Dynamic affordance: Can the iOS 8 interface be made smarter?

Dynamic affordance: Can the iOS 8 interface be made smarter?

Depending on who you are and how you feel, iOS 7 either took the training wheels off to fully embrace digital design, or it removed so much interface as to crush usability. Both are true. iOS is used by a wide range of people, from the digital and mobile immigrant — those who grew up reading newspapers or using PCs — to the digital and mobile native — those who were born to iPhone and iPad. One, single, static default choice can never properly meet the needs of everyone across that range. But what if iOS 8 could make affordance and accessibility dynamic?

Affordance — the characteristics of an interface element that help hint at the actions it can perform — is essential in human machine interaction. One of the design principles for iOS 7 was deference and in its service a lot of interface chrome — the bars, borders, and other structural or decorative elements — was stripped away in favor of making content more prominent. Most famously, the shapes around buttons were removed leaving only the naked text or glyphs/icons behind. Where previously the touch-target — the area that can trigger an action — of a button was visually apparent, now only its center-point remains.

It was cleaner but it offered far less affordance. Instead of seeing something that looked like a button, you had to know or figure out it was a button. So, responding to the complaints, Apple added an Accessibility toggle to restore button shapes to some iOS navigation elements.

But what if toggles weren't necessary, or at least were a secondary, manual option? What if iOS could determine when people were struggling to use an interface element and bump up affordance and accessibility automatically, and then eased back as/when people got more comfortable.

For example, if someone taps near a button over and over again in a short period of time, iOS could realize they're trying to hit it and are missing, and automatically turn on button shape hinting — perhaps fading it in — and even increase the tap target size temporarily so the next touch triggers it even if it's still a tiny bit off.

Likewise, iOS assumes taps higher up on the screen are coming in at a greater angle, which can sometimes frustrate people — and robots — holding their iPhone in less common ways and tapping from less common angles.

Apple's multitouch display technology, however, has the ability to detect capacitance some distance from the screen and use that information to figure out things like which finger on a hand is likely the one doing the tapping. Based on that electrical guess work, perhaps a the telemetry could also be guessed, and if people are tapping frequently and missing slightly, perhaps the tap target could again be dynamically adjusted to better suit their angle.

As gestures become increasingly common, gesture collisions become increasingly common as well. Swipe to favorite, swipe to reply, even horizontal scrolling are all great unless, while simply trying to go down a list or a page, the angle you're using keeps misfiring those horizontal gestures. It'd be great if iOS could detect when those gestures are aborted or reversed repeatedly and temporarily increase the angle or emphasis needed to trigger them.

Thanks to sensors, iOS devices know their positions is space, perhaps angles could be dynamically adjusted to account for how you're holding your device. Standing, walking, lying down, lounging, straight up, slightly or steeply angled, compensating could be tricky but could also be beneficial.

Hey, in some whacky future world perhaps an iPhone or iPad could use frequent pinch-to-zoom, proximity, or even PrimeSense-detected squinting to dynamically start increasing text size if people are having trouble reading.

And perhaps many of these methods, and others still, could be brought to bear to create a next-generation keyboard for iOS 8 that's as far ahead of current keyboard technologies as Apple's original iPhone keyboard was its virtual competition of 2007.

We talked a little bit about of dynamic affordance on a recent Iterate podcast and some really, really smart designers poked some really, really smart holes into idea and the realties of its implementation, but I still can't help but long for some form of smarts to enter into the iOS interface.

We're in the midst of a contextual awakening, and as much as that can make everything around us and our device better, here's hoping it can make what's on our devices, and how we use them, better as well.

Are there any accessibility or interface issues you'd like to see Apple automate in iOS 8, or would you rather keep all of that completely under your own, manual control?

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Dynamic affordance: Can the iOS 8 interface be made smarter?


It would be nice, assuming it wouldn't take my five hours of battery and turn them into two hours!

I absolutely want to see a better keyboard in iOS 8. This is overdue at this point. With all of the innovation going on with virtual keyboards that have gesture and/or predictive typing (Swype, Switftkey, SlideIT, etc...), I am surprised and disappointed that Apple hasn't stepped up their game here. The virtual keyboard is a big part of how we interact with our iPhones and continually improving it really should be a priority.

In my opinion, the landscape virtual keyboard for iPhone has become nearly unusable for me. It takes up way too much room on the screen and I am constantly missing touch targets. There is plenty of room for improvement and innovation here.

After a month with the new ambiguous state shift key in iOS 7.1, I think I'd rather keep what we have than risk future "enhancements".

You should really explore SwiftKey and its other competitors before you blithely dismiss actual advancements made on Android.

My biggest wish is for the keyboard to show me if I'm typing in uppercase and lowercase. It drives me crazy that it always shows uppercase all the time.


I also hate that when i make a mistake and accidentally capitalize something that shouldn't be capitalized i will delete the capital letter and then the caps will come on automatically so I repeat the mistake I was trying to fix.

It's a natural progression in iOS, I guess. It would be great if it is more intuitive and intelligent. After all, it should graduate to mimic human behavioural dynamics.

Sent from the iMore App

Maybe it would look cleaner and prettier without the labels in the buttons too.

I jest, not sure why 'affordance' needs to be minimized. I think it looks better with button graphics, etc.

Rather than guessing or deciding what we want, I'd prefer the ability to choose. Case in point is the recently added ability is iOS 7.1 to add button shapes back. Originally I thought I'd prefer to have them but upon activation I found I'd rather not have them. Since this was optional I had my choice as did others.

there are plenty of areas where ios 8 could be smarter than prior ios versions. autocorrect is bad. the keyboard is bad, you should be able to edit the dictionary. I get more typos because of apple's ridiculous suggestions than my own mistakes. And i make plenty of mistakes. And the camera app has needs updating to add real camera features. Any app that goes into the camera roll should allow editing of the photo app (and emailing and texting of that image). you should be able to customize your music player experience to pick where you want screen space to be spent on album art images. Like i'm fine in the now playing screen but it's a waste in lists and sacrifices navigation for pretty pictures where it's not needed. skins like classic ios would be a nice addition. A dark them would be welcome. The ability to make the white backgrounds a subtle gray to ease eye strain would be smart. I'd combine notifications drop down and that quick launch drag up into one drop down. If you're gonna have notifications in the drop down they should be actionable (like i should be able to delete an email with a swipe webos style if it shows up their or simply dismiss it.) The weather app could update itself. When i drop down the notification bar rarely does the weather app show the correct time or weather. it usually shows the weather from whenever the prior time it updated. When you pull that menu it should automatically be updating, not showing me what the weather was last night.

I disagree about the "button shape hinting." It's a horrible, ugly feature and is typical of Apple's approach to users who want something that Apple thinks they "shouldn't" need. They have done this in the past wherein they grudgingly add a settings toggle (usually not very apparent either), because users are clamouring for it and purposely make it an ugly piece of crap so that the user is properly "scolded" for thinking that they want it, and will want to turn it off as soon as possible.

Button "hinting" (basically an ugly, pixelated light-grey blob overlaid on too thin, white text), is next to useless and no one with any taste would ever turn it on in the first place.

I think what we are all forgetting (especially Apple's designers), is that the button has been a large part of software UI's, as well as webUI's for as long as there have been UI's. The very first graphical UI had buttons. The very first web page had buttons and both have had them ever since. Buttons are extremely useful and integral to UI design. What are Windows "tiles" if not buttons? What are icons if not buttons? Why is it okay to make an icon, or a tile, but not a button?

The whole idea that we can simply get rid of buttons and replace them with text is faulty reasoning based on nothing but wishful thinking and design dogma.

It's the same as designing a car with "invisible" metres on the dashboard, that you have to wave your hand at to make appear. It's simply more useful to have the metres (and the buttons) there all the time. It always will be.

i would like for a few more features but also better battery life but then again these update files are coming in way too large...