Apple and the Non-Hover Non-Problem

by JBB on July 9, 2010, no comments

Every time I decide to pen a rant about some user experience issue or other, I feel a bit guilty. Guilty because I know it’s hard to be positive, easy to be cynical, and makes me look nasty. But I’m going to justify this one on the grounds that if countless hoards of designers are bleating about how good something is even if it’s objectively full of holes, I have a duty to counter-balance the situation by pointing out this fact.

Apple’s dominance in the field of product design and user experience is worrying. It’s worrying because they are the only ones seemingly willing or able to make design their business strategy (even if that’s not actually the case, as I shall explain later). The Apple monopoly means that people are becoming blind to any alternatives to the Apple way. Even more worrying is that the design community, for the most part, appears revoltingly willing to accept anything Apple does as being the work of untouchable genius. This community, if it is to survive as a force for good, needs to preserve a core of scepticism, self-examination and doubt. That core seems now to be dangerously weak in the face of relentlessly and quite transparent manipulation by Apple and the design of its products.

Take this example I read today. Here, somebody called Trent Walton appears to be saying that we now need to design everything for the touch screen and multi-touch interfaces. Ergo, we must all start to get used to the lack of an indicated state (what the article calls “on hover”, presumably because the web is the only thing the author knows about). He then starts wondering how to re-create an indicated state, which he correctly identifies as being rather useful.

The trouble is that multi-touch interfaces do not represent some new immutable law of interaction. Just because Apple’s cornered the market with a product doesn’t mean they have cornered it with the best product possible, or even a particularly good design. They’ve just made it look that way.

Consider that pretty much the first thing anyone who thinks about these things notices when they use a touch screen is the lack of an indicated state. This problem is responsible for most fat-finger episodes, mode errors and general user frustration. It’s the largest single problem that touch interfaces have, along with that of occlusion, and possibly gorilla arm.

As a designer, the next thought you should have is “How can I design a touch-screen device that solves the problem of a lack of an indicated state?” not “How can I make the rest of the interactive universe comply to this device’s unnecessary shortcomings?” I’m pretty tolerant of Apple fanboys in general, but there are limits!

The obvious solution to the lack of an indicated state on the iPhone and iPad is to introduce an indicator in the form of a scroll wheel. This would solve both the “on hover” problem and the occlusion problem. But Apple’s obsession with “simplicity” in this regard instead breeds complexity for the people who use their products. And here we are writing idiotic articles about how to bend over backwards to enter a world of poor usability.


I mentioned that it’s not actually the case that Apple have design as their business strategy. In fact, their strategy is more prosaic: to maximise profits by locking consumers into “platforms” which can then become sources of secondary revenue. To this end, they ply the cant of “just works”, “simplicity” and “beauty” in their products. This gives them a way of by-passing criticism about lock-in. Don’t like the way you can’t customise the theme on your iPad? Pah! Think different! Get with the programme! But why is it so hard to create your own ringtone for your iPhone? Apple want you to buy it from iTunes, that’s why. It’s also why you don’t have a real choice of software in the AppStore: not because that might lead to an inconsistent user experience (And whose to say it might not lead to a better one? Firefox Mobile looks damn good to me, but it won’t be allowed to compete with Safari), but because they need to keep out any competition and preserve a brand built on a certain user experience. Consumers are falling for this line, and so the cycle continues.

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