06 June 2012

Amir Khella: Dead Wrong on Voice Memos for iPhone

Amir Khella, a User Experience consultant, and producer the excellent Keynotopia prototyping templates for iOS and other interfaces, produced an interesting post called Don't Violate Design Laws — Even If You're Apple. While he's an expert in UX and I'm not, I think he's dead wrong in this case.

He starts by saying ". . . when I started using the voice recording app that comes with the iPhone, I was frustrated by its horrible usability".

Really? Voice recorder has horrible usability? My own experience is that it's a simple and very well designed app that is extremely easy to use. I've also heard others specifically talking about how good and easy to use it is (e.g. Andy Ihnatko, on The Ihnatko Almanac...).

So what's Amir's complaint? He continues

"the application dedicates the largest screen real-estate to a giant microphone screenshot that does nothing, and places the functional buttons of the app in the two bottom corners, occupying less than 5% of the screen space."

Well, that's true, but I think Amir makes two or three serious errors here:

  1. He argues from a rather special and unusual situation (wanting to operate his phone while driving—illegal where I am, in the UK, and ill-advised anywhere) for a general change to the interface
  2. He implictly assumes that making a target "easier to reach" is an unalloyed good and the fundamental goal of user interaction, while ignoring the (in my view) serious negatives of this approach (primarily accidental engagement and loss of work)
  3. He argues for a design that would probably be very unexpected and surprising for people, and which arguably violates design norms, which would be likely to lead to loss of work.

I think to call the user experience horrible is manifest hyperbole: the interface has a prominent, unmistakable, easy-to-hit, highly recognisable button that does exactly what you expect, and just one other button to access a list of voice memos. The app makes it unmistakably clear when you are recording with a big red banner saying "Recording" (with the elapsed time) and the swapping of the record button to the universal pause button, and the memo list button to the universal stop button.

Admittedly, when paused the banner is still red, and it would perhaps be clearer if it changed to black or grey at this time, but I think it's pretty good.

Is the record button small and hard to hit? No; it's a fairly standard size for a touch target on the iPhone. It could certainly be twice the area without looking ridiculous, but few buttons on Apple apps are larger than that: there are full-screen-width buttons for some functions, but even critical things like "Answer call" vs. "Reject call" are only half-screen width.

Amir is talking about usability in the special and unusual situation where he doesn't want to look at the screen.

What would happen if Apple actually adopted Amir's suggestion?

First, I think people would find themselves starting and stopping recordings frequently when they didn't mean to. People touch their phones all the time—intentionally, absent-mindedly and accidentally. Having a situation where almost any touch on the interface activated or deactivated the recording would be a nightmare, especially if the whole screen didn't look like a huge button. I am very confident that would drive people nuts.

Secondly, on phones, the screen dims quickly to save battery life—a good thing. As a result, when you want to see information, people are used to touching the screen to undim it. (In fact, the screen will even turn off while recording.) In fact, when the screen is dimmed, touching the pause button does not pause the app; it first undims the screen and then requires a second tap to pause the recording. (I didn't know this; I had to try it to find out. But the point is, it's not confusing or problematical at all: you get very clear visual feedback and press it again. And I bet lots of people try not to press an active area when undimming the screen.)

All this might work the same way if the whole screen (or most of it) were active, but the point is that you'd still have to look in order to see what state the app is in.

Finally, I would even dispute Amir's contention that the main area of the screen "does nothing". Sure, it's not an active area, but the whole design of the app screams at you "I am a recording app. This is a microphone. I have a big red record button and a VU meter to show you what I can hear." Yes, it's a bit skeuomorphic, but more defensibly so than the faux-leather in the calendar app.

In fact, the only real usability problem I would cite with the app is knowing how to finalize/stop recording if (as I suspect is common) people don't notice the stop button and hit pause instead. But then again, there are only two buttons, so given that the one on the left is obviously record, I think most people are going to figure out that hitting the other one will probably do the job (as it does).

Maybe Amir just wrote it as link bait (in which case, I was caught). But I think he protests too much.

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