Usability on Mobile Is Getting Worse

Don Norman and Bruce Tognazzini:

The legibility of the text is only one of Apple’s many design failures. Today’s devices lack discoverability: There is no way to discover what operations are possible just by looking at the screen. Do you swipe left or right, up or down, with one finger, two, or even as many as five? Do you swipe or tap, and if you tap is it a single tap or double? Is that text on the screen really text or is it a critically important button disguised as text? So often, the user has to try touching everything on the screen just to find out what are actually touchable objects.

Apple is hardly the only company guilty of this, but it is true that they are among the worst offenders.

3D Touch on the iPhone 6S, while technically astonishingly impressive, is only the most recent example. Apple, who steadfastly refused to add a second mouse button on the Mac, has now needlessly added one to iOS, a platform that never had a second mouse button, and where nobody ever asked for one.

I really think this can't be overstated: Apple has added a hardware feature to the iPhone whose sole purpose is to help developers add hidden features to their apps.1

I can't get over the feeling that Apple added 3D Touch to the iPhone because it is incredibly cool, not because it makes the phone easier to use. It's "wow!" design, not "it just works" design.

That's not a great way to make design decisions. Remember how funny we thought the Blackberry Storm was, with its "sometime you just tap it, but sometimes you have to press harder and make it actually click" screen? Well, that's now your iPhone.

Likewise, people made fun of Windows 8, and how people found it hard to use at first, but one of its genius decisions was to put all of its hidden features behind edge swipes. In order to figure out how to find possible actions in Windows 8, you had to learn exactly one thing: swipe from the sides of the screen to see your options.

There's no such rule for iOS or Android.

I think people should stop being so preoccupied with things like the burger menu,2 and start worrying about all of the hidden interactions Apple — and, to a slightly lesser degree, Google — are adding to their mobile platforms.

  1. Some people think that this is just a way of creating a two-tiered user interface that is simple to use for normal people, but offers additional features for power users. This used to be true, a few years ago, when iOS tried to surface commonly used features, and hid a small number of additional power user features behind non-obvious interactions.
    But today, commonly used features are hidden behind gestures, and there are so many different features hidden behind different kinds of interaction patters that it teems unlikely that even most power users know about them. And why should they? You can expect people to figure out that the app switcher is hidden behind double-tapping the home button, or that you can rearrange apps on the home screen by long-tapping them, because these are commonly used features, and there are only two of them. By now, though, every single app is full of these things, and it's only getting worse.
    So I agree that Apple's intention is likely to create a two-tiered user interface. But that doesn't mean it's not also bad usability. Thinking that it must be either or the other is a false dichotomy. ↩︎

  2. At least the hamburger button is something people can actually see, and as it has become more prevalent, people are getting good at recognizing it. ↩︎

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designed for use cover

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Want to read more like this? Buy my book's second edition! Designed for Use: Create Usable Interfaces for Applications and the Web is now available DRM-free directly from The Pragmatic Programmers. Or you can get it on Amazon, where it's also available in Chinese and Japanese.