Article: On the Silent Switch

by on January 16, 2012

I came across a discussion this weekend that got me thinking about something that hasn’t gotten much coverage in the past 4 1/2 years—the iPhone’s silent switch is a unique piece of hardware. This was kicked off by a story about a man whose iPhone went off at a New York Philharmonic concert, only his phone was silenced. As it turns out, it was an alarm, not a phone call.

As reported, the concertgoer, known as “Patron X” was trying to be courteous, but there was an apparent usability failure:

Actually, Patron X said he had no idea he was the culprit. He said his company replaced his BlackBerry with an iPhone the day before the concert. He said he made sure to turn it off before the concert, not realizing that the alarm clock had accidentally been set and would sound even if the phone was in silent mode.

“I didn’t even know phones came with alarms,” the man said.

But as Mr. Gilbert was glaring in his direction, he fiddled with the phone as others around him did, just to be sure, pressing buttons. That was when the sound stopped. It was only in the car going home that his wife checked the settings on his phone and found that the alarm had been set.

One could argue that anyone getting a smartphone should expect it to do just about anything, since even basic phones and pagers from the late-1990s featured alarms and simple organizer functions.

Immediately from there, some writers cried foul about Apple’s current usability, while others focused on user-error. Still, there are two ways to look at it, as Andy Ihnatko pointed out:

So that’s why I’m moved to post my own thoughts about this Daring Fireball piece. I think Brother Gruber is wrong when he says that Brother Jim is wrong. John’s point is that the iPhone handles the Mute switch in a friendly and sophisticated way. The iPhone doesn’t treat it like a modal function (speaker is on, speaker is off). The iPhone does a contextual mute. It’ll mute any alert that you didn’t specifically tell it to make. You weren’t expecting a phone call to come in at 8:31 PM. It mutes the ringer. You told it to sound an alarm at 7 AM the next morning. The iPhone wakes you up as scheduled.

That’s a reflection of a valid specific philosophy. I just think it’s wrong in this specific feature. The key question to ask is “When the user slides the switch to ‘Mute’, what does he or she think is going to happen?” They’re most likely to think that their iPhone will be completely silent until they flip that switch back.

Furthermore, Ben Brooks points out via one of his readers, Ian Ferrel, that when you slide the switch on the side of the iPhone, the bezel image gives the best context:

It’s worth noting that the image shown when you flip the switch is a bell with a line through it, not a speaker symbol with a line through it. This is a clue that the switch is not setting the volume to zero, it’s turning off the ringer.

Brooks continutes in regards to Ferrel’s point:

I don’t think most iPhone users are going to notice the difference between the ringer symbol and the speaker symbol, but Apple took the time to make them different because, they do in fact, have different meanings.

Update: I’m not saying this exonerates Apple. I am saying that Apple sees a clear differentiation between the mute switch and the volume rocker — and uses symbols differently to convey this to users. It should also be noted that Apple labels the speaker icon as “ringer” when you adjust it with the volume rocker and this leads to more confusion.

It’s worth noting that on an iPad or iPhone with a physical keyboard connected, hitting the mute button (as opposed to the volume keys or the hardware switch), turns the volume down to 0, with a line through a speaker, not a bell.

For me, I think Apple could rework this a few ways, if they were going to. Most prior phones I’ve owned either were silent or “normal”, although a few featured profiles. Sony Ericsson, Nokia, and Samsung offered situational settings, like indoors, outdoors, silent, or car. Pressing the power button once usually toggled between these. Motorola offered the option of changing the entire set of ringtones and vibration patterns, depending on the context, and if the phone was plugged in to charge, vibration stopped as to prevent it from “walking” off the table. The iPhone could adopt something like this:

  • Standard mode: Same as an unsilenced iPhone now
  • Courtesy mode: Similar to the silent mode now—everything is quiet, but there’s still vibrations and alarms
  • Silent mode: Everything is quiet
  • Car mode: Regardless of the switch, sounds will go through to the stereo for incoming calls, but things like emails, IMs, and texts will be silent (as to not interfere with music)

Obviously, this adds an additional level of controls, and new, unfamiliar-to-iPhone users may still have issues (how many people use sound profiles now?) I find the current arrangement pretty functional, and have learned the way iOS handles alerts and alarms to keep from embarassing situations.

Ihnatko’s follow-up article sums it up best:

Overall, the lesson is that silencing a phone is far too idiosyncratic a feature for any “one answer fits all” implementation. As I said in the blog post, no locked-in definition of “Mute” is going to work for everybody. Worse, any definition will fail for every user at some point, either in the form of a missed alarm or a humiliating disturbance of public silence.

Which is why the only solution is to allow the user to adjust those settings. The iPad has its own little sliding switch. The user can define its function as either “Mute” or “Lock screen rotation.” If the default function of the switch works fine for you, then this “added complexity” is invisible. If you wonder why on God’s green earth any rational human being would prefer an iPad that rotates willy-nilly as you recline on your sofa with a good ebook, you can fix it in about fifteen seconds. And then you never have to touch that Settings panel ever again.

I’m all for a way to customize it in settings—iOS is getting mature enough that Apple can add some more user-experience fine-tuning options, much like the iPad’s switch function, without making it completely complicated. After all, an Apple mouse now has multiple “buttons” (actually one button, but able to sense right/left click or scroll), but defaults to a single one for new users.

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