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.

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.