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Machine Learning : Article

Does the iPhone Over-Use Numeric Status Indicators?

To everyone developing iPhone applications...design for the users!

I am a fan of my iPhone. I am still using my "old" first generation iPhone and am thrilled that I am now able to run custom applications on the device without having to Jailbreak it first. This is good stuff. I did notice something today that concerns me though. It's about the use of and best practices around the numeric indicators that are attached to my iPhone icons.

Like many of you, I am pretty busy. I get hundreds of emails a day, my calendar is constantly being updated by our Roundarch exchange server, and because I spend half my day in meetings, I tend to miss calls and have voicemails backing up on me. There is no doubt that the iPhone has helped keep me on track and made me more organized, and I appreciate being able to glance at my phone and get a real-time picture of all of the things I need to respond to (missed calls, calendar appointments, emails). I see these as primary functions of my iPhone, and critical bits of information that I need to be paying attention to.

I am no stranger to the Mac Operating System, and love the fact that Apple carried over these indicators from my laptop's icon-bar to my phone. It provides me with a consistent experience and provides a quick view of all of the critical things that I need to take care of.

Enter Facebook

So, I installed the facebook application on my phone, along with a handful of other free and pay-for downloads from the Apple App Store. As I had mentioned, this is fantastic stuff, and I am thrilled that I can now run applications on my phone that add value to my life outside of
the "important" things such as my calendar, emails and phone calls/voicemail.

Facebook, however, took an approach that I haven't yet seen any of the other App Store software downloads take... They've incorporated Apple's Icon-based "alerts" into their own Facebook application icon.

If I was a heavy facebooker, I'd probably appreciate this. If I cared so much about my virtual friendships that I really needed to know when one of my friends sent me a request to eat zombies, plant a virtual flower or figure out how much more "like" others I am, then I'd really be into knowing the moment that a new request was sent to my Facebook account.

The problem is... I don't really care that much.

I don't question the value of having these numeric indicators on my screen. I do, however, question the necessity of having them displayed, with no way of being able to disable them... simply telling the Facebook application that "I don't really care that much about you, so STOP stressing me out!".

Logically, you'd think that Facebook's application design team would have thought to put a preference in the application that allowed me to turn these numeric notifications on or off.

The Bigger Problem

I guess that when it comes down to it, the Facebook application forcing me to view how many things I have to attend to doesn't bother me "that much". I like the overall Facebook experience and do find value in sharing things with people I am friends with.

The real usability / design problem will surface when more and more application developers decide to utilize this icon-based numeric indicator for things that they assume are important to me (and you!), without giving us the ability to set a preference that gives me the option to display or not display them.

Many of the people I've talked to about their iPhone experiences so far have commented on how nice the iPhone experience is overall. How it feels "soft", and "responsive" and that the iPhone splits their most important activities (calling, calendar, email, text) from other functionality.

Should this over-use of the numeric status indicators continue, we run the risk of creating a digital stress machine that doubles as a phone. From a user's point of view, the use of the device becomes less of a positive thing, and more of a reminder of all of the things that need to be done.

It could potentially take a departure from being a great gadget & lifestyle accessory that allows users to be proactive in these upwardly mobile times, and move to more of a digital stress creator that does nothing but remind you that you are behind on most of the things in your life... even if those things are for the most part trivial and not important to you.

How about a Plea?

To everyone developing iPhone applications... design for the users! Give us an option to decide how important your product or service is to us, and don't force us to pay attention to you all of the time! I am not asking that you stop using numeric indicators that remind me of all the things I need to do, however give me the choice to pay attention or not to pay attention to you.

If my funwall is overflowing with kindness from the cosmos of interlinked online friends, it is probably "ok" and not something I need to react to right away.

The use of these types of visual cues and UI messages should be to call out what the user considers to be "critical" bits of information.

At all costs, let's work to keep our iPhones free and clear of multitudes of little red circles that point out just exactly how far users are falling behind in their non-essential online chit-chat and whatnot.

More Stories By Dave Meeker

Dave Meeker is Director of User Experience Strategy at Roundarch. He is responsible for the strategic direction behind client engagements and manages aspects of relationships with both Adobe and Microsoft. He has been leading digital design and development projects for 14 years, and previously served as Managing Partner of EffectiveUI and Director of Custom Applications at Whittmanhart, Inc.

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