iOS 11 has a big problem, and we're to blame for it

Cramming more features into an operating system means more complexity and poorer discoverability. And while we demand more features, Apple doesn't seem to have an answer to the problems that this demand creates.
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

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It's early days, but it seems that iOS 11 has a big problem when it comes to usability and discoverability of new features.

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The WWDC 2017 keynote gave us the first proper look at the upcoming iOS 11, and it's clear that Apple has been hard at work adding a whole raft of new features to the platform to help keep up with Android.

Just this slide from the WWDC keynote shows just how much new stuff is going to land with iOS 11.

iOS 11 has a big problem, and we are to blame for it

But anyone who has followed operating system for any time knows that adding more features brings with it problems. Specifically, three problems arise:

  • General increase in complexity (more stuff = more complexity)
  • Mystery meat navigation (trying to figure out what buttons do or how to access a feature -- imagine prodding at a bit of meat in a stew when trying to figure out what it is)
  • Discoverability (knowing that a feature exists in the first place)

I'm constantly amazed how many people I come across who haven't found that they even have features such as Live Photo or 3D Touch or that feature that allows you to send drawings in Messages (but only if you turn the iPhone into landscape orientation), and yet these are fast becoming core features of the platform. I mean, people have paid good money for a piece of kit, and are only using a fraction of the features that it has to offer.

I've seen this many times before, especially with monolithic products such as Microsoft Windows or Office, and down the line it tends to lead people to think that there's no value in upgrading.

I've also noticed how Apple is increasingly having to rely on iconography that isn't all that clear, and only seems to turn to words when the designer has clearly given up (notice how out of place "Screen Mirroring" looks on the iOS 11 Control Center, and the crazy amount of space that it takes up compared to everything else, especially given how niche the feature actually is).

iOS 11 has a big problem, and we are to blame for it

Then you have things like this in the Messages app (see below). While I know what these buttons do (from pressing them), the icons are as clear as mud.

iOS 11 has a big problem, and we are to blame for it

Even the redesigned App Drawer in iOS 11 is still a mystery meat stew of icons and buttons.

iOS 11 has a big problem, and we are to blame for it

Another good example I've touched on in the past is the Settings app.

Oh boy, is that a steaming mess.

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Apple's bolted more and more stuff into the Settings app over the years that it has grown to resemble the Control Panel in Windows. It's a horrible old carpet that Apple brushes countless design sins beneath. And it feels like Apple's "solution" to the problem of finding what you want in the Settings app has been the same as Microsoft's -- throw in a search feature, and add another layer on top of the mess and hope no one notices (Control Center in iOS 10 is much the same "solution" to the problem as the Windows Settings is in Windows 10 -- a place to put some of the most commonly used features that floats above the bilge of all the legacy the platform has built up).

I think that in part Apple is deliberately trading discoverability for complexity. Hiding a feature behind a finger swipe or a 3D Touch press means there's less on-screen clutter to contend with, and if people don't know a feature is there, well, at least it's not getting in their way. But the flipside is that people overlook the feature, or the feature is clumsy or cumbersome to use.

Now, I've no doubt that the tech press will work hard to raise awareness of all the new features in iOS 11, but there are plenty of people out there who have no interest in the technology they own beyond using it, and will never come across this information.

It feels that increasingly Apple is letting those people down.

It's almost as if Apple has lost sight of its users, believing that everyone is either a tech nut, fanboy, or developer.

Now as a rule I wouldn't be commenting on an operating system that's as early in the development cycle as iOS 11 is. Developer previews are meant to get the platform out to coders in a timely fashion so they can start using the new features, and not something designed for public consumption. But I'm making an exception here for two reasons.

First, this isn't a new problem, but instead one that iOS has been increasingly suffering from as Apple adds more features to satisfy consumer demand and stay ahead of Android. I've watched this problem creep through iOS over the past few years.

iOS 10 was bad. iOS 11 is looking to be worse.

And secondly, by the time it hits the developer preview stage, iOS is already well ahead in the development cycle. The public beta expected next month, and the final release out in September. If Apple were planning a huge redesign in iOS 11, we'd be seeing evidence of that in the developer preview.

And we're not seeing a sign of that.

There's still time for Apple to unveil a refreshed, revamped, and improved user interface for iOS 11, but with only about ten weeks before the release date, I doubt it.

Bottom line, we're all to blame for this mess. On the one hand we want things to be simple and easy to use, but on the other we want to be able to have every conceivable feature crammed into every device. Part of the problem is that the iPhone and iPad, with their vastly differing screen sizes, share what is essentially the same (albeit radically forked) operating systems.

What works on one screen size doesn't on another.

I remember the same thing happening with Windows when Netbooks became a thing. An operating system that worked well on a desktop or notebook looked cramped on the small screen, with cursor tolerances becoming problematic, and user interfaces shrinking to the point of being unusable.

I suppose we'll have to wait for iOS 12 to see if Apple has any ideas as to how to dig itself out of the usability hole it's dug for itself.

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