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Saving a few Milliseconds Does Not Excuse a Crap User Experience

Twitter is a horrible place to try and have a spirited debate.

I read this article by Craig Mod yesterday, arguing that faster Touch ID had actually annoyed him more than it helped. And I largely agreed that there was a big problem with the lock screen situation, though I didn’t think his proposed solutions were ideal.

Then I read Dr. Drang’s reasonable, well constructed rebuttal. (Note to tech nerds: Acknowledging that the other person has a point and showing some empathy is helpful if you want to win someone over, rather than just be “right”.) And then I read a few others agreeing with Drang that faster Touch ID’s gains outweigh the drawbacks. But no one seemed to be selling me on what those gains actually were. I wasn’t convinced that having my Touch ID authenticate in a millisecond instead of a half second was worth rendering my lock screen utterly useless without clumsy workarounds.

So I went to Twitter and proclaimed that I think, for me, faster Touch ID was actually a net loss, and hoped someone would help me understand the other side better.

Instead, I got a few people agreeing with me, a few offering empathy, and a whole lot of people telling me “I’m holding it wrong.”[1] I’m still, in fact, getting more and more people telling me to use my thumb nail, use the sleep/wake button, etc. Missing the point entirely. [2]

So, given that almost no one seems to want to do it, here’s the argument I wanted someone to make to me about the benefits of faster Touch ID:

Hey, Joe. Aren’t you the guy who said that thinner laptops are what made Apple Watch possible? Maybe faster Touch ID is going to be part of some new product, and making it function as fast as possible is critical to it working effectively. You have no idea what the future holds for Apple, nor why having a super-fast Touch ID might play into much more exciting products in the future, so just consider that these things come in stages, and it will all be made clear eventually.

Besides, faster is always better. Touch ID is about much more than the lock screen. Faster authentication in 1Password, the App Store, and so on, are better, if only by a small margin. Every millisecond counts when you’re on the move. And those milliseconds add up as you use your phone all day.

Drang came close to making these points when he said: “I’ll bet the time you’ve saved overwhelms the time you’ve lost. And I’ll bet Apple studied iPhone usage enough to know that would be the case long before the improved Touch ID was released.”

For most users, he’d probably win that bet. But for me, he’d lose.

Still, simply saying, “That sucks for you, but it’s probably a net win for a lot of other people” would be preferable to endless tips about using my thumbnail. At least then I would be forced to look back at what’s really frustrating me about this lock screen situation, which isn’t actually Touch ID.

Faster Touch ID is obviously a good thing.

No. The problem isn’t that authentication happens quickly, but that it’s now impossible to read my notifications without some crappy workaround to how I’ve been unlocking my phone for several years. Essentially, lock screen notifications, which were a part of my daily workflow, now disappear too fast to read them, and I’m reminded of this almost every time I unlock my phone, which is several hundred times a day.

Imagine you launch your favorite Twitter client, and every time the app launches, it shows a screen with your latest activity (mentions, DMs, maybe some stats) but then the screen immediately disappears and shows you the regular timeline. That’s a bug, right? No one is going to argue with me that it wouldn’t be buggy behavior to have such a useful screen disappear a millisecond after it appears. You wouldn’t argue that I should launch the app differently, or that if I swipe down from the top of the screen that the view would reappear, and that makes it okay. You’d wonder why the screen shows up at all if I’m not supposed to be able to read it. You’d call it a bug.

Well, the lock screen in iOS has this bug.

If the true goal of faster Touch ID is to get you authorized and on your way much faster, then why show the lock screen at all? If by the time I’ve clicked on the home button, Touch ID has already scanned my print and decided I’m good to go, why not skip the lock screen (and the slow animation of icons onto the screen[3]) and just show me my home screen immediately?

Remember, the original point of the lock screen was to prevent other users from accessing your phone, or to prevent you from accidentally activating your phone while it’s in your pocket. There’s no good reason from a User Experience standpoint why the rightful owner needs to see this screen in order to accomplish that goal. The limitations of the technology in 2007 necessitated that the lock screen exist in earlier models as a technical limitation. And while that limitation still persisted, they added notifications to the screen to make that screen more useful, as long as it had to be there, anyway. But super-fast Touch ID makes this screen unnecessary, at least when it’s you that is using your phone.

So get rid of it.

Such a simple, elegant, solution. If authorized, skip the lock animations altogether. If not authorized, show the lock screen as it is. I might still be upset you took away my lock screen notifications, but at least you’re not flashing them in front of my face like an asshole.[4]

  1. For those unfamiliar, this is a reference to the classic Steve Jobs misquote during the Antennagate kerfuffle. What Jobs actually had said was “then don’t hold it that way.” But the point is, blame the user, not the product. People kept telling me that I should unlock my phone in some other convoluted way, rather than just press the home button that was sitting right there under my thumb, the way I had been doing since the first iPhone.  ↩
  2. Two more came in as I was writing this.  ↩
  3. You know what’s a lot slower than the old Touch ID? That stupid animation of icons from the lock screen to the home screen.  ↩
  4. The way to placate people who still really want their lock screen notifications would be to add a settings switch to simply slow down Touch ID on the lock screen only. Still, if you turn that switch off, the lock screen should not appear at all.  ↩