Daring Fireball: On the Behavior of the iPhone Mute Switch

This is probably my favorite kind of discussion of a tech product or feature: the philosophical kind. Why isn’t there an LTE version of the iPhone? Answer: because with the currently available chipsets, the added speed of 4G isn’t worth the tradeoff in battery life.

Boring. Next?

Why does the iPhone’s “Mute” switch silence some alerts but not all of them? Is that wrong?

Well, gee, I don’t know. I suppose it depends on what you believe the natural mindset of the user is. And, how a device can best support its user. Should it do what the user asks, or what the user would ask it to do, if he or she knew such a thing were possible? Because…

Ahhhhh. That’s much better! Wait here in the living room…I’ll be back with a bottle of claret and a few glasses. In the meantime, switch off the Xbox so we won’t have any distractions during what I’m certain is going to be an awesome discussion. Wait, I’ll even silence my iPhone so that we won’t get interrupted…

Oh, right.

So that’s why I’m moved to post my own thoughts about this Daring Fireball piece. I think Brother Gruber is wrong when he says that Brother Jim is wrong. John’s point is that the iPhone handles the Mute switch in a friendly and sophisticated way. The iPhone doesn’t treat it like a modal function (speaker is on, speaker is off). The iPhone does a contextual mute. It’ll mute any alert that you didn’t specifically tell it to make. You weren’t expecting a phone call to come in at 8:31 PM. It mutes the ringer. You told it to sound an alarm at 7 AM the next morning. The iPhone wakes you up as scheduled.

That’s a reflection of a valid specific philosophy. I just think it’s wrong in this specific feature. The key question to ask is “When the user slides the switch to ‘Mute’, what does he or she think is going to happen?” They’re most likely to think that their iPhone will be completely silent until they flip that switch back.

I also try to think about how the user will react when things go wrong.

Case “A”: he Mutes his phone before a movie. He forgets to reset it afterward. His morning wakeup alarm vibrates instead of making air horn noises, so he oversleeps. He’s late for work, and misses an important meeting.

Case “B”: he Unmutes his phone after the movie and gets to the meeting on time. His boss tells the 20 people present that she needs everyone’s full attention and she asks everybody to mute their phones and please close their laptops. Our man duly flips the switch. At 10:30 AM, just as his boss’ boss is about to make an important point, his iPhone starts quacking to remind him about an eBay auction that ends in 15 minutes. He had totally forgotten that alarm…he set it almost a week ago.

In both scenarios, his iPhone has royally tripped him up. In both scenarios, he’s going to walk back to his office — hopefully not carrying an empty cardboard box and accompanied by someone from HR — and he’s going to immediately have a frank discussion with his iPhone.

“What the hell, man?” he says, as soon as the door’s closed. “I thought you were supposed to be on my side!” he says.

In Case “A”, the iPhone replies “Dude. You told me to be quiet and to stay quiet. If you wanted me to stop being quiet, you had every means and opportunity to do so. You just had to slide the exact same damned switch! You wouldn’t even have had to wake me from sleep! The switch is even marked in orange!!! Nothing else on any Apple product is marked in orange!!! So, gee, Einstein…you think maybe the day-glow orange was warning you that you’d enabled a mode that could have had unexpected, but easily-predictable consequences?”

In case “B”, the iPhone says “Oh. I thought you meant ‘Just be mute in some situations but not others’. No, I didn’t bother telling you what situations those would be. I do that sometimes. I’m a very people-oriented bit of engineering. I were a dumb device, I’d just observe the state of the switch and do exactly as I was told and never use my own discretion at all. Oh, and: not that you bothered to thank me for waking you up on time this morning despite the fact that you’d left me on ‘Mute’, but you’re welcome.

(Of course the iPhone wouldn’t actually say these things. The user would be so angry that the phone would still be on “Mute.” But the iPhone would definitely be thinking them.)

My philosophy is “It’s much better to be upset with yourself for having done something stupid than to be upset with a device that made the wrong decision on its own initiative.” Every time I screw up and take responsibility for my own stupidity, it’s another Pavlovian stimulus that encourages smarter future behavior. If I forgot to unmute my phone after a movie, I’m a dumbass. But if my iPhone makes noise during the movie despite the fact that I’d deliberately chosen to silence it, I can only conclude that the dumbasses in this equation reside about 3,000 miles west of here.

I can’t give Apple a free pass on this. I was just as upset with an Android phone I once tested. I was getting a demo photo inside Bates Hall, the gorgeous, cathedral-like reading room at the Boston Public Library. I put the phone on “Mute”, I walked quietly to my desired position in the middle of the room, I tapped the shutter button…and then a maximum-volume CLICKKKK!!!!! resounded and reverberated through the cavern walls.

I felt like a total hayseed. “Stupid piece of crap,” I muttered, as I tried my best to adopt an apologetic facial expression and slinked away. Yes: this phone, at that moment, was a stupid piece of crap and I felt, correctly, that none of the responsibility for this screwup was mine.

Great technology locates a sweet spot between anticipating your intentions and only doing exactly what you tell it to do. Apple’s very good at this but like any company, they succeed and they fail. Apple’s most notable successes and failures usually spring from the same basic company mindset: “We know what the customer wants better than the customer does. After all, the customer doesn’t spend every working hour of the day thinking about how to make a great phone.”

The Mute behavior of the iPhone is just wrong; it’s an important function and its behavior isn’t transparent. The correct answer is so clear to me. Whether the switch silences everything or just some things, the behavior is going to trip people up sometimes. It’s unavoidable. Apple can only choose how users get tripped up. The right answer to most feature design problems the one that puts more control in the hands of the user. If screwups are inevitable, then the iPhone should choose to screw up in a way where the user feels like he understands what went wrong, takes responsibility for that mistake, and knows how to avoid repeating it. I shouldn’t be forced to consult a little laminated wallet card every time I slide a two-state “Mute” switch, to remind myself of all of the iPhone’s independent exceptions to the concept of “silence.” I can’t review all pending alerts and notifications to anticipate future problems.

No. I should slide the switch to “Mute,” and then the phone goes SILENT. If I miss an appointment because I did that, it’s completely on me. If my phone disrupts a performance despite the fact that I took clear and deliberate action to prevent that from happening…that’s the result of sloppy design. Or arrogant design, which is harder to forgive.

“Why not switch the phone off when you need complete silence?” comes the counter-argument. That’ll certainly work. But if you’re claiming that the Mute switch’s current behavior is correct, shouldn’t you argue that the iPhone should refuse to shut down if there are alarms and reminders scheduled?

You see where this line of thought leads? Straight to that scene in “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide” where a hundred passengers on a commercial spaceflight are kept in suspended animation for centuries. The computer that operates the flight is awaiting a shipment of moist towelettes for the courtesy and comfort of the passengers. It’s the ultimate example of a computer preferring to do what it thinks its users want, instead of just doing what the user asked it to do.

No, I’m fine with Mute meaning M-U-T-E. Particularly if the phone defaults to “vibrate” when muted. But the right answer seems clear. The iPhone must never let a user down the way it let down that man at the philharmonic.

During those endless moments when the conductor and members of a 40 piece orchestra and the 600 people in the audience were fixing him with icy glares of utter hatred, and he frantically clicked and re-clicked the “Mute” switch on his quacking iPhone to no effect, and he was desperately trying to convey that goddamnit, he put this thing on Mute before he even sat down…yes, the iPhone was a stupid piece of crap.

I almost never say that about my iPhone or iPad. This problem is so easy to fix. Even something as simple as a Settings option (“Mute switch silences all alerts”) would do the trick. You don’t have to ask me what the default setting should be.