So this is something I had to deal with a couple of months ago at work, but in the wake of Steve Jobs’ passing and in the midst of everyone committing their bits of insight and reflection to the ether, I thought I’d throw this out there.
For those who don’t know, I write online banking software for credit unions. One of our clients called in saying that a member’s mobile banking transfers were posting twice. It turns out that, while it was partly something I needed to fix (to accommodate for the behavior I’m about to describe), the root of the problem stemmed from the device the member was using at the time. It also reminded me to never underestimate the user’s ability to do something monumentally stupid in the face of all warnings, but that’s neither here nor there.
This person was using Android. Now, Android has 4 hardware buttons, one of which is Home, and another of which is Back. I’ve complained in the past on my old blog that the Back button is needlessly confusing because of how it works in both Android and Windows Phone 7, but I’ll reiterate why with a helping of anecdotal evidence to back me up.
The problem is, the Back button does too many things. In the browser, it navigates to the previous page. In hierarchical apps, it moves you “up” to the next-highest point in your drill-down (message to message list, message list to folder view). In certain circumstances, Back will take you between apps (like going from Gmail to Browser to read a link, then going back to Gmail). If you’ve just launched an application, Back will take you to the home screen. And right there is the source of the issue.
The reason these transfers were posting twice is because the user had no idea how to close their browser, except by pressing the Back button until the app went away and they were dumped to the home screen, presumably because that’s how they got out of the browser the first time they used it and it “worked”. This process naturally included pressing Back to navigate across the transfer operation pages, and explicitly tapping “OK” on the “you must reload this page and re-send post data” dialogs, which is where those duplicate transfers were coming from. Why didn’t the person just press the Home button to “quit” the browser? They seriously had no idea they could do that. They even described what they were doing as “backing out of the browser”, as though every application had to be undone before it could be closed, like navigating branches of a tree from a central trunk.
If I had to venture a guess as to why, I’d say this person’s Android device had the Back button in the left-most spot, and they never bothered to learn what the other buttons did, because Back seemed to do whatever they needed, even if it was inconvenient or time-consuming. People are sort of afraid of buttons on technology. Pressing the wrong one could have serious, unexpected consequences! So I don’t exactly blame this person for not knowing how their phone works; it’s more complex than it needs to be, and complexity tends to breed fear and/or ignorance.
Now, compare this to iOS, where there is exactly one button on the device for dealing with applications: the Home button. All application-specific behaviors are handled by the application’s UI. If you want to go back to a place within the app where you were earlier, you press the application’s Back (or “up”, or “left”) button. The placement and appearance of this button can change between apps, which is somewhat visually inconsistent, but conceptually it’s very consistent. It reduces complexity and UI friction in a slightly more intangible way. iOS’s Home button behaves consistently and intuitively. You press it, and the app goes away. There’s nothing else on the device that you can use to perform a similar task, or which could in certain contexts do something similar.
People chide iOS for being little more than an application launcher, but just like chiding the iPad for being a big iPod Touch, I fail to see the tremendous negative impact of that association. Most of the things people want to do is done through apps anyway. While iOS is perhaps the walled gardeniest of the walled gardens in terms of app-to-app interaction, the fundamental approach of Android, Windows Phone 7, and even BlackBerry is essentially the same: open an application, do something with it, close it, move on to the next application. WP7 has some special “hub” applications that aggregate data from multiple apps or data sources, and Android has widgets that obviate some of the need to launch apps to get at their data, but ultimately it’s all apps. What sets iOS apart from the others is the simplicity with which you can interact with them. There is no multi-purpose Back button built into the device that leads people to assume incorrectly that they need to use it to “quit” their applications. No contextual (or sometimes useless) Menu button. No occasionally-contextual or perhaps duplicative Search button. All menu triggers and navigation controls are contained within the frame of the application, where they belong.
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