The battle of smartphone platforms frequently brings out impassioned fans of each side, and the arguments often repeat. This seems to be particularly true between Android and iOS, the two largest smartphone operating systems by market share. There are concrete differences between the two, such as the hardware differences and feature differences, but one of the most common arguments for the iPhone side seems to be “It’s a better user experience.” When pressed for more details, the responses veer away from useful, concrete details. “The UI is more consistent.” “It’s easier to use.” Well, I decided to put it to the test. The following is an analysis of the user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) of an iPhone from an Android user’s perspective.
To be fair, this post is focused on first-party applications and iOS as an operating system. It does not cover the details of third-party apps.
A good user experience is a fast one, and that is especially true on a mobile device. You want to be able to jump into whatever you need to do and jump back out. Unfortunately, every iOS app requires a splash screen, which is referred to as a “launch image” (in fact, developers should be including six different ones to support each screen configuration). Apple specifically says:
Avoid using your launch image as an opportunity to provide… An “application entry experience,” such as a splash screen… [or] Branding elements, unless they are a static part of your application’s first screen — iOS Human Interface Guidelines
And yet, nearly every app uses this as a branding opportunity. Regardless, the first-party apps are consistent with using this image to give the user a blank UI until the app loads. That means the user waits with a blank UI for even the simplest of apps, like the Settings app. It’s infuriating as an Android user to wait for a simple app to load. When you don’t support widgets, it’s essential for apps to load quickly. Checking the weather shouldn’t take several seconds. Switching Wi-Fi off should not be an exercise in patience.
Basic navigation is mostly consistent in iOS. You touch something to activate it and swipe to scroll; however, swipes in some places activate delete mode. Having two very different functions for the same gesture with no visual indication is inconsistent at best. For example, a horizontal swipe on an email creates or removes a delete button. A horizontal swipe on an entry in Stocks selects the stock (unless you had any vertical motion, in which case it scrolls). Fortunately, it’s not a directly harmful interaction.
The real problem comes with temporal navigation in iOS. It simply doesn’t exist. There is no consistent way to go back to what you were previously doing. All of the navigation is based on hierarchy and mode/context, the latter of which is particularly troublesome for users. Users of iOS are forced to hunt for the appropriate action based on the current app and context.
There are even times when your current position is not indicated by the tabs at the bottom and it’s unclear from the top of the screen. Take a look at this screenshot where there’s a button (not shaped like a back button) in the title bar that has the same text as the title bar and no tab is selected. This leaves me wondering, “Where am I in the larger context of the app?”
Poor Orientation Support
As an iOS developer, one of the most common and most annoying things that comes across from apps that are built for both iOS and Android at the same time is a “let’s only support one orientation” mindset. Android is all about user choice and supporting landscape and portrait is a part of that (and even more important when considering the orientation of physical keyboards). Your app should adapt to the user not the other way around, but the majority of iPhone apps only support portrait orientation. I originally thought that this was because it’s simply more work to support multiple orientations (where it’s very little work on the Android side), but then I discovered that even the OS doesn’t properly support landscape.
One of the big controversies with the original iPhone was the fact that it ditched the physical keyboard for a software keyboard. That saves Apple money (localizing software is much easier and cheaper than hardware) and it makes the device thinner. In general, the iPhone does a decent job of capturing your input and making reasonable text out of it. Unfortunately the keyboard is abysmal in comparison to Android’s stock Ice Cream Sandwich keyboard (and worse if you compare it to third-party offerings).
There is no period key on the main keyboard, so typing something like “U.S.A.” takes 13+ presses. Press shift, press a letter, press the symbols key, press the period, press the ABC key, and repeat. I feel like the keyboard is purposely making this hard on me. The keyboard forgets if I’ve enabled caps lock as soon as I press the symbols key.
[Update 2012-11-01] In the comments below, Kevin pointed out that you can press and swipe from the shift key to a letter to capitalize it and from the symbols key to the period to insert a period without staying on the symbols keyboard. That’s much better than trying to type this out, since it drops this example to six swipe-presses. Unfortunately there is no visual hint that this behavior exists or that it works (until you see the proper letter or symbol appear). With just a hint of a finger trail, glowing keys, or even a change of the state of the characters of the keys, this feature would be significantly more effective.
In certain situations, Apple clearly feels that the period key can fit, but they choose to shrink the spacebar to the left instead of to the center.
Worse, the keyboard does not bother to actually reflect capital letters vs. lowercase letters. You have to look at the shift key, which is probably blocked by your hovering thumb. This is really problematic when entering text in a form where the first letter may or may not be capitalized for you. As you press each letter, you get an annoying click, as if Apple decided their keyboard should only be a hint better than a typewriter and there’s no haptic feedback, making the keyboard feel flat and lifeless. Since any reasonable person disables the annoying clicking sound to avoid torturing everyone nearby, you have to stare at your thumbs, which means you are looking at the bottom of the screen when the top of the screen is where your auto-correct notices appear.
The One Button
What do you call the button on the front of the iPhone? It seems to have a hundred different purposes. So many iOS proponents talk poorly of the buttons on Android but seem to be fine with all these functions tied to a hardware button that feels downright clunky.
- One press on first home screen goes to search
- One press on home screen or search while recent apps tray is open closes that tray
- One press with the notification screen down closes the notifications
- One press in an app when recent apps tray is open closes the tray and goes to home screen
- One press when in app deletion/move mode on the homescreen turns that mode off
- One press when not on first home screen goes to first home screen
- Two presses opens recent apps tray if it’s not open
- Two presses closes recent apps tray if it’s open
- Two presses when voice features is open does nothing
- Three presses activates custom settings (e.g., inverting colors for accessibility)
- Long pressing activates voice features
I may have missed some because it clearly has many, many features, but that’s eleven already. It seems like this button does some of what the back button on Android does but only in specific situations. In other cases it acts like a home button. In others, it’s like a multitasking key. Is this really a better experience than having a back key, home key, and multitasking key?
Sharing on iOS feels ages behind Android. You can’t just share across apps. Even looking at the first-party apps, it’s confusing. Going into your camera roll (or other album) gives you an icon on the bottom. It’s used as the share icon elsewhere, but here it seems to mean “share or copy or add to or delete.” I figured this would be the easiest way to get the screenshots to my computer, so I selected some, picked share and got this:
Perfect! I can just select all the photos I want to send and send them all in one email. That was a major gripe I had before with iOS (multiple attachments) and it appeared to be solved. So, I selected several photos and then tried to share and I got this:
Wait!? Where did my email option go? I deselected some photos and got this:
So, the sharing actions you can take are dependent on how many photos you have selected. That’s fairly reasonable. The problem is that you have to actually try to share to even know that this changes what will be available. Why can’t I share six photos? Because Apple said so and that tends to be the answer to far too many of my questions with iOS.
Fonts Are Tiny
When you’ve got an extremely small display (less than two inches wide) and a massive audience (some with visual impairments), being able to adjust font sizes is essential. You can’t in iOS (with the exception of a few specific places for accessibility). Designers love it because that means they can align text up to the pixel, but I can’t imagine that users genuinely enjoy having no control over how easy it is to read text on their devices.
In the interest of design, Apple has created a lot of extra shapes in some of the apps. A good example is the Settings app, which looks extremely dated.
Besides the ugly stripes and extra shapes that the rounded corners and needless chevrons cause, additional visual confusion is caused by the seemingly meaningless grouping of elements. When details apply to a particular item, they’re just sort of thrown on the screen without any visual tie-in.
(Note that I removed the name of the account since it was not mine.) The extra text seems to just be added right on top of the stripes, making it hard to read, and preventing it from actually being visually associated with the button it’s applicable to.
The more shapes there are on the screen, the harder it is to interpret, yet, there are unique shapes and icons all over the place. Many of them are not clear. Looking at these, I can only guess what two do:
The Other Issues
There is no indication that you have notifications waiting; you have to pull down the notification bar to see whether anything is there. It also doesn’t contain status info such as when music is playing. There isn’t any info about apps that can be updated. Really, it feels like it was only implemented to quell those of us who couldn’t stand the excessively intrusive notifications of the past iOS versions rather than to unify the mobile experience. Further, I think the notification system should have been implemented on the top portion of the screen when you open the recent apps tray in order to tie the system together instead of adding another hidden gesture.
This stuff might all seem picky, but I attempted to pull out the specifics of issues I had. We can easily look at larger, real-world scenarios. For example, I was given an iPhone at work for testing, so I played around with it a bit. I had no idea if it was an iPhone 4 or 4S, so I held down The One Button for a few seconds and the voice prompt came up. I asked, “What can you do?” After a significant delay, I was thrown back to the home screen and some bizarre music was playing. Obviously, I didn’t intend the music to play (and I had no idea what my words were interpreted as), so I wanted to stop it.
I pulled down the notification bar but there was nothing about the music that was playing. I scrolled through the endless list of icons before finding iTunes. I opened that only to discover that it’s more of a media store and doesn’t control music playback (unlike the desktop app of the same name). I double-tapped The One Button, but there was no music app listed. Apparently I was supposed to know that the music controls are hidden to the left of the recent apps?
There are dozens of other examples throughout the iOS experience that are jarring and disconnected, but this quick sample should help prove the point that iOS is not perfect. The UX simply is not better than Android because the majority of interactions are more complicated (consider how you’d share a webpage you’re viewing with a third-party app) and so much of the OS is context-specific in a way that forces the user to think far more than necessary. I feel that the OS is fighting me more than working with me. It hides features in order to simplify the UI but turns around and complicates it with extra shapes and unclear symbols.
I’d love to hear a detailed rebuttal of specific UI and UX elements in iOS that make it superior to Android because I’ve found that it has fallen quite short of my expectations, which were already short of where Android is today.