Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Jesus Diaz, Mountaineer of Molehills

Fast Company will apparently publish any old junk these days, like Jesus “A Man Scorned” Diaz’s hot takes on Apple’s products:

If the iPhone X’s hardware features are the epitome of fluff over function, its new navigation gestures are the epitome of needless complexity over intuition.

That’s a hell of an “if” to predicate this entire article on. I did not want to have to deal with two Diaz articles today — one is often enough — but, luckily, the Macalope dismantled that “if”.

So, now that all of the air has been taken out of Diaz’s argument, what is his argument?

You’re looking at a UX disaster, the result of eliminating what is probably the simplest, most intuitive form of navigation ever implemented in consumer electronics: the iPhone’s home button. The iPhone X replaces it with the mess above. This is bad news, because this interaction is a fundamental part of the user experience.

The home button was and is, indeed, a brilliant piece of user interface design. But don’t pretend that it’s completely simple and intuitive; pressing the home button is used to show the multitasking app switcher, access Siri, dismiss Notification Centre and Control Centre, take screenshots, activate accessibility features, invoke Reachability, and more. Oh, and it’s also used to return to the home screen. Lots of functionality has been packed into that little button.

Joanna Stern’s review for the Wall Street Journal – which still concludes that, “Yes, There Are Reasons to Pay Apple $1,000” – documents what this means in detail: “[T]he lack of a home button means your thumb is about to turn into one of those inflatable waving tube-men outside the car dealership […] you must master a list of thumb wiggles, waves and swipes […] the other gestures, however, are buried. Many moves require almost surgical precision.” Heather Kelly, for CNN Money, adds her own experience: “To fill the void left by the Home button, the iPhone X has added new gestures (the different swipes you make with a finger). The process of learning them is a pain, and some of the new options are more work than before.” The Verge declared that “there’s a whole new system of gestures and swipes to learn and master, and many of them will be annoying to remember and difficult to perform with just one hand.”

Diaz doesn’t link to any of these articles, and for good reason: it’s a rubbish argument. Joanna Stern praises the home button swipe in her piece, and the entirety of her criticisms are quoted by Diaz. She doesn’t make a big deal out of it, likely because her review was published just a day after she received her review unit. Heather Kelly was more muted in her first impressions than many reviewers, but she “[doesn’t] doubt anyone’s ability to master a few new finger movements”.

For that quote from the Verge, though, Diaz went back to the September launch of the device. Nilay Patel’s first impressions from last week are more positive:

If you want to switch apps, you either swipe along the bottom of the screen or swipe up and hold — you’ll get a little haptic bump and the app switcher will show up. It took a minute to figure out how to do that move consistently. It took me a little longer to figure out how to consistently use Reachability.

I got my iPhone X last night. The idea that there’s some sort of steep learning curve to this thing is, I think, preposterous. Yeah, there are some decade-old habits I have to break, like when I moved an app around on my home screen this morning and tried pressing on a non-existent home button instead of tapping the “done” button in the upper-right. But the home indicator strip feels completely natural. It’s a testament to the speed and responsiveness of the device and its UI that these gestures feel as smooth and predictable as pinch-to-zoom did on the first iPhone.

Do you have to learn some new stuff? Sure. Will it take a little bit to get accustomed to the device? Absolutely. Is it a “nightmare”, as Diaz frames it in this article’s headline? Hardly.

Back to Diaz:

We knew this was coming, but the reviews and the sudden spike in “how to navigate your iPhone X” tutorials puts a new spotlight on the interaction problems that the elimination of the home button created.

No, it puts a spotlight on websites that really want to cash in on some sweet Google rankings by content farms. There’s a brief three-screen guide when you first set up an iPhone X that demonstrates how to use the home indicator. Once you get used to it, it feels completely natural, particularly if you’ve used an iPad running iOS 11.

Diaz spends another few hundred words quoting writers who made their explanations of other iOS gestures overly complicated, quoting Steve Jobs — hey, remember when people who generally liked using Apple products were Steve Jobs “fanboys”? Times sure have changed — and looking through rose-tinted glasses at the history of the iPhone.

I can’t make Diaz change his mind, no matter how ridiculous his arguments. He thinks iOS 11 “sucks” because UI elements in a few apps are misaligned, that the iPhone X is an egregious excess, and that the replacement of the home button with a handful of gestures makes the device a failure. This is the molehill he wants to die on.