Apple’s User Interface Incoherence is Beginning to Show

3 minute read
| Editorial

It’s only natural that different Apple devices with different shapes and roles should introduce some UI fragmentation. But it’s getting worse, not better.

A woman using Touch Bar on MacBook Pro

Touch me this way here. That way there.  Will it all change again?


There was a time when Apple had one primary OS in the market: [Mac OS X, macOS]. Now, with the proliferation of OSes [macOS, iOS, watchOS, tvOS] across different hardware, it can be confusing as to which device does, or should, support various UI features.

Press Here

Force Touch launched on the Apple Magic Trackpad 2 in the autumn of 2014. According to Apple:

The Force Touch trackpad lets you Force click by pressing on the trackpad and then applying more pressure. This allows you to take advantage of added functionality in many apps and system features on your Mac.

Force Touch is featured on the Magic Trackpad 2, the Apple Watch and the trackpads of the MacBook Pro (starting in 2015) and the latest MacBooks. It uses a electro-mechanical system branded as the “Taptic Engine,” and it relays a vibrational feedback to the user.

Apple's Magic Trackpad 2

Apple’s Magic Trackpad 2 introduced Force Touch. Image credit: Apple

But Wait….

Starting in September, 2015, with the iPhone 6s, Apple launched what’s called 3D Touch. That’s a more sensitive version of Force Touch. 3D touch is able to detect a change in distance (hence the force applied) between two glass layers in the display, and that changes a capacitance which can be measured.

3D touch is exclusive to iPhones. According to Apple, “you can adjust the sensitivity of 3D Touch on iPhone 6s, iPhone 6s Plus, iPhone 7, iPhone 7 Plus, iPhone 8, and iPhone 8 Plus.”

The problem is that it’s hard to remember which is which. Apple likely wanted to distinguish between the two technologies because they are, in fact, different hardware. But it has just resulted in confusion. Consumers generally don’t care about the underlying hardware technology, but they do care when confronted with multiple, confusing terms for what seems like the same user interface and effects.

Worse, 3D Touch isn’t available on iPads. That’s probably because it would be cost or technology challenging to implement 3D touch in a large 12.9-inch iPad Pro display. As a result one must be conscious of what device one is using. iPad display: nope. iPhone display: 3D Touch. Latest MacBook/Pro trackpads: Force Touch. MacBook/Pro displays: Don’t even think about touching those.

Next Page:  Touch ID wanes. Face ID is the future. Except. Wait.

8 Comments Add a comment

  1. Mike Weasner

    My biggest IOS UI complaint is with the Mail app on the iPhone vs the Mail app on the iPad. To my mind there is no logical reason to change the location of the various button icons (new message, trash, etc) depending on the device being used at the moment. For those of us with BOTH devices this seems like the app and devices came from two different companies. The rearrangement always means I have to relearn the app when I switch devices after using the Mail app on the other device. So non-Apple. Or at least, it used to be non-Apple like. But as John said, UI incoherence is showing up these days.

  2. Old UNIX Guy

    How about this one … on a Mac launch System Preferences and go to the Displays section. Take note what’s there … then press and hold down the Option key. Yep, a previously hidden for no good reason button now appears!

    So much for either ease of use or discoverability … if you didn’t know about that and someone didn’t tell you how in the world would you ever discover that (someone told me)???

    Everybody needs to get over their man-crush on Craig Federighi, Apple needs to get rid of him, and we need Betrand Serlet back.

    Old UNIX Guy

  3. webjprgm

    @OldUNIXGuy Holding the Option key is not new. There are lots of features in Mac OS (er, macOS) that are hidden because they are for expert users and only show when holding option. I believe TMO has had tip articles about this.

  4. webjprgm

    A funny story related to this article’s topic: My 2 year old watches Daniel Tiger on You Tube on the iPad and she knows that when one video ends she can start tapping things on the screen and sometimes get another one to start. When we got a DVD of one from the library we played it on the laptop (with external super drive) and at the end she started tapping on the screen trying to get it to play another one!

  5. Old UNIX Guy

    @webjprgm – never said that was new … just that it’s a very bad idea that goes against Apple’s own human interface guidelines. And the fact that TMO needs to have tip articles about stuff like this only proves my point…

    Old UNIX Guy

    • Jamie

      Agreed, Old UNIX Guy, and I think most of us are well aware of what modifier keys do, webjprgm. 😉 That wasn’t the point. I can’t remember a time post-OS X transition that there has been so much inconsistency between not just Apple’s various products, but even between versions of the same products, not to mention the vague release notes and poor documentation that now accompany them. There’s definitely a flinging spaghetti at the wall feeling about certain things over the past several years where there used to be extraordinary focus. I didn’t get interested in Apple’s offerings due to fanboy-ism, but rather because at one time, and for a very long time, their stuff really was just better. They still make incredibly nice products, but at the same time, I think they are repeating some of the history of the 90s and losing the aforementioned focus to a degree.

    • webjprgm

      This is probably just my opinion, but I don’t think needing to hold option key for some things is necessarily bad design. Theoretically those extra options are things that would only confuse users who didn’t know about the option key trick anyway. I would agree with you if the buttons that are shown/hidden are hidden “for no good reason” which I think in some cases is true.

      My point about it not being new is that I don’t think it is evidence that Apple’s design is becoming incoherent. If so then their design has always been incoherent for the last 10 years. I suppose it might feel a bit worse if you compare it to iPad which doesn’t have an equivalent of the option key trick (to my knowledge). Maybe that’s what you were getting at.

  6. pjs_boston

    Apple has always had UI fragmentation across the apps in its platforms. This is a side effect of the speed with which Apple innovates compared to other OS vendors. It would be nice if Apple had all of their apps ready on launch day for new device form factors and OS releases, but I’d rather have fragmentation than wait for the apps teams to catch up before getting new features.

    As I recall, Ui fragmentation in Mac OS X was much worse back in the days of OS X Jaguar, Panther, and Tiger. Stripes, brushed stainless steel, faux aluminum, and faux plastic UI elements all mixed together, not to mention with crazy different interaction modes and controls. It was a wild ride back then – in a good way! The alternative was the clunky, ugly, and glitchy UI of Windows XP.

    I have little issue with Force Touch and 3D Touch. I find these features to be very intuitive, especially the Force Touch trackpads on modern Mac notebooks. On iPhone, I use the 3D Touch trackpad whenever the software keyboard is on screen. It’s a truly fantastic feature. Honestly, who cares what Apple calls their force feedback technology?

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