Ahead of WWDC 2013, many people were still expecting Apple to add live tiles, and possibly widgets to iOS 7. I didn’t expect either, and as a result wasn’t terribly disappointed to see them not included (that might be an understatement on my part).
At first glance, live tiles may seem like a no-brainer in any operating system. Tiles that provide you information from within an app… How could this go wrong?
Here’s the problems that I have with live tiles in Windows 8, and why I think they wouldn’t make sense on iOS (either):
- They’re overused.
- Often, they aren’t that useful.
- They are distracting.
- They’re hardly ever in view.
Let me explain each a bit.
They’re overused. Why do I say this? Because Microsoft has focused on live tiles in their messaging for app developers as if apps that don’t feature a live tile should be shamed. Not the case. I believe live tiles should only be used when there is something actionable to present to the user (ex: new mail) and that actionable item can succinctly be presented though the live tile (ex: subject of the mail). Unfortunately, even just the built-in applications from Microsoft abuse the live tile concept. Too many feature live tiles, and too many of those live tiles are of very limited utility or are too repetitive. Having one or two live tiles is fine, especially if they’re useful -like Mail and Weather, and perhaps Calendar.
But if you add too many live tiles, Windows 8 stops looking like this:
And instead starts looking like this:
What I’m saying is that there is a point where the utility of live tiles starts to become a problem, not a benefit, if you’re shoving too much dynamic information in the user’s face while providing very little value.
Often, they aren’t that useful. Much like a well-designed app, the utility of a live tile is only as useful as the content it is set to display. iOS has featured notification badges (the red overlay on Mail that constantly indicates you’re not at inbox zero) for many years. Many people bash the badges as being stupid or useless, but they serve as an action indicator where often, not much more is needed, and even more often, not much more can be done. A notification (or live tile) on a badge should instantly provide an indicator of status if that’s all it is to do (ex: You have new mail), and a deeper summary if that is possible (your iOS line-of-business app that tracks new tasks for your helpdesk has 32 new tasks). In iOS, the icon for Calendar has, in effect, always been a live tile. The date you see on the icon is the actual date. Though of limited utility (given that there is already a clock at the top of the screen in the iOS shell, and the icon is tiny), the icon for the clock app in iOS 7 is now a live tile in the same sense – it features the correct time, including a sweeping second hand.
But I don’t believe a live tile should always be live, and even when it is, if it isn’t actionable, it’s no better than After Dark. It ceases to have utility, it’s just there for entertainment value. Applications that do have a concrete reason for offering a live tile absolutely should. If they don’t, they shouldn’t. Don’t provide one just because “you’re supposed to”.
They are distracting. As I noted above, if you’re looking at the Start screen to find a particular application, and you have very many live tiles, it starts to become distracting, and not helpful, that they application is trying to provide you more information than you actually need at that moment. The start screen isn’t an app, it’s a shell. The primary reason for it to exist is to run applications. Rotating pictures of people, or of your own collection of photos (both of which repeat) are novel and cute for a bit, but rapidly become tiring to me.
It’s like going into Best Buy to look around, and getting inundated with salespeople. You know what you’re looking for, and otherwise it’s just a distraction.
They’re hardly ever in view. The Start screen is a shell, It’s not even like the Explorer shell or the gadgets in Vista where it could be set to always in view. If you’re not actively launching an app (or using multimon), the Start screen isn’t in view. So why the emphasis on adding interactivity (or infinite customizability) to a thing that’s basically just a launchpad?
This gets us full circle back to why I don’t think it’s a big deal that iOS doesn’t have live tiles, or even widgets. I’ve mentioned before that Microsoft employees seem to like using the expression “(just) a sea of icons” to describe the iOS app launcher. Well, yeah. That’s kind of the point? It’s a brutally simplified shell that gets you in to the apps. The iPhone (or any iOS device) isn’t about the platform, and it isn’t about the shell. It’s about the apps. Mobile devices exist to be view portals into the functionality provided by applications – including those built-in to the device.
When using a mobile device, users don’t sit there staring longingly at the shell, waiting for it to do something. They’re in apps, responding to notifications from other apps through the shell, and jumping between apps using the sharing verbs available between apps (monikers or direct APIs). On stage when first revealing Windows 8, Steven Sinofsky highlighted the focus of Windows 8 on (with a not-so-subtle jab at the browser of the same name), “content, not the chrome”. To that I add, “It’s the apps, not the phone”. Yes, shells need to evolve and grow. But rarely should they be the center of attention – as that’s rarely where the user actually spends most of their time.