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AskTog, July 2007

The iPhone User Experience: A First Touch

On June 29, 2007, the long-awaited iPhone was released. Was it worth the wait? Is it all it's cracked up to be?


There is no mistaking that this is a first-release phone, both in the hardware and software. However, it is an Apple first release, equivalent in many respects to the fifth or sixth release quality we have come to expect from other major computer technology players.

The "fit and finish" of the device are extraordinary, both in terms of industrial design and human-computer interaction.

Who’s talking?

Bruce Tognazzini was hired at Apple by Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin in 1978, where he remained for 14 years, founding the Apple Human Interface Group.  He has been a harsh critic of many of Apple’s later innovations, including the notorious round mouse (“farcical”) and the Macintosh Dock (see: Top 10 Reasons the Apple Dock Sucks).  He is almost as stingy with his compliments as his partner, Don Norman. That makes his continuing take on the iPhone, largely positive, most unusual.

The Hardware

The press has made much of the slow networking of this initial iPhone, something that will undoubtably be corrected in upcoming versions.

The initial iPhone makes use of the old AT&T 2G (Edge) network, rather than the new 3G network. That reduces the web browsing user-experience to something more akin to a dial-up modem, rather than the DSL-like experience of the 3G network.

The rest of the hardware seems solid, though the touch system could be improved with a couple of small additions. More on that later.

The Software

The fundamentals of the system have been well thought-out and deftly implemented. User-operations are smooth and pleasant, reflecting Apple's traditional attention to detail, again something unusual in the computer industry.

The applications themselves, however, are lacking in expected features. Rotation is a big selling point of the iPhone: If you are looking at pictures in portrait mode and an image in landscape mode comes up, just rotate the phone 90° and the picture redisplays in landscape mode.

This handy feature, however, does not extend to as many places as you might expect. For example, when I realized I was getting a 50% error rate when "typing," I tried rotating the phone to get bigger keys. Instead, I was just staring at the same keys sideways—they hadn't moved.

Reader Monty Solomon informed me that, if you close the keyboard, rotate the phone, then open the keyboard again, it will show up in the new orientation. Since the phone had already taught me that rotation occurs automatically, I had not tried this on my own and might never have discovered it except by accident somewhere long down the road.

Symptomatic of first-release limitations, the calculator blows away your entire current calculation when you press "C," instead of doing what calculators have done for the last 20 years or so which is to eliminate the current entry with one press, performing a Clear ALL only upon a second press.

As I mentioned in my earlier review (since updated), the initial design is lacking in tight integration, forcing the user to search three different places to cover all messages received, instead of having a common in-box independent of whether contact was made by phone, by messaging, or by email.

These limitations make the iPhone feel just a little bit primative, for all its otherwise fine polish. However, let me stress again that, for the first release of a revolutionary product, the iPhone is a triumph. There are only so many hours in the week, even for Apple employees who are "working 90 hours a week and loving it!" and Apple has put its resources into ensuring the fundamentals are smooth as silk. They have created the perfect base upon which to build.

The Touch Interface: Room for Improvement

Many aspects of the touch interface, including the "pinch" gesture for growing and shrinking images and webpages, etc., work quite well, at last ushering in the era of the gesture. I hit problems, however, when I attempted to type.

Apple, on their website, have a video of someone rapidly typing on the iPhone, with a speed approaching that of a touch typist. I found myself achieving the speed of a salmon with arthritis. Trying to get my big old fin to cover just the right button proved impossible.

Apple suggests a one-week learning curve to get up to speed, and that may hold true. However, the most important time in the product's life, from the point of view of Apple, is the ten or 15 minutes a potential customer spends in the store playing with the product.

If users, as I did, arrive at the conclusion that they may not be able to ever get up to speed, those customers will never buy the product.

Newton was Apple's last venture into an advanced-input portable device, and things did not go well. In the long run, the excessive price of the device was probably its downfall, but it didn't help that people, particularly members of the press, stumbled badly when trying to do text entry. The press had a field day as the Newton struggled valiently to understand them, converting their attempts at syntactically-correct English into humorous gibberish.

My attempts with the iPhone produced only humorless gibberish, with around 50% of my "keystrokes" misunderstood.

At least two factors may have contributed to my problem. First, I have large, blunt fingers. They completely obscured the characters I was trying to target long before I'd gotten close enough to press down. Second, I am an old person. At the doddering age of 62, I am probably well outside the demographic expected to zero in on the iPhone.

Still, at least two changes in the hardware could improve the consumer's initial impression of the iPhone considerably.


An inherent problem with all finger-touch systems is that the finger, by definition, must obscure the object being touched (unless one has a giant screen with giant buttons). Apple has actually come up with a clever way to display the button anyway: As the user presses down on the "D" key, for example, a bigger image of the "D" key in a dialog balloon, as in a comic, appears just above the finger.

If users are hovering over the wrong key, they can slide their finger left or right while still maintaining contact until the desired key appears.

It's standard computer logic to thus use the release event, rather than the touch event, to trigger the final action. The problem is, it is not standard human logic. Many customers will assume that, once they touch, it is over, that the balloon is only appearing to announce errors, rather than prevent them. That was certainly the case for me; I didn't discover the slide-release trick during my initial time with the phone. Others didn't either:

I only found this out after playing around for a day with my iPhone, so I'm not surprised you didn't find it. The natural inclination is to tap a key rather than to press and release, and it was only because of a brief moment of indecision as I was typing something that I achieved this enlightenment.

Michael E. Cohen

It's true that, by happy accident, the user will eventually discover that errors can be corrected this way. In addition, their accuracy rate will go up with time and practice, and the letter prediction algorithm will correct many errors without the user having to worry about them at all.

The problem is that the customer who decided not to buy the iPhone because he or she couldn't type will never venture any further along this learning curve.

The easiest fix for this would be for the phone to "notice" that a high level of error is occurring and that no sliding to alternate letters is taking place. This, then, would trigger active help.

The iPhone could make good use of a two-level touch-sensing system. That would allow the user to make gentle contact with the keyboard to cause the dialog balloons to appear, then press harder as they confirm that the correct letter is displayed. This would method would be more discoverable than having to figure out that, to the machine, keypresses are actually key releases.

The system uses a capacitive sensor, not given to easy detection of pressure. A simple pressure sensor below the display, however, could probably be made to detect pressure applied against the display. To detect the varying levels of pressure, you are only interested in the amount of pressure, independent of location. The location would already be supplied by the capacitive touch screen.

A multi-level touch screen would offer other interesting interface opportunities as well.

Force Feedback

Another major win for the iPhone would be force-feedback, so users could "feel" the key has been pressed. For a long time, lack of such feedback was something taken for granted with touch screens, but no longer. It turns out that if you move the entire device up and down rapidly when the user has achieve sufficient contact, hammering the device against the finger, the user's brain interprets that movement as a physical click. It also turns out that cell phones all already have a device to move the phone around—the vibrator used as a ringer alternative.

Early cellphone vibrators moved the phone in two dimensions, since they consisted of motors with offset weights, but current cellphones use semiconductor vibrators that only move in a single dimension. Immersion Corporation's VibeTonz adds technology that triggers the vibrator upon a completed keypress, giving the user just enough of a nudge to indicate that the keypress was successful. The brain registers this nudge as a localized click.

To Buy or Not to Buy

I have been so excited by the technology of the iPhone that I want to buy one even though, for me, it doesn't make a lot of sense. I'm not talking about the typing problem. Even at my advanced age, I suspect I can deal with that with sufficient practice. No, it's the fact that AT&T has not bothered to build a cell tower within five miles of my house. As Verizon says, "it's the network." Verizon goes where we go and AT&T does not.

If the iPhone were on the Verizon network, I would already be a proud owner. I will certainly be the proud owner of the first video iPod using this interface, even if I can only connect to the net via wi-fi. Finally, I'll have an alternative to those long, lonely walks from my couch to my desk.

To read my in-depth feature-by-feature review of the iPhone, check out "The iPhone User Experience: A First Look."

Reader Mail

Hi Tog,

I just picked up my iPhone yesterday - my first impressions are incredibly positive, though I'm sure a lot of it is due to the "shiny new toy" effect. I have to say, though, if there were ever an argument for emotional design, and the power of delight, here's the case study.

Jayson Elliot

Tog's Response

I already had a high opinion of Jason's instincts. Now, it's even higher.

The iPhone really is a study in "delight." It really is wonderful that, in an industry rife with companies striving for mediocrity, one company is still doing things right. Those of us who flocked to Apple in the beginning did so not to build computers, but to change the world. Apple is once again doing just that.

Apple is now entering the consumer electronics world, where the lackluster attitude of "we'll fix it in the next release" is not good enough. The iPhone proves they are more than ready.


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