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.