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29 August, 2009

Apple gets too "smart" for this user

In design, there is an ongoing debate as to how "smart" devices should try to be. A smart device is one that predicts (correctly) what the user's intention is, and then adjusts the experience to facilitate the detected scenario.

For instance:

You open your Gmail and you start typing your friend Suzie Blanchard's name. She's the only person in your entire contact list that has a name starting with "Su", so as soon as you type "Su", her entire name appears and all you need to do is hit Tab or Enter to choose her. That's an acceptable use of "smarts" in a program.

If, instead, you had friends named Suzie Blanchard, Susan Smith, and Sun Moonbeam, then you'd be annoyed if Suzie's name got stuck in there. Likewise, if it not only chose her name, but did the "Enter" for you, that would be bad too, because you would not be able to type a new "Su" name without deleting the entry of her name and hoping it learned that you didn't want her to be filled-in on the second try (lots of auto-correction behaviors in spell-check behave in that fashion - "No, I really wanted a lowercase 'i' in that sentence because I am writing about an integer variable, not writing about myself!"

So, where did the iPhone and Apple make big mistakes in their 3.0 version of the software? Two huge bets, that are turning out to be massive pain points for me as a user:
  1. Many people wanted to be able to type emails and texts with the screen rotated, in the same manner that you would do rotated typing for the browser and many of the apps. It was a missing feature from the earlier builds. So it has been implemented in 3.0. The problem is, what if I don't want my screen to rotate with respect to the earth's gravitational field? For example, what if I am in bed trying to text or send email? The screen is parallel to the axis of my body, but it's perpendicular to the axis of the gravity, and thus, the image rotates, and I can't type because the screen is sideways for me. And the worst part is, there's no way to disable this feature!! Apple, and their smarts, decided that using the phone to say good morning to someone, while still in bed, was not a use case that needed to be addressed. Bad decision.

  2. For some reason, even less practical than the one above, Apple decided that "Shake to Undo" was a feature that people would think is useful and cool. If you're doing something, and you want to undo it, you just shake your phone. Simple, right? The thing is, if I were going to make that feature, I would want to do a lot of testing to determine what constitutes a shake. Because as it stands, hitting a small bump in a car constitutes a shake. Going running constitutes a shake. Walking down a flight of stairs constitutes a shake. And every time you do one of these "non-shake" actions, a modal prompt (i.e. a message that you, as the user, need to actively dismiss) pops up on the screen, saying "Nothing to undo". That is horrible, and it will be shocking if Apple doesn't fix this. For starters, I suggest making the threshold for "What is a shake?" about double or triple it's current setting.

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