Consistency Sin

This past summer we narrowly avoided a major user interface regression on Apple devices. The story ended well, but I think it’s important to look back on the situation and ask a simple question:

Why did this happen in the first place?

My answer is something I call “consistency sin”. Understanding the cause lets us avoid similar situations in the future.

Your first reaction to this nomenclature may be, “Isn’t consistency a good thing in user interfaces?”

Absolutely! Colors, fonts, and other assets should be similar within an app. Combined they help give the user a sense of place and act as a guide through an interface. And in many, cases these similarities should be maintained across platforms. There’s no sin there.

But you can get into trouble when this consistency starts to affect the user experience.

Design is not how it looks, it’s how it works

Steve Jobs said a lot of smart things, but I use this advice most often.

The roots of consistency sin take hold when folks disregard the inherent differences between platforms. A greater importance is placed on making sure things match visually: how a person uses that design takes a back seat.

Platform controls and interface elements can differ at a fundamental level. The mouse is optimized for indirect interaction while a screen is optimized for direct interaction.

For the most part, developers are shielded from these details through the use of standard components that conform to the Human Interface Guidelines.

Enter Safari

Higher level interactions are driven by the type and quantity of information the user is working with.

To use Safari as an example, I can have hundreds of tabs open while I work on my Mac; on iOS it’s usually less than a dozen. Safari on iOS is also a full screen experience, while multiple windows and interactions with other applications are common on macOS.

Safari’s new tab design on iOS works great for me: swiping between tabs of fullscreen content is a better interaction for a limited number of pages. The grid of pages as a fallback for selection also works well for managing what I want to keep around.

The consistency sin in Safari was to come up with a good design for iOS and assume that it would also work well on iPadOS and macOS. It practice, these new tabs were difficult to use in a different work environment.

Luckily the folks working on Safari did the smartest thing possible: they listened to feedback and fixed the issues before shipping. That’s an important thing for a product that every Apple customer uses every day on every device.

It’s one thing to make a mistake, it’s a wholly different thing to deny that anything’s wrong. So let’s take a look at another example.

Notifications, Too

Notifications also suffer from consistency sin.

I look at my iPhone Lock Screen dozens of times each day, and sometimes just to just view a reminder or some other short notification. It’s quick, simple, and minimizes distractions.

On my Mac I see the Lock Screen only once or twice per day for just a few seconds as I enter a password. That means notifications occur while I’m actively working.

Again, consistency sin looks for a single solution that ignores my needs. On macOS I don’t want a minimal solution that is suitable for a mobile device. I want options that let me quickly dismiss or defer an item that’s interrupting my work. (And I certainly don’t want to hunt around in the window for a hidden control that lets me access a function.)

Placement is also an issue: on iOS controls tend toward the bottom of the screen (for reachability). The opposite is true on macOS where they tend  toward the top of the screen so they’re closer to the menu bar and window controls. Consistency sin says that notifications should always be at the top of the screen.

With iOS, there’s a nice visual and functional separation between app interactions in the lower half of the screen and notifications in the upper half. On the Mac, notifications are just another thing fighting for real estate at the top of the screen.

We’ve Only Just Begun

The bad news is that we’re likely to have more consistency sin in our future, thanks to Electron and other cross platform frameworks.

While development teams try to attain feature parity, experience parity will suffer. Everyone who’s used an iOS app and immediately thought “this is a web page” will know what that means.

There is a long history of user interface frameworks that make work easier for a product team. Every time, these solutions end up being a least common denominator that makes it more difficult for customers. Don’t be surprised when they complain: as they did for Safari, and as they do for Notifications.

If you’re a designer or developer, it’s your job to push back on the notion of consistency when it begins to affect a user’s experience. Remember design is how it works, and work is not the same on every device.