Discoverability

Hey iPhone users, did you know that you have access to special diacritical characters? Neither did I. The bloggers at iSmashphone had to point it out to me in their entry 12 iPhone Tricks You Might Not Have Known.

The way you do it is to press and hold the base character, and the line of diacritical characters appears above. Slide your finger to the correct one and lift up, and now you can properly spell the word há?ek.

iPhone diacritical seelctor

Note that there is no visual cue, or affordance, that this can be done. The E button looks exactly the same as the Q button, for which there is no diacritical menu. Users have to learn this trick outside the interface itself, from a friend or a blog. We would say it’s undiscoverable. (Unless you’re the sort who goes around trying every possible interaction with every possible interface element.) Apple have even used the same interaction style in unexpected places, like the selection of a top-level domain in a URL…

iPhone hidden TLD selector

While this makes me a little crazy and a little distrustful of the iPhone operating system — what else have they hidden? — it neatly illustrates the concept of aesthetic-usability effect, and Apple relies on this all the time. The aesthetic-usability effect holds that if a system looks friendly and usable, it will be perceived by the user as more usable as the same system with less friendly aesthetics, even if the pretty system is, in fact, slightly less efficient.

On the one hand this strategy earns Apple a frothing-at-the-mouth fan base, who fall in love with the beauty, simplicity, and quick ramp-up on new devices. On the other, it sometimes prevents them from implementing basic functionality—like cut-and-paste for the iPhone—as they err too far on the side of “uncluttered.”