The iOS Home screen and user expectations

Tech Life

While reading the fine 512 Pixels by Stephen Hackett, I noticed he pointed to an article by Federico Viticci at MacStories, titled The Problem With The iOS Home Screen. With a title like that, it’s easy to just click and go there and see what it’s all about. Since I don’t really have any significant problem with iOS’s Home screen, I was interested to read Viticci’s take on it. I read the article twice, and the feeling I had after reading was that either I was missing something, or Viticci was. Or maybe both. A few commenters were unnecessarily harsh with Viticci, but I have to agree with those who said that the article is somewhat vague, and that, in the end, it’s not really clear what this ‘problem’ with iOS’s home screen is.

Viticci writes:

The concept of the Home screen we interact with today is broken because the Home screen wants to be a real, physical, tangible surface while providing access to the gates of the intangible: apps. Apps are data, information, connectivity, presentation, media. […] The iOS Home screen is based on the concept that app icons are objects on top of it; this has created a series of issues over the years.

And again remarks, as a conclusion:

The problem Apple needs to overcome is that the Home screen tries to be a real object while providing access to the gates of the digital world.

It’s funny, because I’ve never looked at the Home screen that way. Also, I’m not entirely sure the Home screen wants to be a ‘real, physical, tangible surface while providing access to the gates of the intangible’. What’s physical and tangible in an iOS device is the outer glass. What’s beyond the glass is a metaphor, exactly like the desktop metaphor of a traditional computer.

The problem — if there’s really one — is that while traditional computer GUIs all revolve, in a way or another, around a generally recognised concept (the virtual office desktop), iOS and other smartphone platforms don’t really have a universally accepted metaphor. They share common traits, sure, but not — as far as I know — a common GUI metaphor like traditional computer operating systems do.

It is perhaps for this reason that my experience when trying different phones has been more frustrating than using different computer operating systems. When you’ve been using the Mac OS for a long time and then you happen to use Windows 7 or Vista or some flavour of Linux, you generally find your way around rather quickly. Some objects may have different positions, others may have slightly different names, but the fundamentals of the virtual desktop concept always guide you almost unconsciously, so you expect that a whole bunch of actions (copying objects, creating folders, moving or deleting files, etc.) will be similar, if not identical, on all systems. iOS, Android, webOS, and Windows Phone are different beasts. Certain gestures on iOS may give unexpected or different results on Android or WP7 (or no result at all). The simple task of copying and pasting text is, I believe, performed in a unique way on each of those platforms.

When there isn’t a universally recognised concept behind the Home screen of a smartphone or tablet, it’s users who (consciously or unconsciously) supply their own metaphor to use such devices as proficiently as possible. But what happens after a major update is that the manufacturer may introduce new concepts or layers of abstraction that ‘break’ whatever concept the user imagined to interact with his/her device. Apple is allowed to introduce the multitasking tray and the Notification Centre overlay because, well, there were no rules fixed in stone to break in the first place.

(And if there were, it’s my belief that Apple broke them for the sake of pragmatism. I never believed folders would work on iOS: before Apple implemented them I thought there was no effective way to introduce them without creating some serious design friction. Apple instead did a pretty good job. Same goes for copy-and-paste. And yes, I believe that given all the spatial constraints they had to face, even the multitasking tray and Notification Centre have been clever implementations.)

What happened in Viticci’s case, I think, is that Apple somehow ‘broke’ whatever expectations he had from iOS’s Home screen or iOS’s general metaphor, creating that subtle feeling that ‘something’s wrong with this picture’. In my case (and presumably in other people’s case), having different expectations or no ‘conceptual’ expectations at all, Apple didn’t break anything and I’m still quite satisfied with my iOS user experience. This is why, I believe, some of those who commented on Viticci’s piece asked him what his problem was.

My personal iOS metaphor

As a brief aside, since I’m on the topic, I’ll tell you how I’ve always perceived the iOS environment: as an augmented TV remote, where each app is a ‘channel’, providing its unique experience. I don’t really care about what the Home screen is supposed to be. To me, it’s simply a container of channels. Each app can have the icon it wants, whether completely abstract (iTunes, App Store, Shazam, Flipboard, etc.) or totally skeuomorphic, as long as it’s distinctive. It’s evident that with this kind of simple metaphor, I’m pretty much open to anything Apple may add on top of it (or underneath). My only concern is user interaction: the thing I’ve loved about Apple’s implementation of multi-touch technology in iOS, since day one, is that it’s extremely intuitive and you can learn to use iOS very quickly. Gestures are natural and make sense, and most of all they’re straightforward. The only way for Apple to ruin the user experience, in my opinion, is to break it on a practical level, more than on a conceptual one. Start creating complicated chains of gestures and actions, start implementing features that require confusing and unnatural gestures, start drastically changing/removing previously established behaviours[1] and you’ll break the magic of iOS.



  • 1. No, I don’t think the way Apple changed some of the Home button’s functionality is drastic enough to disrupt the user experience. Sure, it needed a bit of adjusting at first, but being able to access the multitasking tray with a double-click is a more powerful feature than choosing from a limited range of customisation options in the old Home button menu. When you gain functionality, you tend to accept the tradeoff involved in the slight change of behaviour. What I mean with drastic and disruptive changes is something much deeper, like arbitrarily introducing a whole different way to copy and paste text with a software update, for instance.


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