How Apple’s iOS 7.1 finally quelled users’ motion sickness
Apple recently updated its iPhone and iPad software to version 7.1, adding and improving a number of features. In the release notes, CarPlay, Siri and iTunes Radio took centre stage, but there were also new accessibility options, showcasing how Apple is still getting to grips with making its mobile OS more usable for the widest range of people.
When iOS 7 first appeared, it seemed a dynamic, stark, minimal response to iOS 6’s oft-criticised texture-heavy and taste-light trappings. But frequent use of parallax effects, zooms and slide animations — far more aggressive than those on rival systems — resulted in a number of users feeling physically sick. TidePool mobile app developer Jenni Leder was far from alone in having to close her eyes during transitions, something she considered a ridiculous situation when using a smartphone.
A month later, Apple’s 7.0.3 upgrade helped many of those who’d been adversely affected, a revamped Reduce Motion control (activated in the Accessibility section of the Settings app) replacing most zoom effects with crossfades. At the time, Leder remarked: “I’m utterly shocked and extremely thankful this happened so quickly. The update was exactly what I needed. I can finally use the phone like a normal person again!”
With iOS 7.1, it appears Apple is further thrashing out the details. With Reduce Motion active, the app-switcher — which had previously retained a lurching zoom and slide when opened and closed — is tamed with the same crossfade effects folders use. Weather’s parallax backgrounds are gone. And in Messages, the entire scrolling area moves as one, rather than before where each message playfully slid around as if on ice but also had the potential to trigger motion sickness and vertigo.
With Apple’s initial fixes working well for so many, it could have been easy to consider the problem solved, but Marissa Christina, a podcaster and writer about hidden disabilities said she was pleased Apple hadn’t rested on its laurels: “These latest adjustments are exciting… emotional. It’s acceptance that balance disorders are being validated, and encouraging knowing Apple will not leave people behind.” Christina added she’d “never been so excited to use a weather app” and was thrilled that accidental use of the app-switcher (by double-clicking the home button) would no longer result in potentially triggering severe vertigo symptoms.
However, Apple’s other major accessibility update in iOS 7.1 is a stranger addition, in the sense it perhaps shouldn’t be an option at all. Called “button shapes”, it displays the hit area of toolbar buttons in grey; elsewhere, some dialogue and menu buttons gain hypertext-like underlines, to further clarify their purpose and interactive properties.
User experience expert Aral Balkan has previously been critical of the design of iOS 7’s buttons and usability: “Critics get caught up in aesthetics — the flatter look — but that oversimplified analysis misses both the greatest achievements of iOS 7 and its bigger problems. Respectively, these are removing chrome to make the content central to the experience, and certain elements having weaker affordances when compared to iOS 6.”
“Affordances” are clues an object gives regarding how it wants to be used, based on how it looks; those with strong affordances are considered more intuitive. (An example is pull handles on doors that are intended to be pulled open.) By default, iOS 7’s buttons don’t look like buttons, and are therefore not intuitively recognised as such; Balkan considers this a “core usability issue”.
He said the new accessibility option was a “welcome addition,” but thought it should be the default: “It’s unbelievable such a core control can have such a weak affordance on a platform that prides itself on its ease of use and heralds its user experience as its main differentiator. I do hope this is something Apple will address in a future update. Sacrificing usability for aesthetics is not a good long-term strategy.”
If iOS 7 has proved anything, though, it’s that Apple is willing to take risks and also to iterate; version 7.1’s interface has been refined over that of 7.0 in various other areas, such as redesigned call-screen buttons. But while Apple’s willingness to perfect and polish features for users with disabilities is to be lauded, “hiding” features potentially useful to all within the accessibility settings is still questionable.