Glass Maze Every jumbled pile of person

15 January 2012

Geekery, Rantery


There’s been a bit of of tempest in a teapot recently in the Apple community, around an incident where some poor guy stopped a performance of the New York Philharmonic with an ill-timed iPhone alarm. He’d put the phone on mute, but the iOS alarm app ignores the mute button, so it went off anyway.

Gruber and Marco have both mounted their inevitable defense of the iPhone’s muting behavior — but, uncharacteristically, I actually agree with something Marco said:

The user told the iPhone to make noise by either scheduling an alarm or initiating an obviously noise-playing feature in an app.

The user also told the iPhone to be silent with the switch on the side.

The user has issued conflicting commands, and the iPhone can’t obey both.

It’s a typical design problem: it can’t be heavy and light and big and small. Neither decision will satisfy everyone all the time or cover every edge case: if Apple implemented Mute in Ihnatko’s preferred way, millions of people would be just as irritated when their scheduled alarms didn’t wake them up.

This is hard to quibble with. If you have one mute switch and no ability to tell the alarm what you want it to do in that situation, then, yes, you’re going to piss somebody off.

So Marco makes a good point: under those constraints, there is no right decision. But then he goes on to say that Apple made the right decision:

When implementing the Mute switch, Apple had to decide which of a user’s conflicting commands to obey, and they chose the behavior that they believed would make sense to the most people in the most situations.

That’s good design.

But that’s not good design. That’s just choosing one of two bad designs, on a hunch.

I think this is emblematic of the Apple enthusiast mindset: that it doesn’t even occur to them to expand the scope of the problem beyond the constraints that Apple has imposed. There are other options: you could make the alarm vibrate instead. Or you could present the user with a choice (something that Apple rarely does) — in the alarm app itself, say, or the first time the user puts the phone on mute with alarms active. Or something. But all other options are, apparently off the table: the alarm either must go off or mustn’t go off. Those are your choices.

Most of iOS’s “user-centric” design decisions are predicated on the notion that Apple knows best. But this is a situation where Apple not only doesn’t, but can’t, know best. I’d be a lot less annoyed with Apple zealotry if it would just acknowledge this: not that Apple makes mistakes, but that their uncompromising ethos often forces them into situations where every available option is a mistake.


Posted by
15 January 2012 @ 2pm

Something about this reminds me of HAL 9000. Hopefully the addition of Siri doesn’t cause conflicts like this to manifest themselves in more concerning ways in the future.

Posted by
15 January 2012 @ 2pm

Hm. Yeah, good point. When the machines start deciding what’s best for us, rather than the makers of the machines.

Posted by
15 January 2012 @ 6pm

Well said

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