 2013

Apple is losing its lead in the area of user interface.

I’m not talking about skeuomorphism, which is a poorly-understood concept anyway. Probably any good touch interface is skeuomorphic by nature: this is not really a page under glass that you’re sliding around in Safari or Chrome.

Nor is this about the spectrum that lies between totally flat design and extreme texture realism.1

Where I see Apple losing ground is in those areas which are really key to a user interface in the post-PC, touch-driven era. For me, that’s largely not about color, texture, shading or even icons(!).

Rather, interfaces succeed or fail on the basis of organization (of the whole), layout (of the immediate view), typography, responsiveness, constancy2 and accessibility. By “accessibility” I don’t mean only access for the impaired, but access to the features or information the user needs at any given moment.

So while Apple’s graphical surfaces continue to outshine the competition’s in attractiveness, its interfaces could be falling behind in other areas.

One of the most important issues of accessibility for modern touch devices is the virtual keyboard. It’s an interface we use constantly: for searching the web, for sending a message, for entering a password, for adding an appointment to a calendar or for adding comments to a photo.

As it stands, I’d rate Apple as holding a solid third place in keyboards. While it’s fast and responsive, offers user-definable shortcuts and includes a sometimes helpful, sometimes maddening autocorrection system, the iOS keyboard has changed very little since the iPhone was released in 2007. (Text fields did gain copy and paste, which are both helpful and maddening in other ways.) Meanwhile, keyboards in Android and Blackberry have pushed ahead with predictive auto-fill capabilities. These systems hone in on what your most likely next word is, and offer to let you insert it with a tap or gesture. Since typing on glass is never without some frustration, requiring fewer taps means fewer opportunities for aggravation.

Andy Ihnatko switched to Android in part because of its superior keyboard offerings; while Ars Technica concludes “the BlackBerry 10 keyboard [with its flick-up-to-autofill feature] is one of the best virtual keyboards we’ve ever used.”

Good for Android and Blackberry 10. But it’s not just text entry where Apple is falling short; text editing remains remarkably painful on iOS. Having to fat-finger the insertion point into the hairline space between two letters so you can remove an unintended capitalization is a recipe for exasperation — and the need for doing so comes up multiple times a day. There are good ideas out there for how iOS editing could be improved. So far, Apple hasn’t shown much zeal here.

There are accessibility issues beyond the keyboard. Toggling wifi or bluetooth connections and adjusting brightness remain points of annoyance on iOS. Switching apps on iPhone requires a clumsy double-click on a button that was never engineered for that purpose. And even on the large, pixel-rich display of the retina iPad, there is no way to load a social stream alongside a live video (as I’ve wanted to do during political debates) or keep an online article handy while writing a response to it.

These are all interface issues that have been addressed to one degree or another on other mobile platforms.

Sharing data between apps, or between devices, remains a profound hassle. Using a photo from one app in another usually requires the ridiculous step of saving it to a third app — Photos — first. And if you want to move that photo to another device (or to your Mac), well… I hope you’re a Dropbox user, because Apple can’t help you.

Nothing here represents a problem beyond Apple’s ability to solve.3 Instead, what we seem to be seeing here is an example of Ed Catmull’s adage, “Success hides problems.” Apple continues to be monstrously successful across nearly every one of its product lines. If the iPhone 5 is the world’s best-selling smartphone and the iPad is the leader among tablets, what can there be to fix? My fear is that at some point these little niggling annoyances — each minor enough when taken on its own — will cease to be worth putting up with as a whole. If these are all solved problems on other platforms, customers will start to wonder why they have to keep tolerating them on an Apple device.

At that point, it’s already too late.

Apple does many things exceptionally well. Its industrial design and hardware engineering aren’t in danger of being eclipsed anytime soon. But competitors are chipping away at its lead in user interface. If Apple means to stay at the top of the mobile market, it needs to start closing these gaps.

  1. Talking about these design decisions as a matter of choosing one’s place on the spectrum, rather as a dichotomy which requires everyone choose a side, would be a helpful evolution of that discussion.
  2. Here I mean both “consistency” and “reliability.” An interface that changes with every view may suffer from inconstancy, but so might a particular view whose content fluctuates rapidly while struggling with sporadic availability of a server.
  3. Apple’s ongoing struggles with web services are another matter, but not an interface design issue.

The Groceries Revolt

March 6th, 2013

One of my favorite iPhone apps, Groceries by Sophiestication Software, was recently updated to version 3.0. Its new features are mainly support for the taller screen of the iPhone 5 and a greater emphasis on adding items to grocery lists via autocompletion.

In version 2.x, one could tap on a category — such as “Bakery” or “Health & Beauty” — then choose from a list of all known items in that category. As you can imagine, I never bothered with this approach. Instead, I used the search field. Start typing the name of your needed item, and Groceries would offer suggestions that matched your query. Tap to add the correct suggestion, then instantly start typing out your next item.

It was a fast input system, but there was room for improvement. Accessing the search field took one more tap than I preferred, and adding any information about the quantity needed (such as “2 dozen” or “1 gallon”) required backing out of the add-grocery mode and messing with the item you’d already added. Usually I just didn’t bother with quantities — too much trouble.

Enter version 3.0: autocompletion has now taken center stage. There are no categories to dig through — hitting the add-item plus sign button instantly lands you in the search field. Noting quantity is now integrated right into the grocery query. Typing “mil 2q” will offer “Milk (2 qt)” as the top hit. One tap adds both the item and its associated quantity. There’s no more backing out of the list-making process to add those details.

In my view, it’s hard to argue this isn’t a better system. It’s faster and requires several fewer taps per item. But the grocery-shopping public doesn’t agree. Since the release of version 3.0, Groceries has been hammered with 1-star reviews, and its rating stands at a positively-depressing 1.5 stars as of this writing.

What happened?

Incredibly, it seems quite a few users actually preferred digging through those old grocery store categories. They didn’t use the search field at all! And for those items which made the list frequently, they relied on the “Favorites” category to get at them without all the scrolling. Suddenly, that innocuous Update All button has completely changed the grocery game on these shoppers, and they are none too happy about it.

In the end, I don’t know how the update could have been better handled. There’s so much that’s better about Groceries 3.0, it would have been a shame to forego those improvements for the sake of maintaining the status quo. But one can understand why users who’ve come to rely on a particular interaction would be frustrated when that interaction changes with little warning. As Mike Hay suggests, this may just be an issue with how the App Store handles major updates. A user can be completely surprised by a strange, new version of an app; and she has no way to roll back to an earlier version.

I hope users of Groceries won’t give up on the new UI too quickly. It’s clever, easy to learn and more efficient once one gets the hang of it. It may be that Ms. Teutschler, the developer, can address some of the criticisms by adding a Favorites category back in somewhere. Meanwhile, I recommend you go try it out. If you come to it without preconceived notions of how a grocery list app should work, I think you’ll be very pleased.