Why the iPhone User Interface is clunky and why I don’t care

! Warning: this post hasn't been updated in over three years and so may contain out of date information.

From http://www.yourdictionary.com/clunky

clunky (kluŋk′ē)

adjective clunkier clunk′·i·er, clunkiest clunk′·i·est

  1. clumsy or awkward
  2. not stylish or attractive
  3. making a clunking sound

First of all, let me make clear that I have an iPhone and I love it. Secondly, I feel it is stylish and attractive and have never heard it make a clunking sound. By “clunky” I mean it is “clumsy or awkward”.

So having made that point, let me move on to address why I claim the iPhone’s user interface is clunky.

Exhibit #1: The home screen
The home screen of the iPhone consists of 16 app icons in the top part of the screen and four on a bar at the bottom. Aside from being able to move the apps around and on to other screens, this arrangement is set in concrete. Want widgets that show emails, RSS feeds, facebook notifications, weather etc? Or even some sort of search? Tough, you can’t have them. Because widgets are banned, the only way to notify users of new information is by red numbered circles appearing over the application icons. One must then start up the application to find out more.

OK so perhaps the above is a weak argument of a clumsy and awkward interface. As for search, we’ll come to that in a moment. So consider the use of your phone when you have lots of apps. As the number grows, so they flow onto more screens. There can be nine in total. To get to them, one swipes left and right. Now with nine screens, with the home screen in position 5, I would only need swipe four times left or four times right to get to all screens. Instead, the home screen is in position 1, so I need to swipe left eight times to get to the furthest screen from the home one. Now that is clunky and I defy anyone to argue the opposite.

Because app screens are accessed by swiping left, Apple hit upon shoehorning a search screen into effectively position 0. All that is offered on this screen is search. And you can’t get rid of it or control its placement in the screen stack. Again, no widgets and no flexibility. Again this is a clear bit of clunkiness and an opportunity lost.

Exhibit #2: Multitasking, or the lack thereof
The iPhone doesn’t multitask. Apart from when it does of course. The mail, voice recorder and iPod apps are allowed to multitask for example. So if I’m at the gym, listening to music via the iPod app, I can fire up GymBuddy and the music keeps playing. Try the same trick with Spotify or RadioBox or any other music app, and the music stops dead.

The lack of multitasking has other effects too. Recently I was adding a contact when the phone rang. Answering the phone quit the contacts app and so my half entered details were lost.

Start Google Maps and hit the “current location” button when location services are turned off and a helpful pop up appears telling you you need to turn on location services. Of course as there is no multitasking, Google Maps gets shut down when you go to settings. So after turning on location services, one must quit settings and restart Google Maps.

This same need to quit the app to go to settings also occurs if you need to change the brightness. There is a mysterious “Auto-Brightness”, but its operation isn’t even close to “clumsy or awkward”. It just plain doesn’t work properly.

And finally on the subject of how clunky the iPhone is due to the lack of multitasking, we tread close to the Flash debate with video. Because the iPhone doesn’t support Flash, sites like YouTube cannot stream video to the device via Flash. Instead, there is a YouTube app. Clicking on the video in Safari shuts Safari down and launches the YouTube app. Want to go back to the page you were on in the browser? Shut down the YouTube app, restart Safari and wait whilst it reloads the page for you. C L U N K Y!

Exhibit #3: Lack of consistency
I could talk of the stupid placement of the end call button on the phone that hangs you up if you knock the phone against your jaw, or the lack of ability to tell the wifi popup to ignore a connection so it doesn’t plague you every time. Or even the need for some 40+ finger gestures to switch from power saving to full-feature mode. However I shall gloss over these and instead focus on the near heresy of suggesting there are inconsistencies in Apple’s user interface between apps.

There are of course the obvious – Microsoft-style – ones of only allowing third parties access to some of its APIs, keeping the rest internal. Then there is the inability to remove builtin apps from the app screens, whereas installed ones can be removed. The inconsistency that really bugs me though is with the Calendar. Were it to comply with the behaviour of the majority of the UI, one would swipe left and right to change months. Instead, fiddly little arrows must be pressed to change month.

But who care’s?
I said in the title that I felt the iPhone’s user interface was clunky (and hopefully have shown why). I also said I didn’t care, and really I don’t. For me, the iPhone isn’t about its interface. It is all about those magic words “there’s an app for that”. The amazing collection of  applications available for the iPhone, together with some seriously nice hardware and an interface that – for all its clunkiness – can be used without a stylus, make the iPhone brilliant. So I’ll live with the clunky interface and will contine to love my iPhone.

Remind me again: what was the point?
If you have read this far and are wondering just what the point of this post was, it is of course related to the iPad. But that will have to wait for another day…

3 thoughts on “Why the iPhone User Interface is clunky and why I don’t care

  1. There is indeed a lot that can be improved on! I think a lot is related to the speed at which it’s grown. I dont think the spring board was designed for more than a few screens of apps. Initially there were no third party apps remember!

    I was really hoping for OS4 with app categories or app screens on and up and down swipe! Also for them to make more use of the unlock screen with calendar notes and inbox summary etc. Fingers crossed there not crusing, but then again there is little that comes close, and everyone needs strong competition!

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