How am I supposed to know I can tilt the iPhone?!

A good friend of mine told me that he was showing off his new iPhone to his dad over the weekend. Obviously, his dad loved it; but when he showed him how you can tilt the phone over and get the cover art for albums his dad said:

“How do I know to do that?”

It’s a good question, and it follows on quite neatly from my last post. It’s quite possible that someone could never find that feature. I knew about it because I -

  • Watched the keynote when the iPhone was announced (no it’s not sad!)
  • Have read about it in the news
  • Have seen the adverts
  • Have spent hours drooling over it on the Apple web site before deciding I needed one!

Most people will not have done any of those – so how are they supposed to know? Once you have discovered it, it’s the most natural way of doing this; but nowhere on the device itself does it tell you that this can be done! Nor is it a particularly intuitive feature – in the web browser it makes sense to rotate the device to get a better view of the information, but it’s not as instinctive to rotate a list of artist or song names.

Discovery vs. Direction

When designing new products we should strive to make things as usable as possible. However, this becomes harder as products become increasingly complex with more and more features. The iPhone has this doubly bad because it’s a new paradigm for interaction – you can’t assume that users will have any knowledge of how things are supposed to work through using similar devices. They need to be told about it somehow.

Apple do a great series of video tutorials, but the old computer in the corner with the videos on just isn’t as exciting as the new shiny toy in their hands! Other products come with a thick multi-language manual. If the videos on the computer in the corner are ignored the manual doesn’t stand a chance!

People are curious and like to experiment, they won’t put down their new toy to go read a manual. There is a certain joy in discovering new features which should never be removed, so we must hold a new user’s hand and encourage their experimentation. We need to just make sure we are there to help them when they get lost.

Now, I imagine that it is a rare case that someone would invest in an iPhone without being aware of its features (there are cheaper phones and contracts out there!) but making assumptions of knowledge on a brand new idea is never good. I would have added the following:

  • When you turn on the iPhone for the 1st time, it should play a very short video introducing the key modes of interaction; pinch, touch, device rotation etc. and then encourage the user to try them out with each of the applications. It just sets the scene.
  • Have the video tutorials pre-installed on the device within the iPod (so they can be easily removed using iTunes to reclaim the disk space). These could be referenced in the 1st boot video.
  • Include help pages! I’m not sure if Apple see it as a failure if people need help with their products, but there really should be a consistent and obvious way to show help on a per application basis. It doesn’t even need to be detailed – just explain the basics and give pointers for more detailed information!

Having said that, there’s no doubting, of all the phones I have ever owned, the iPhone is certainly the one with the least need for instructions! But that isn’t a reason to not help out when someone gets lost!

NB. This post is my entry to the killer titles contest fun over at ProBlogger!

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  1. Richard
    Posted August 27, 2008 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    When I got my new camera (about 2 years ago now so it isn’t new anymore) I didn’t know I could “tilt” it. I found out because in a hand-held device it’s quite natural that it’s going to end up in all kinds of orientations. That’s the environment of a camera or a hand-held device isn’t it? Once I knew it could do it for that one case then in any other case where such a feature might be useful I guess I’d try it to see if it worked there as well.

  2. Ashley Towers
    Posted August 27, 2008 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Yes that’s true, but the camera doesn’t change its behaviour when you tilt it – it just does the same thing. Also, the camera has been around for 100s of years so you’ve grown up with them and know what to expect.

  3. Posted August 27, 2008 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Another point you might find interesting: I used to know someone who wouldn’t play a new computer game until he’d read the manual that came with it cover to cover. Maybe he’s the exception rather than the rule but I think that people who aren’t savvy need a manual. I mean you’re not a carpenter so you wouldn’t put up your IKEA furniture without a manual would you? But as a mac-user and enthusiast you’re already savvied up on the iphone and don’t need one.

  4. Ashley Towers
    Posted August 27, 2008 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

    Maybe its just the people I know – they rarely read the manuals – they just get as far as they can before getting stuck and resorting to it. I’m not saying that manuals are a bad thing – they just aren’t as exciting as the new toy…. help is better when its integrated rather than a separate entity…

  5. Posted August 27, 2008 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I suppose, as a manufacturer, the moment you start expecting your customers to look in a manual (or even a video presentation) to understand your product is the moment your company is going to start making a loss. The product should really speak for itself. Let the media and the fanboys write the how-to’s and the manuals…

  6. Ashley Towers
    Posted August 27, 2008 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    I guess some things are always going to be complicated, but that’s no excuse for not helping you learn. I don’t think I’d ever read a game manual – I want an in game tutorial to teach me how to play – having to read the instructions would just feel like work – it’s supposed to be fun!

  7. Nick
    Posted August 27, 2008 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Just seen the TV advert for the new iphone and even that doesn’t show it tilt. If i hadn’t had the comprehensive guide given I’d be stuck for half the cool things it does unless i read the manual.

  8. Posted August 28, 2008 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Came over here from ProBlogger. I love your suggestion about the iPhone having a tutorial video. Promptly after I bought my iPhone, I bought David Pogue’s Missing Manual on the iPhone. Haven’t even cracked a page, yet (<–the yet indicates that there’s hope). As you said, I would much rather *play* with my toy than read a book about.

  9. Posted August 28, 2008 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    I agree that it’s too easy to assume users will know about cool features. An intro video (in context!) seems like a good idea for all kinds of applications. Why make the user guess when you can easily give them the info they need?

    Even though I have nothing to do with hardware, I’m pretty sure this concept applies to just about everything I work with (blog development, web-based applications, even music performance) if I just give it little thought. Definitely something to ponder.

  10. Ashley Towers
    Posted August 28, 2008 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    Hi thanks for the comments everyone!

    @Faiqa and Nick – It’s funny, the videos on Apple’s web site are really good tutorials – if they were on the device you’d have all the information you need without putting it down. It makes sense to make sure your existing users know about all the best features so they can show them off to their friends!

    @Sarah – I think it’s easy to fall into the trap when living a project every day to just assume that everyone knows what you know! Giving a little mini tutorial of the most exciting features seems a really simple fix – I guess it’s just like a “post sale advert”!

  11. Posted August 29, 2008 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Great entry for the problogger contest and a good suggestion for Apple re: the iPhone. Take care and check out my submission if you get a chance!

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  2. [...] How am I supposed to know I can tilt the iPhone?! – A usability post looking at the iPhones tilt function, something which is completely unnatural to those who do not know about it. [...]

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