Unmuting on The Mute Question

In the question “Should the ‘Silence’ switch mute everything, or just some things?” I do believe the iPhone community has found its “Should the end of the toilet paper hang in front of or behind the roll?” debate. We could go on forever and ever and we’d still go out for drinks afterward.

It seems like there’s only one universally-acceptable answer to “How should the ‘Ringer/Silence’ switch work?” question:

“The switch should behave flawlessly for the specific way that I want it to work.”

When others complain that Your Way totally fails for their personal use of the feature, the proper response is

“Yours is an edge case scenario.”

And when a solution is suggested, the response is

“That makes the feature way, way more complicated than it needs to be.”

(…in the sense that from the perspective of this user, the switch doesn’t need to be any more complicated than “Behaves exactly as I, personally, expect it to when I slide it to the ‘Silence’ position.”)

Mind you, I’m not saying “The people who agree with me are right, and everybody else is just a wrong stupid mister stupid-head wrongy-man.” I’m saying that I and the people who agree with me are no different from anybody else: we expect this switch to work the way that we, personally need it to.

For instance, one of the strongest arguments for the switch’s current operation is “I use my iPhone to wake me up in the morning. If the switch worked the way you want it to work, I’d be woken up by phone calls all during the night.”

To which my insensitive, knee-jerk response would be:

“I understand that Alarm Clock technology has matured to the point where an alarm clock that once would have been housed in the bell tower of a cathedral can now easily fit in a footprint no larger than that of a small bedside table.”

Plus, if someone tries to call me at 4 AM, it’s got to be a complete disaster of some kind and the very last thing I’d want my phone to do is allow me to miss the call. So why would you want to leave your phone on Mute while you sleep? “It’s an edge case!” the knee-jerk responder is therefore tempted to say. “Why must a basic feature be ruined just to address an issue that so few people need to deal with?”

These are all Perfectly Sensible arguments…but only from my personal perspective, which is worthless to anybody but me. For many other people, alarm-clockage is far more relevant to their lives than silencing a device in a public social situation.

“If you need your phone to be completely silent,” the Perfectly Sensible Argument goes, “Just switch it off. Or, take a moment to glance at the screen and see if there are any alarms pending before putting it back in your pocket.”

From that perspective, yes: perfectly sensible. But it’s worthless for users like me. My retort would be “Great: you’ve taken a clear, simple, two-position switch and turned it into a multi-step process. Also, I don’t want a dead phone in my pocket; I just want this device to be both useful and silent.”

Overall, the lesson is that silencing a phone is far too idiosyncratic a feature for any “one answer fits all” implementation. As I said in the blog post, no locked-in definition of “Mute” is going to work for everybody. Worse, any definition will fail for every user at some point, either in the form of a missed alarm or a humiliating disturbance of public silence.

Which is why the only solution is to allow the user to adjust those settings. The iPad has its own little sliding switch. The user can define its function as either “Mute” or “Lock screen rotation.” If the default function of the switch works fine for you, then this “added complexity” is invisible. If you wonder why on God’s green earth any rational human being would prefer an iPad that rotates willy-nilly as you recline on your sofa with a good ebook, you can fix it in about fifteen seconds. And then you never have to touch that Settings panel ever again.

There’s no good reason not to add that sort of customization to the iPhone’s Mute switch. The Mute switch will continue to screw up royally at least once for every user. But when that happens, his faith in Apple will cause them to think “I bet there’s a way to fix that.” After spending a second or five hunting through Settings, they’ll find it: a bank of toggle switches for the four or five different ways that an iPhone can make noise. On-Off-Off-On and presto: the Mute switch works exactly the way it should.

For you, it might be On-On-On-Off.

Possibly Off-Off-Off-On.

Or maybe Off-Off-Off-Off is more to your liking.

Why, I could go on forever. Actually, no, I could only go on for twelve more times but I think you already get the idea.

I still think the default for the Mute switch should be “No noise of any kind under any circumstances.” My argument comes down to this:

  • Ask an average person “Your phone has a switch which is described in the documentation as ‘Ringer/Silent’. You’ve set it to ‘Silent.’ Under what circumstances would you expect it to still make noise?” and the most common answer will be “None. None circumstances.” Not everyone will give that absolute response. But I suspect that there will be three or maybe four different answers, and only a single-digit percentage will correctly describe the current behavior of that switch.
  • In general, if it’s impossible to identify a canonically-correct default behavior then the default should be the one that’s easiest to understand. “Silence means complete silence” is easier to grok than “…except when it doesn’t. Here, let me explain the thinking behind this switch…” This general theory of UI wouldn’t apply if there were one obvious “right” default. There isn’t one here.
  • The “Ringer/Silence” switch is unique among iPhone UI. It’s a mechanical toggle switch. Toggle switches have only two positions: ON and OFF. Not “Mostly On” and “Sort of Off.” This is how the Humans have been taught to think about two-position switches and it’s far more natural for them to translate that same all-or-nothing nature to the feature itself.

But the right answer isn’t “This switch mutes everything.” The absolutely right answer is “If the user doesn’t like the default behavior, the user can go into Settings and tailor this feature to his or her personal needs.” The only canonically wrong answer is to lock the user into one mode.

A Settings panel wouldn’t change the operation of the Mute switch in any way. Slide the switch and the iPhone Mutes. The only difference would be that it’d work properly, as defined by the user’s individual preferences.

The only bits of this discussion that have left me completely confused are those from people who insist that such a Settings panel would overly-complicate the feature. A few people on Twitter actually categorized that as “An Android-like implementation,” and I’m 99.44% sure they didn’t mean it as a compliment for Google.

They could have. There’s only one thing I envy about Android: its underlying instinct to give the user more control of his or her device.

The upside of Apple’s approach is that the iPhone is coherent and consistent and it represents a considered point of view. Apple puts a monumental amount of thought into almost every human-surface detail of every device they make. They make great choices. But the downside is that institutionally, the thought “How can we give the user more freedom?” is lower on the list of priorities than it should be. Apple sometimes defaults to “No, if we let the user do that, it’ll just make things more complicated” even when that’s not the case.

I believe that a different company would have made this switch customizable long before iOS 5.0.

What did I tell you? Tech questions are dull and dispensable. It’s these philosophical questions that make for interesting discussions. Now, about that drink…

Oh, and for the record, when I went out to a comedy club last night…I turned my iPhone all the way off.

40 thoughts on “Unmuting on The Mute Question

  1. Clint MacDonald

    I love that this has turned into an Internet religious war, but that we can “still hang out for drinks afterward.” Well done, Andy! (Who is, for the record, correct in this debate and all dissenters are vile heathens.)

    Best wishes,

  2. Kirk McElhearn

    The problem with this whole situation is that it is way too complex for the Average User. He/she thinks that if the phone is set to silent, that means SILENT. (Note: I don’t have an iPhone, so I’m not entirely sure how this works…) Also, most users have no idea how to turn it off completely.

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  4. skip1515

    I couldn’t agree more, but I still maintain that a large, translucent icon should appear on the screen when the Mute button is actuated, regardless of what it does or does not silence. Having to *remember* to look at a tiny orange/no orange marking on the side is unnecessary and silly.

  5. Rich

    The hackiest, gross solution is this: Carry around a headphone jack – maybe you chopped it off of some broken earbuds. When you need on-but-always-silent, plug the jack into the phone. (Or are there noises/alarms/alerts that would *still* use the speaker?)

  6. Anthony

    Why do you use alarms if you don’t need it to work as an alarm? If you want to be reminded of something, then reminders app which works exactly like you expect.

  7. myroslava

    Re calls at 4 a.m. being about a complete disaster, there are kids playing pranks, and there are drunks who misdial. Moreover, drunks then just hit the green button two more times instead of actually trying to dial a correct number (or go into their address book). And they are less likely to comprehend that they’ve got the wrong number. I’ve had both happen to me at an unholy hour. Also, once a text message from my friend that she sent at 7pm got stuck in a queue or something and arrived at 1 am. The text message contained a joke. I was delighted.

    My end of the egg is that “mute” silenced everything except alarms, specifically for not oversleeping the next morning. A user who used an alarm to set a _reminder_ should not be offended that a gun he made from a plastic tube somehow exploded into his face. I feel for the poor old (60-70yrs) guy, but if one is uncomfortable with technology, one should not attempt to use it for tasks beyond the most basic ones (a phone is something that makes and takes calls).

    Re toggles and switches, oh, the good times when phones had such a thing as “user profiles” (they actually still do – the featurephone ones). I never understood why neither Android nor iPhone never got to implement them. I know there are apps for that for Android, but I’m not sure about the iPhone.

  8. James

    I agree with Andy but with one qualification.

    I would like to be able to set hours during which notifications are on or off – then I could leave my phone’s mute switch set to ‘unmute’ or ‘on’ at night, in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be notified of every email or tweet at 3am but I *would* hear the emergency phone call or my morning alarm.

    I know Boxcar lets you set hours during which notifications are turned off – say, 11pm-7am – but that would mean using Boxcar for all notifications. I’d rather the iPhone had something like this built in.

  9. Phil

    I came up with an analogy that works for me at least. I view the mute switch the same way as a firewall. By default it blocks all sounds. But I can poke holes in the “firewall” by setting alarms. The same way I can poke a hole to play sound in a video when the mute switch is enabled. Then as the same with a real firewall the phone shouldn’t be to blame if I poked a hole in it and something bad happens.

  10. Vandueren

    My 2¢:

    When you set an alarm, there’s a field that says: label.
    I’d expect the muted phone:
    To be absolutely silent
    Except when an alarm is labeled as an alarm, not as reminder, egg timer, what have you
    And except when I start a media player view myself.

  11. Tim Breen

    I think the reason Apple is confused, and has in turn confused the rest of us, is because the switch was literally designed to silence the RINGER—i.e., only for phone calls. I don’t think it was originally intended to serve as a volume control device. My preferred solution would be for the volume up/down buttons to be able to reduce the volume to zero for the whole device. But then, I’m just a heathen. ;-)

  12. Bill W.

    Travel quite a bit so the Alarm clock is definitely important. Hotel alarm clocks are dodgy at best with them all being different, AM/PM issues, and having to make sure the time is correct.

    Having said that, do believe a mute switch setting as you suggested is the answer. It worked for the iPad mute/screen lock switch, it would work here.

    While we’re working on solutions for Apple, here is one they can add to the settings for alarms while they’re in there tinkering. My old Nokia phones from ten years ago had a silent mode(software enabled) where you could enter a time which is when the phone would return to normal ringing mode. Going in to a 2pm meeting scheduled for an hour – set 3pm under silent and at 3:05 when you receive that important call the phone automagically rings. Boy I sure miss that.

  13. Jonathan Cost

    Perhaps Apple just needs to rename that switch to RINGER – instead of mute. I rely on my iPhone to play the alarm even when mute is enabled== with the caveat that I keep all alarms enabled to only hours I know I am at home.

  14. Jason T. Calhoun

    Is the sleep/wake button configurable to only black the screen while certain apps are running? Is the home button single tap configurable to only go to the home screen while the device is in portrait orientation?

    At present, the primary functions of the hardware interface components are immutable, and this isn’t a situation that warrants an exception.

    It’s true that there is no perfect solution for the issue at hand, but a much simpler option is a “Do Not Disturb” hour range in Notifications settings which would function as the silent switch does today for those apps configurable in that menu. (Note that Clock is not configurable in Notifications, but Phone, Messages, Mail, Calendar, etc. are.)

    The hardware switch could then be reduced to its obvious primary function: one position for all sounds on, and one position for all sounds off.

    Let the hardware switch absolutely govern the hardware speaker, and let software settings contextually govern the software-initiated sounds.

  15. Bill

    As someone said, the switch is called a “ringer”/silent switch, not an audible/silent switch, so your “what would a person expect” argument doesn’t hold. It’s “ringer” on, “ringer” silent which morphed into all unintended notifications on/off. Otherwise they would call it a “sounds” on/off but they don’t.

  16. Jonathan

    Yep – the orange thing is a “ringer silent” not “all apps silent”.

    The mute switch mutes calls and system alerts.
    Turning the alarm off mutes the alarm. If you don’t want the alarm to sound, turn it off.

    We’ll go for drinks after this is over so long as I get to tell you what to drink ;)

  17. Leon

    I just put duct tape over the bottom of my phone when I really, really don’t want to be bothered.

    Only problem is, occasionally during a meeting, my phone sounds like it’s been kidnapped.

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  19. Rick

    silent is silent.
    it cant be mostly silent, or half-pregnant.

    like, I’ve never understood if the volume control adjusts all volumes or even if there are different volumes for ring, voice, games, …

  20. David

    “My preferred solution would be for the volume up/down buttons to be able to reduce the volume to zero for the whole device. ”

    If, in Settings/Sounds, you don’t allow the volume buttons to control the Ringer volume, they’ll revert to controlling system volume even when there isn’t an audio application currently running. This is how I have my phone set now, since I rarely want to change my ringer volume (other than silencing it with the Ringer/Silence switch). The configuration makes it easy to reduce the volume of all other sounds (and those of apps that properly route their audio) by just holding down the volume down button for a couple of seconds.

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  23. Andrew

    I travel and get phone calls at night from my colleagues, so I mute the phone in order to prevent those waking me up. Nothing in the office is that urgent that it needs my attention at 2am.

    For real emergencies, my wife has the hotel phone number which she can even call for free from our home phone.

    That way, I can use the iPhone for music as I fall asleep and to wake me in the morning.

  24. Jonathan

    I forgot how much I enjoyed reading your blog… I’m wondering how much Apple will change in this regard (telling people what they need, versus listening) now Steve isn’t there.

  25. Adam

    The ONLY feature I miss from Blackberry days – user profiles – so I can allow ONLY key people to wake me up at night for emergencies – (boss, wife, dog). Everyone else gets the silent (ringer) treatment until my Alarm wakes me. Like someone mentioned, firewall “exceptions” would be really nice.

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  27. GadgetGav

    Who cares about this switch thing – everyone knows the only correct answer is that the toilet paper hangs off the front of the roll.

  28. Paul

    Although, as pointed out by Gruber on the latest The Talk Show, you might still want the “Find my iPhone” noise to be playable even if your phone is fully muted!

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  30. Peter

    Well, at least a toilet paper roll presents user options.

    Currently, the button is akin to a Kleenex box, where ply, sheet size, and softness are dosed by Apple.

    Heaven forbid we see an iBidet. Just think of the, ahem, storm that would swell…

    Fantastic prose as usual, Andy :)

  31. Joey

    I would like to see the silent position be Silent for everything. For Alarms, if the switch is set to “Silent” I would like to phone to vibrate for 1 or 2 cycles of the alarm. Then if not turned off by then give me a half volume cycle, then go to full volume. If I set an alarm to wake me up but have the phone on silent, I get woken up 1 min late which is not a big deal. If I forget I have an alarm set to go off during a movie, I get about 30 seconds to get to it before it is annoying to anyone else but me.

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  34. Dave Bittner

    Swinging back around to this, since I just got screwed by it this very morning.

    Sitting in a meeting of local business professionals, watching a presentation being given by a high school kid, vying for some scholarship money.

    I shift around in my seat and suddenly hear the Siri summoning tone. Coming from my pocket. Gah! I desperately grab the phone from my pocket, and yup, the mute switch is set to mute, but in the mean time Siri has heard part of the speech and has gone off the fetch me an answer. She dutifully responds, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”


    Half the room thinks it’s hilarious, half are mortified. The kid’s rhythm has been thrown off, and I feel like a heel.

    So yeah, give me a mute button that fricken turns off everything. Give the ability to opt-out apps if I choose, so I can set the Alarm Clock to override the mute switch, or set Siri to override the switch, but put it on me to live dangerously. Don’t make living dangerously the default setting.

    (If that kid doesn’t win the scholarship I’m going to end up writing him check, myself…)

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