Yo, Apple: Time for a UI Redesign!


“Where is the Bluetooth menu, again?”

Really, you all can blame Thomas for this.  He tweeted:

Apple – Please move the Bluetooth toggle from Settings > General to Settings (w/ Wifi, Personal Hotspot & Airplane Mode) where it belongs.

I usually don’t kvetch–publicly, anyway!–about the choices that user interface (UI) and operating system (OS) software designers and engineers make in these areas, because it tends to be pretty subjected.  Just because I want my Bluetooth toggle on top doesn’t mean everyone does, right?  Just because the way Apple has laid out its Settings choices in iOS bugs the crap out of me and has often gotten me to contemplate jailbreaking for that one reason alone doesn’t mean I’m in the majority.

So you can blame Thomas for this rant.  Go ahead; he can take it!

If you’re an iPhone (or other smartphone) user, take a moment and list the items that you use the most.  For me, the list looks like this:

  • Enable/disable wifi
  • Enable/disable Bluetooth
  • Adjust the screen brightness
  • Enable/disable 3G
  • Enable/disable “airplane mode”
  • Set the time and date

Your list is going to be different, of course; we all have different needs.  But because of the iPhone battery limitations, I perform the first three all the time.  Every day, multiple times a day.  (I also frequently disable/enable screen rotation, but that is right on top with just a double-click of the Home button, so I’m good there.)  The others I perform when I travel, which I do on the average of once a week, so they’re not quite so key.  But the first three?  Constantly.

I’m playing Infinity Blade, so I want the screen bright; then it’s time to web surf, read email, maybe delve into the latest eBook I’m reading (this week in non-fiction: Shout by Philip Norman [on The Beatles]; in fiction: Magnificat by Julian May), so I need it dim.  Now I’m just listening to music, so I want Bluetooth on; now I’ve switched to watching movies on my iPad, so I want Bluetooth off on my iPhone, but enabled on my iPad.  And so on.

some screen shots?

So let’s compare that with what we see immediately upon opening the Settings window on my iPhone:

iPhone   iPhone

The problem here is obvious.  Why can’t I simply toggle wifi on and off–which is almost always the only thing I need to do–instead of having to go one layer deeper?  Same with brightness–why not put the slider bar right on the top screen?  And Bluetooth, which started this whole rant?  General (which doesn’t even appear “above the fold” on my Settings screen at all!) >  Bluetooth–two layers down, and then you have to go to the third layer to choose a specific Bluetooth device!  (Unless your BT device is smart enough to connect automatically on BT enable, like the Apple keyboard and my headset.)  Three layers to do something I do all the time.  That’s maddening.  And it’s been the case since Day 1.  (And don’t get me started on the fact that Apple didn’t include full A2DP Bluetooth support for over a year after the iPhone released.)  And “General”?  Why on Earth would I look under “General” for Bluetooth, except out of desperation?

And as for the other stuff on the top screen?  Having “Airplane Mode” right at the top is . . . odd, to say the least.  I never use VPN except at work, and then it’s enable automatically by Junos Pulse, so I don’t need to toggle it by hand.  It’s wasted space on the top Settings screen.  And I never, ever, ever go to Notifications or Location Services.  Literally never.  I got an iPhone the day they came out, and if I’ve gone to those two Settings windows more than half a dozen times in those 4 years, I’d be stunned.

Sounds?  Rarely–that’s an initial setup thing, primarily, unless you’re the kind of person who diddles around with ringtones a lot.  Wallpaper?  Rarely.  Continuing on down, it strikes me as reasonable to have the various “main apps” on top:  iPod, Mail, Safari, and whatnot.  But “Notes”?  Why couldn’t that be under “General” and save some room for something more important?

(One nice thing on the iPad is that the brightness control is right there with the iPod controls on the “double-click Home button, slide to the left” screen:

iPhone   iPhone   iPhone

(That’s my personal blog on Open Salon, in case you were wondering.)

That gives you easier access than having to find the flippin’ control in the Settings window.  One thing the first Palm Pilot had that they later ditched, much to my regret, was a scroll wheel that allowed you to control the contrast externally, mounted on the side of the device.  I sure miss that.  14 years later.)

It has long been my credo that all software, particularly user-interface (UI) software, has built-in assumptions about what you, the user, can and should do.  They figure that you’ll need or want to do lots of photograph manipulation, or web surfing, or hook into local wifi networks, or something.  These software engineering decisions inform the final design–what features on your desktop or phone show up as “apps”, which are merely options to a particular app or to the desktop itself, how deep into the various windows and menus you have to dive to change something like the date, or the wallpaper, or the default screen saver, and every other item in the interface.

Other people have different feelings for how often an operating system (OS) gets this right.  Some people really like the choices that Android has made; others think iOS is awesome, or Snow Leopard; others love Windows 7 or perhaps W7 phone.  It can be a very subjective thing, and is something that I very rarely rage about–just because I want the date/time setting to be easy and near the top, because I travel so much, doesn’t mean everyone does.  Software designers have to take this into account.  (In the tech industry, this is often referred to as the 85/15 rule; i.e., you want to make sure you please the 85%, and displease only 15%.)

Furthermore, OS software engineers have to make a plethora of choices about system defaults.  An excellent book that shows how heated and–frankly–petty and bizarre this kind of arguing can get is Steven Levy’s excellent book on how the original Mac came into being:  “Insanely Great”.  To give you an idea of how every single choice can have repurcussions, Levy relates an argument during the development of the MacOS on how many times a menu item would flash after it was selected.  Three?  Five?  One?  Huge fights ensued, with engineers trying desparately to guess which choice would be best for the customer.  (Answer:  they chose three, but made it configurable so that you can change it!)  Software designers have to make these kinds of decisions all the time.

In my experience, Microsoft almost always gets these choices wrong, and Apple usually gets them right.  For me, the classic example is system sounds; Microsoft has a vast array of system sounds for everything from a pop-up appearing to the system starting up to you getting mail to a calendar item appearing.  All of which is fine, but not only are the choices Microsoft made in which sounds to use when annoying in the extreme (to me), they are all enabled by default!  If you were to use my Windows system, you would find it, well, incredibly quiet.  Why?  Because I generally spend half a day to a week (depending on my amount of free time) reconfiguring a huge number of the Windows default sounds.

iPhone   iPhone   iPhone   iPhone

(Not to mention plenty of other things. No, Steve Ballmer, I don’t want Internet Explorer to be my default browser.  No, I don’t want IE to open by default when I click a link in an Outlook message.  No, I don’t want Bing to be my default search tool.  Etc.)  By contrast, I’ve had my MBP for nearly 6 months now, and all I’ve done is turn the volume down–otherwise, all the defaults are in place.  (Yes, Safari works just fine for me.  Hey, cool; there aren’t musical tones that accompany every single action. Hey, it wants to put all my downloading pictures in a separate “pictures” directory!  Good idea!  Etc.)

That’s good choosing by the engineers, in my opinion.

As I said, I ordinarily don’t talk about this; what “should” be the default can be incredibly subjective.  Just because I personally think the customer experience people at Microsoft (if they even have any) are idiots while the ones at Apple are tremendous doesn’t mean it’s true; it just means it’s true for me.  So aside from the ocassional short gripe or two among my GD and tech compadres, I usually don’t crab on about how poorly-organized I think iOS’ “Settings” menu is on the iPhone.  I mean, just because I think it’s insanely lame doesn’t mean this feeling is universal, right?  As Sami points out, “You’re not normal, Douglas.”

But as we can see from this quick look, despite their assurances that, with Apple products, “it just works,” when it comes to your Settings on the iPhone, it doesn’t work.  At least, not very well.  And it hasn’t for a long time, as Thomas pointed out.

Time for a redesign, Apple!

About the Author

Douglas Moran
Doug is a nerd from way back, falling for a Commodore PET at the age of 15, and never looking back. Riding the nerd wave, he got a Computer Science degree and entered the tech industry at a young age, deciding after a year and a half of front-line phone technical support that he should try something, *anything* else. He settled on technical writing, and has been cranking out documentation for companies like Unisys, SGI, Cisco, Juniper, and many others ever since. He is nothing short of ecstatic to be working for H-P from his home base in Austin.

3 Comments on "Yo, Apple: Time for a UI Redesign!"

  1. One of my biggest pet peeves with Windows is that they decided that “navigation start” needed to have a sound associated with it, beginning with XP. Everything you click gets to send a click sound to the speakers? Why? It’s a mouse-based system – I can see that I’ve clicked it!

  2. Let me be the first to say it: JAILBREAK!
    Install SBSettings and your experience handling these frequent tasks will go from immense frustration to nirvana. Honestly, I cannot imagine having to wade through that awful settings menu just to disable wifi or 3G. I too do this frequently but for me, it’s a single swipe from the status bar downwards and I’m presented with 8 toggles to enable/disable 3G, Airplane Mode, Bluetooth, Rotation, Vibrate, Wifi, and more.
    Yes, Apple should have built in a better native mechanism. But they didn’t. You can complain and wait for them to improve it or you can give yourself a great solution today!

  3. Melvyn: I had my iPhone jailbroken for a long time. But when iOS 4 came it, it did almost everything that I had jailbroken my phone for, so I allowed the restore to go through. Also, I’ve had some pretty bad experiences with jailbreak processes–no matter how foolproof they supposedly are, I have the gift/curse of screwing them up. So, no jail breaking for me.

    The fact that I continue to consider jailbreaking *for that one reason* goes to show how much the inaccessibility of the Bluetooth menu bugs the crap out of me.

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