Hidden features: Apple's discoverability problem

What good are a bunch of cool features if people can't find them? Apple has buried hundreds of thoughtful and useful features beneath its supposedly intuitive interface. They must know it, so why don't they fix it?
Written by Robin Harris, Contributor

For a company generally lauded for its user interfaces, Apple has a big hole in its UI design: discoverability. The word refers to the ease - or lack - of users finding a feature. 

How do we know it is a problem? Pick any Apple product, and search on "hidden [product] features".

iPhone: there are literally hundreds of articles that promise to tell you about the all the great hidden features in Apple's most popular product. Same with macOS, Apple Watch, and iPad.

All these features took real time and money to develop, such as Force Touch, now largely abandoned in favor of something cheaper, Haptic Touch. Every hidden feature has a cost to develop, test, and maintain.

And yes, there's a cost to communicate the existence of the feature. A cost that all too often, Apple decides not to pay, no matter now trivial.

Force touch, which is still a feature on several products, such as the Watch, is a case in point. Users have no way of knowing if there's a cool tool that a simple hard press or double tap would unleash.

My non-use case

I live in a small town surrounded by spectacular national forest land criss-crossed by hundreds of miles of trails. I usually hike anywhere from 2-7 miles several times a week - more since the mayor shut almost everything down. Here's a picture I took on yesterday's hike:

Robin Harris

I use the Watch Workout app to track Outdoor Walks, and generally I love it. But I've always wished to break the total walk distance into segments to see how long they take and how quickly I do them. Many of the trails have hundreds of feet of ascent, and the vertical component makes a real difference.

So, last week, I'm fumbling with my Series 4 Watch and clumsily double-tapped some element of the Outdoor Walk data display - I still don't know which - and voila! A segment creation and tracking option popped up.

Nice! I still fumble since I don't know exactly where to tap, but it always pops up after a few tries.

But then I had to wonder: what else am I missing because Apple hides these features behind a minimalist interface?


Force touch didn't catch on because Apple never provided a cue that a hard touch would do something special. One suggestion I saw online from a UI designer was a small downward pointing triangle after the element. Nothing obtrusive or glaring.

Perhaps users could choose to turn them on system wide, or for individual apps. This is not unlike the ellipses (. . . ) on many UIs today that indicate that you're missing something, much as they do in text documents.

I'm not a UI designer, but it's clear that the discoverability problem is well within Apple's ability to dramatically improve. Now that Jony Ive is gone, I hope they will.

The Storage Bits take

Really, who has time to go through a bunch of listicles on tech websites to figure out what wonders their kit can perform? Shouldn't the device UI offer at least a clue?

Of course it should, especially for Apple products. Apple users tend to be much more loyal, and letting them know what other wonderful tricks their various products can perform will only make them more so.

Your move, Apple. And every other vendor who fails their users this way. 

Comments welcome. What is your favorite hidden Apple feature?

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