Monday, 5 March 2007

Why the iPhone's UI won't scale

For all its beauty and elegance, the iPhone's UI, in the state demoed on Apple's website and at Macworld, has at least two fundamental issues, even disregarding the whole touch-screen/haptics debate.

These two issues are scalability and contextuality -- a lack of both. I'll address the first issue in this entry, and the second issue in a later entry.

There are two areas where the iPhone UI will fail to scale.

1. One-touch home page can't scale

The iPhone relies on being a feature phone (not a smartphone, see my previous entry) to implement Steve Jobs's vaunted two clicks from anywhere UI functionality. If you add extra apps, for example a pedometer, a finances app, a possessions (eg. books, CDs, etc.) database, an ebook reader, a word processor, a spreadsheet, a presentation app, a dictionary, etc. etc. you will quickly run out of screen real estate.

When that happens, you have two choices:
  • Add a scroll bar, which makes some items three clicks away (tap the home button, tap the scroll bar or "flick scroll", tap the icon) or more
  • Add folders, which makes items three taps away (tap home, tap the folder, tap the icon)

Basically, there's nothing magic about Apple's "two-clicks to anywhere". It's just a result of crippleware.

2. Flick-scrolling without context reduction only works for small datasets

This one is a bigger problem for Apple. Pay careful attention to the demo of the Contacts application on the iPhone (available at http://www.apple.com/iphone/phone/). Notice that the app has no search icon or text pane. All it has is a list of contacts and the alphabet down the side.

The demo shows how cool flick-scrolling looks. What it doesn't show is how painful it would be searching through a database of 400+ contacts (which is not a big database for many users, now that people sync with their PCs). Flick-scrolling is inherently imprecise, and thus a slow way to find a single item in a large dataset (which is mostly what you want to do with a contacts database on a phone).

What's the fastest way to find a contact? Well, iContacts on the Mac actually has it built in: a filter that narrows the contacts list. It's called Spotlight, and is available on virtually every window on the Mac. However, it is conspicuously absent from the iPhone.

(The reason it's absent from the iPhone is pretty easy to guess: Spotlight isn't much chop without a keyboard to enter text, but the iPhone doesn't have any ugly plastic buttons, so if you want to enter text on it, your usable screen space suddenly vanishes away, eaten up by an ugly onscreen keyboard -- have a look at the SMS demo at the iPhone site. So filtering a large list by entering text is not something that the iPhone's form-factor is very good at.)

Unfortunately, flick-scrolling really isn't a substitute for Spotlight-style filtering for two reasons:

  1. Flick-scrolling is imprecise. I've already mentioned that this imprecision makes navigating to a single contact a pain. It's hard to describe, and, until I've played with an iPhone, I can't be sure just how painful flick-scrolling will be, but I'm pretty sure it'll be painful. Even if flick-scrolling is magically wonderful, there's still another reason why it's vastly inferior to filtering a long list. It is telling that the contacts list in Apple's demo is pretty small.
  2. Long lists are hard to visually search. The item you're looking for just gets lost in the midst of the huge number of items you're looking through. Humans are very good at pattern matching, but even humans get overwhelmed if there are simply too many candidates to match against, and scrolling doesn't reduce the candidate pool.

This is where filtering really makes its money: it reduces the context to the minimal, useful context. If I'm looking for my contact in my database, all the other Lithgows overwhelm it. Even if I can tap on "L", I'm still faced with a lot of distractingly similar near-matches. But if I can filter for "Malcolm", then I can remove all of them with seven touches (in fact, I can remove pretty much all of them with three or four touches: "mal" or "malc"). Then I don't have to scour the list, I simply choose the only option.

The inherent lack of this capability in the iPhone's UI will make for a frustrating experience for people who have any significant amount of data. The iPhone thus limits itself to toy status (much as the Newton did up until it's swansong with the MP 2000).

Can Apple fix this? Yes, they can, but fixing involves moving back towards standard PDA interfaces, either providing a physical keyboard (unlikely), or providing some form of touch-input for letters (there are many innovative solutions out there, check out Ring-Writer, for example).

But there are other problems with the iPhone's UI that indicate that Apple has been thinking more about glamour than substance. The major one is the lack of contextuality, and I'll be talking about that next. Stay tuned.

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