Dear Mr. Jobs, I have some ideas about how to improve your phone

Everyone knows that the iPhone is pretty great. The vast majority of my clients offer it up as their first example when I ask them, “What products on the market that represent the kind of experience you want to deliver?”

I mostly really like mine. But I’ve got to say there are a couple things about it that really bug me. Right up there after the fact there’s no one-gesture way of switching between different email inboxes is the way the little red notifications circles work with the phone.

It’s a bit confusing, plus requires unnecessary work

Whenever someone calls me, I don’t answer, and the caller leaves a voicemail, a “2″ is displayed in the little red circle over the Phone icon on the Home screen like this:

Maybe I’m kind of a simpleton, but doesn’t that kind of make it seem like I’ve missed two calls? Or that I’ve got two voicemails?

And that isn’t the worst of it. As confusing as that is, after using it for a while, I now mostly remember how it works (and even if I don’t, it doesn’t really cause me any real inconvenience.)

The really irritating part is when I go to the phone application, there are now two new red dots — one over Recent and one over Voicemail, like this:

Every single time, after I go listen to the voicemail, I have to click over to Recent to make that red dot with the number in it go away. Of course I know I missed the call, I’ve already listened to the voicemail. Why do I have to actively get rid of this extra dot?

You might be thinking “Relax, idiot. This isn’t Ms. Pac Man. You don’t have eat all the red dots.” But I kind of do, don’t I? Otherwise, the red dot starts to become useless. This might be fine with all your customers who bought an iPhone to replace their Razr, and those who don’t have expectations of their phone as a productivity tool. But my mobile is actually a pretty important part of the way I manage my work and more importantly, my attention.

What if we changed things around just a bit?

Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m just a hapless complainer. I have a couple ideas for how you can improve things. You can have them for free. (Though if you decide to use one of them, and felt like sending me a new 3GS or Cinema Display or something, that’d be cool.)

The easiest fix is to just change the logic so that for any missed call, you only display one circle. If they leave a message, it’s over Voicemail; if they don’t, it’s over Recent. (Which works for the transition between when it’s just a missed call, and when they’ve left a message. The number just switches from Recent to Voicemail when a message is left.)

But it still kind of bugs me that a given phone call can be represented in two different places. It seems a lot simpler to have a single list of calls to scan through when I pick up my phone after a meeting. Maybe it could look something like this:

It would work like a combination of Recent and Voicemail…

…with filtering capabilities at the top, as in your Recent screen…

…and a dot next to incoming calls that have resulted in a voicemail message. (Clicking on the dot would bring up the Voicemail playback controls). I also propose changing the way the color coding works, so the red text, which formerly indicated a missed call, would now be used to signify unheard messages and unseen missed calls. This maps better to the color of the little red circle, which seems appropriate since the number in the circle is the now the count of red items.

Because I changed what red text means, we need some other indicator to differentiate missed calls. What if we did this with the icons? I didn’t really have time to get into the pixels to solve this, but you get the idea with this placeholder.

You’ll also notice that by combining Recent and Voicemail, I freed up some space in the navigation, which is convenient, because we need somewhere to put access to the outbound greeting. (I couldn’t really decide between shaka, the devil’s horns and a waving hand for the Greeting icon. Shaka seemed most in keeping with the playful iPhone experience.)

I know it still needs a bit of work, but what do you think?

Your friend,
dave

47 Comments

FictiveCameron
Great post Dave. I really like a lot of you main ideas especially with respect to the redundant circles. The one thing I think I'd have a pretty hard time adjusting to is the red text no longer indicating missed call. I think it may be just because of the boldness of the color in general its current functionality has been driven a little too far home for me to adjust easily. I think the combination of the play button affordance to indicate the voice message and maybe a light grey text, could get the job done in terms of letting you know which messages you've already listened to. But that's just some quick thoughts. It'll probably create new problems. Cameron
Nathan Ziarek
Agree 100%! I hate that I'm always fumbling around the phone menu trying to clear out the red dots. The single "Calls" menu with combined missed calls and voicemail is really smart. What is a voicemail if not just a missed call with an attached message? I think your mock ups need a little Apple polish (no offense), but the UX is right there. Check the web logs -- is anyone from Cupertino reading this?
Ken
Why does the Calls/Voicemail icon look like a roll of 110 film? :-)
Brenton
I am also annoyed by my inability to easily clear badges for missed calls I already know about. (Also for texts, since they appear on the lock screen). I do wonder if it would be overwhelming to have such a long list of missed calls to deal with, compared to a relatively short list of voicemails. I suppose I'd just leave my "calls" screen in voicemail mode most of the time. Do you really change your greeting enough to justify giving it its own toolbar button? Most people I know change their message once per handset/carrier. Some maybe a bit more frequently, but no one with the same frequency that they make outgoing calls or check voicemails.
Doug LeMoine
Yeah, those are good points, Cameron. Let me see if I understand ... In the current iPhone UI, there are three types of calls in the list: incoming (missed), incoming (connected), and outgoing. And in the current UI, the color red signifies "assorted new phone events" on the home screen, and "missed calls" on the phone screen ... Dave's solution unifies the mapping of red to "newness," but perhaps you're right to point out that the missed calls have now receded. I think that a third color (light gray) could help to clear it up. If I understand you correctly: Gray could indicate "messages I've listened to" (and "outgoing") while black could be "missed calls that I've seen before" and red could be "missed and voicemail that is new"? This makes sense to me in theory, but we'd have to balance the distinction with efforts to ensure that the screen doesn't become too fiddly.
Prateek
I think the point you raise about marking calls with heard voice-mail is very valid. However, I don't agree with the idea of merging voice-mail into recent calls. Listening to voice messages and looking at recent calls are two different tasks and should each have their own context tabs. Doug summarizes the points about the colors really well. You can't just mark all missed calls as non-missed after listening to the message. I think the red color is used to mark a call that requires action, and in most cases the action required will be to call back.
Collin
I like your design, but not all carriers have visual voicemail (or they charge an extra fee for it). When I touch the Voicemail icon on my phone, it automatically calls my voicemail number. The phone cannot discover who left the messages. This isn't an insurmountable problem. Perhaps your Calls screen could simply show "Voicemail" as the name in this case. Pressing the play button could call our voicemail number. Missing a single call where the user left voicemail would still result in the number 2 being displayed on the Phone and Calls icons, and separate entries for the missed call and the voicemail. It would be a little more convenient than the current system though, as we could resolve them both in a single visit to the Calls screen.
FictiveCameron
Yeah Doug, That's what I was going for. However, I missed the first time around that red would be applied to unseen missed calls as well as unheard voice messages. I though the missed calls were just being left out. The new FictiveCameron (who is a more careful reader) thinks the solution Dave laid out is a lot better.
Z
Yeah, wouldn't it be awesome if in the event you don't like something about the way a certain piece of technological hardware works, you could just change it? Man, that would be a DREAM world!
David
That's a good idea. The other (very minor) annoyance I have is the "Call Back" or "Delete" buttons on the voice mail. I like to delete my voice mail after I've listened to it but if you press "Delete" then you can't press "Call Back". And if you press "Call Back" then it calls back and by the time I'm done with the call I forget to delete it. I really want "Delete and Call Back".
Max
I think you forget the part where iTunes deletes all of the Apps you downloaded on the phone after you do a "sync".
MP
What if someone leaves voicemail when the phone is off, or out of range? I haven't missed a call, and would want to know I have VM and also know I didn't miss the call.
Justin
Great, I never knew this bothered me until reading this :) Now this is going to bug me forever as I doubt they will change it.
Darren
I have an even simpler solution. Change the display on the home screen. Two badges (maybe even of different colors) could appear on the phone icon: the number in the top-left badge would be missed calls, and the number in the top-right would be unplayed voicemails. Then when you tap the phone icon, the row at the bottom makes sense. The missed calls icon (further left) will have the number of missed calls, and the voicemail icon (further right) will have the number of new voicemails.
Dave Simon
How about the ability to delete single calls out of the list and/or "mark as read" kind of functionality so I can get rid of the red dots without having to call some people back. That bugs me. But then, I hate having unhandled little red tags on my icons. Must. Read. Everything.
Mike Ryan
I wrote this over on HN but figured I'd post it here. I'm not sure Apple has a way to know which recent calls are linked to which voicemails. Recent Missed calls are stored by the iphone when they aren't answered. Visual Voicemail is likely a totally different system w/o a way to know which VM is linked to which missed call. But heck I'm no expert.
flo
easiest solution: disable voicemail :) but seriously, apart from this ergonomics blabla, any ideas how the stupid phone can be sure what matches with what?
Beerzie
These nits are well picked, sir! Nice job.
MrKungFu
I agree with the problem statement completely, but like others, I wonder about the fix. Yes, it does clean up one aspect of the interface, but adds more complexity at the same time. Is this trade off worth it? I don't think so. The big issue I have is with the small target for playback of the VM, and the confusion between what a small icon represents vs. red text. With the current splicing of VM's and recent call views, the VM view makes it easy to play VM's, even if you don't hit the button precisely. But what if you wanna call the person back? Go to the recent view instead and tap. Both are common occurrences I garner, and both should be optimized for. Better solution? Place both in the list (the recent call, and the linked VM), with a completely different, easily understandable field layout for each.
Doug LeMoine
Regarding the questions about reconciling data from two different systems: Say I call you (from 415-555-1212) at 3:35pm, and I leave you VM at 3:36pm. It seems possible that both systems will have similar metadata (415-555-1212, 3:35 & 3:36), and I would posit that the iPhone could take a decent shot at reconciling data from the two systems based on that. It may not be accurate 100% of the time, but the worst case would be that it displays two phone events when only one is relevant. This is the everyday situation now, so it's not such a terrible worst case.
Jesse Muller
Good points and nice solution.. But I would suggest using the red color for any missed item, wether it be a voicemail or a call (since having a voicemail already means you missed a call).. When it is a voicemail, it just has a playing control in front of it. If it's a missed call, no playing control.
Hamranhansenhansen
What you're suggesting is how Skype for iPhone already works. Skype has a "History" that shows a record of all call activity. If there is a voicemail attached to a particular call, you see a little "tape" icon next to that call in the History. The first time I saw this I thought "why doesn't Phone work like that?".
Martin
How would this work in countrys without visual voicemail?
Rafael
That is probably a US issue, mine behaves different. If I miss a call a red dot with a 1 appears, if the person leaves a voicemail a red dot with a 1 and a + sign appears "1+" . For the red dot to go away it is a network depent issue, not of the phone. Sometimes it takes a while, sometimes it is instant. Sometimes it gets stuck and you have to manually go there again for it to go away. But it is the voicemail app of the network, not the phone
Josh
Nice ideas Dave. You should check out the Comcast Mobile app in the App Store. They deal with missed & voicemail calls in a very similar manner to what you're describing. Full disclosure: I did much of the interaction design for this application.
Chris
Nice writeup and some good ideas. A better idea is actually filing a bug report with Apple. http://bugreport.apple.com/
Chris Brakebill
Great points and solution. The problem of having to "eat the red dots" definitely isn't exclusive to the iPhone. I have to not only check every voicemail, but go look at my recent calls to prevent my indicator light from flashing and get rid of missed call notification.
Jesse
I agree about the problem. Bothers me too. Don't like combining the lists. Often need to get through my VMs quickly. Having them all in one place is very useful. Just use the one-badge-per-call idea you said first. If there's a VM, put the badge over the VM icon. If there's no VM, put it over the call log. That takes the least interface change, is the most clear, and requires the least attention from the user.
Dan
I think you're overthinking the solution a little bit. What I would do instead is add a second balloon number to the phone app icon -- say, in blue instead of red. Blue would be the number of missed calls and red would be the number of voicemails. Inside the phone application, the bottom navbar stays the same -- as another commenter pointed out, Recent and Voicemail are two distinct tasks -- but the blue balloon number is with Recent and the red balloon number is with Voicemail, reinforcing what the user sees on the Home screen. I don't agree with the "if no voicemail, put number over Recent, else put number over Voicemail" because then if there's a voicemail on a missed call, the count of zero over Recent is false -- the count should actually be one. But I do agree with your solution of removing the number over Recent if you've listened to the corresponding voicemail. Thoughts?
Sei
Meh, I just typed what Jesse said above, really should read all the comments before hitting keys. Another vote for no UI changes beyond removing redundant dots.
Justin
I'm obviously going against the crowd here, but I think you're wrong about the numbers on the home screen being a problem. Sometimes a person calls me and doesn't leave a message. A lot of those calls are time sensitive (i.e. "we're going to lunch within the next ten minutes") and I have no need to call back if I can't do it rapidly. If someone leaves a voice message, that indicates a message that I needed to get.
Dave Cronin
Good points, everyone. After such a good critique, I kind of feel like taking another crack at it. Nathan, of course you're right about the polish. I just threw this together in an hour to get an idea across. (And I should also say that a good bit of what you're perceiving is the fact a computer screen is much lower dpi than iPhone, so I scaled everything down to feel the same size. Most of those images are direct uncompressed screen grabs that I performed a bit of surgery on using the Metaworks Fireworks templates for iPhone, which are pretty darn handy.) MrKungFu, I think you're on to something there. I think the visual coding, controls and playback mechanism could communicate more strongly. (I like Jesse Muller's thinking about the red coding.) Jesse (and others), you can still keep your lists shorter and get through your voicemails quickly by using the middle button at the top. This would, in effect, be identical to the old voicemail screen. If you're counting screen taps, it comes out about even with the old way. So it's an improvement for some people, about the same for people who like their lists divided. (If you account for the 1 tap excise of every missed call that's also a VM.)
Brad
Great post. I agree completely and also think there is a fundamental issue with the way "copy" works within Messages. You can only copy the entire message which is useless when someone sends you an MMS message and AT&T instead provides you with a user id and a password to access the media on their provided link. You can't copy just the user id or just the password. What's the point? A clear example with screenshots here: http://rantsandstuff.com/2009/06/23/one-problem-with-cut-copy-and-paste-on-the-iphone/
PeterG
I think there's a programmatical reason for having a separate dot for the missed call and the voicemail: there's no good way to figure out which missed call a voicemail belongs to. Consider this example: Someone calls you, gets your voicemail and just hangs up. A few minutes later they try again, still get your voicemail, but this time decide to leave a message. Some amount of time later the voice mail notification reaches the phone. When it does, the phone knows which number left message, but it has no way of knowing if the message should be associated with the first or second missed call. Alternately, consider the example where your phone is turned off completely. A voicemail is left for you. The next time the phone is turned on, there's a voicemail but no missed call. To keep the badging consistent, the programmers chose to have the badge on the main phone icon represent a count of all things you missed since the last time you checked. The badge is effectively the sum of the missed calls and the messages left. Once you tap the phone icon, it tells you how many of those events were missed calls, and how many were voicemails. What I personally find more annoying is that when you are looking at recents and have the "Missed" toggle selected, tapping on "Clear" prompts for clearing "all recents" and not just the "missed recents". Peter.
anon
Very clever idea. I like it a lot. I also hate clicking just to remove the second dot.
Ricardo
As long as we're revising the phone app, we should also add reminder beeps for missed calls. We already have this for missed text messages so why not for missed calls? We would need options to turn the feature on or off, select the reminder tone, the time delay between the tones and the number of minutes until the reminder beeps quit. Because I think that a missed call is at least as important to me as a missed text, if not more.
Buffoon
Hows about getting some friends that don't have the same name as you, Dave.
Elliott Kember
Great idea, I like it. Good example, too.
Derek Martin
You, Sir, are a genius. That is worth AT LEAST a 30-inch Cinema Display!
Jesse Ruderman
I worry that with this proposed design, important voicemails would get buried under the list of recent calls, just like important emails get buried in many inboxes. I have elaborated in a blog post of my own: http://www.squarefree.com/2009/07/29/iphone-voicemail/
Ben McKenzie
This is all very clever, though I confess I was unaware of this problem - I live in Australia, and I can't get a list of voicemails on my phone like that! At least, not with my carrier; perhaps it's different for other iPhone service providers here. What I get is a red dot for 1 missed call, and a red dot in messages when I get an SMS from my carrier's voicemail service letting me know I have a voicemail (or more than one; it doesn't always SMS me for every one). When I click the Voicemail icon, it just automatically dials the voicemail number, and I follow prompts to listen to them and delete them (like an office voicemail system). So while I agree you've identified a clever solution to an annoying interface decision, I envy the functionality you're fixing!
John Wetsell
I love your suggestions. I thought the red circle 1,2,3 meant that's how many items I had to take notice. Somewhere along the line I think a developers numbering method got messed up! nice icons too, I like the shaka!
Linda Noel Halverson
Sorry, I don't agree with you. The red dots have never bothered me. I think that is really nit picking on the phone. It is an amazing product that has changed the phone industry. Sorry you have problems with it.
Bill
Here's another nit - if you get a call from a number that's not in your address book why not resolve the area code right there? So: say number 319-123-4567 calls you. If you miss the call and view it in the missed call log you'll see the iPhone has resolved the area code to "Eastern Iowa" or something like that. Why not show that when the number is actually ringing? I routinely get calls from area codes I'm not familiar with and this would help me decipher it.
Mohammed Mudassir
Dave, a superb post! I by myself talk about the iPhone UI Blunder on my blog: http://blog.bongeek.com and just got my article published in iPhone Life April 2009 about the apps experience that are appearing in the App Store!
Alex
Hello guys! Don't you know, was this all fixed in iOS 4?
links for 2009-07-29 | The 'K' is not silent
[...] Dear Mr. Jobs, I have some ideas about how to improve your phone my cheapo phone has this same issue… it is annoying (tags: article ui apple phone) [...]

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