Need proof? Just take a look at this cheat sheet published alongside the Wall Street Journal’s iPhone X review:
— Joanna Stern (@JoannaStern) November 3, 2017
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.
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.”
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.
How Did We Get Here?
Back in June of 2007, when Apple introduced the iPhone, there was no cheat sheet. You gave it to anyone and they figured it out within seconds. Its user experience led you to immediate discovery starting with the simple and genius Swipe to unlock bar at the bottom of the screen. From that very first action, people got it. Click on something, and it opens. Oh, what’s this button at the bottom of the phone. Click–boom!–and you’re back home. If you touched an image in the photo album, you immediately discovered, with no help or tutorial, how to pan and zoom. The user experience was so intuitive that babies learned how to use it on their own.
Apple didn’t jump straight from that place to the iPhone X. It’s just the final level of its UX Inferno, a journey that started a long time ago. Back in 2011, there were only a few patents detailing new iOS gestures. At the time, I was wary–if Apple keeps adding gestures to this simple language, I wrote, “it will kill what made these devices successful in the first place.” Later, with iOS 5, Apple introduced new finger motions for iPad. In iOS 7, we got new finger funking for iPhone as well, including the swiping gesture to navigate across apps or Safari history. We also got new swipes from different edges to invoke the notification and control centers. In 2015 the iPad got six new gestures. Some of them required you to have contortionist fingers.
By 2016 there were articles titled All the Hidden iOS Gestures and Shortcuts You May Have Forgotten, probably a clear sign that something was amiss. Pressure-sensitive screens brought a new dimension to this cluster: 3D touch, or the ability to press harder to call up a different type of interaction. And finally, iOS 11 brought things like five (FIVE) different types of tap, more iPad-only gestures for multitasking, and the iPhone X home button mess documented at the beginning of this article.
The UX Inferno
Now, to fully take advantage of an iPhone or an iPad, you have to know to cast spells like Dr. Strange. Here’s one: “Place four or five fingers spread out on the screen, and move your hand upward. Swipe up with four fingers to close multiple apps. Once you’ve opened the App Switcher (what Apple calls this screen you get after doing the above gesture), you can close apps that are running in the background by swiping up.” Then there’s “simply swipe up from the home bar at a 45-degree angle towards the right of the screen and then let go, and the app switcher should move straight into view almost immediately.” You may argue that the latter was unavoidable because they had to take out the home button. But remember that there is no home button–or TouchID–on the iPhone X because of Apple’s own inability to make it work with its edge-to-edge screen. This is a new problem that didn’t exist, and now has a bad solution.
The simplicity of Apple’s UX made its devices computers for the rest of us, which is why their popularity was so universal. Nobody needed cheat sheets to use them to their full potential. Then, little by little, a divide opened between two types of iOS device users–between regular users who use the iPhone in the simplest way possible and have no idea about most of the hidden gestures and the power users who know the secret ninja moves. Today, anyone who buys the iPhone X, whether regular or power user, will have to learn new arbitrary conventions–a convoluted navigation system that instead of solving problem adds a new layer of complexity to an already complex device, replacing the elegant, simple, intuitive solution that came built-in with the original iPhone.
With the iPhone X, Apple has completely left behind Steve Jobs’s original motto: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” Now it’s the ultimate mess with singing chickens.