Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Safari Changes in the Fourth Beta of iOS and iPadOS 15

Great roundup of the most recent set of changes to Safari’s UI from — who else? — Michael Tsai.

There is some good news: the “⋯” Button of Mystery has been scrapped and replaced with the standard share button. There’s also a reload button in the address bar right beside the URL — but it is grey, while every other tappable control in Safari is blue.

However, a whole-cloth web browser redesign is perhaps one of the most ambitious and difficult UI changes to make, and it still shows. I appreciate that Apple has been trying to move user interface components toward the bottom of the display in several applications; phone screens are still growing, and notification bubbles can cover toolbars at the top. It makes sense to prioritize thumb-accessible areas for interactivity. But when Google prototyped a similar bottom-focused redesign, many users found it “disorienting”, according to Chris Lee. It is a similar story in iOS 15.

Of all the commentary Tsai cited, Michael Love’s stood out to me:

They’re already desperately trying to make this UI work *and it’s a brand new UI*; imagine if a year or two from now they want to add some new option to it.

I often get the impression that software vendors, in general, imagine that it is inherently good for them to ship frequent updates with noticeable changes, and that users must appreciate the knowledge that their software is being updated all the time. This is a hallmark of the “Agile” development model and the software-as-a-service world. But I would submit that most users just want to get stuff done in more-or-less the same way as they did before an update. Software should enable that as much as possible; it should not be a barrier, and whole-cloth redesigns like these are burdensome on users.

In this context, reconfiguring Safari so that the entire user interaction happens in the lower half of the screen is a win for usability, but a loss for muscle memory. I think this once-in-a-lifetime update could make sense in the long term. But when coupled with some of the space constraints created by this specific iteration and how cramped the controls are, it is hard to argue in favour of this interpretation of Safari.

Meanwhile, the latest version of iPadOS has gained a preference in Safari to toggle the new unified tab and address bar, similar to that introduced in the last MacOS Monterey beta seed, which ought to be a clue. I think adding options to, effectively, switch between new and old versions of an app is a tacit admission that a change is big enough to be troublesome for a large number of users.

None of the versions of Safari 15, including the one in Monterey, should be scrapped entirely. But many of the UI changes are either too ambitious or — in the case of colour-changing tabs — poorly considered. New versions of iOS and iPadOS will probably be rolling out to users in six to eight weeks, and I do not think this flagship app is close to being shippable.

Update: Federico Viticci:

I wish I was kidding at this point, but the Safari tab bar in iOS 15 beta 4 *can* get busier.

Here’s what happens if you do a Google search, have an extension active, and have just downloaded a file.

In the pursuit of simplicity, the first version of this Safari redesign hid almost everything so that the UI could be condensed into a single address bar. Just three revisions in, Safari now appears far more complicated than its predecessor.