Apple iMessage UI Breakdown: Read Receipts

Finally got time to write something that I hold dear and near to: User Interface!

Today I just want to start with a very ‘minor’ feature in IOS’s iMessage UI, the ‘Read Receipts’.

The ‘Read Receipts’ feature lets you tell the people who send message to you whether you’ve read the message or not.

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If you set it to ‘Off’, your friend will see this:

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Notice that under the text message ‘Test’, there’s a small gray word ‘Delivered’. This means your friend will know the message got delivered to you, yet not sure whether you’ve read it or not.

If you set it to ‘On’, your friend will have more information now:

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Now notice that the gray small word is now ‘Read’, means the message not only get delivered, it also get read by you.

So what’s user experience design thoughts have been put into this simple little feature? Let’s have a closer look.

1. Give power user the freedom of control, but keep it simple for normal users.

This ‘Send Read Receipts’ setting is by default turned off, which means most user won’t even aware of its existence. Most user don’t want to think too much of all the ‘fine tweaks’ they can do on their mobile phone. They want to just pick it up and start using it. This setting design does exactly that. A lot of my friends using an iPhone don’t even know they can do this, and they’ve been using iMessage for a long time without any problem. For the power user, they can choose to turn the feature on, and they fully understand the meaning of it. (Not being able to use ‘I didn’t get your message’ as an excuse maybe?)

If it’s designed the other way around. Then normal user will start to complain ‘Why others can know whether I read their message? When did I allow that to happen? And where can I turn it off?’ This is bad experience because it makes user start to think, start to ask questions, and likely won’t get answer easily.

2. Display the information in a non-intrusive, out-of-the-way style. 

As can be seen from the above figures, the ‘Read’ word are gray and small. User can easily choose to ignore them if they only want to read the conversation text. Yet for user that want to know whether their message has been sent or read, the information is there. The visual hierarchy here is well designed.

3. Only display on the newest message to reduce screen clutter. 

Another subtle thing I noticed (but not shown in the above figures) is that only the newest message will have a ‘Read Recipient’ displayed underneath it. Come to think of it, it actually make a lot of sense. Older messages are either replied to or become irrelevant for user to know its delivery/read status. My friend has already replied all my messages I sent to him yesterday, so they definitely got and read all of those messages. The only message I want to know whether it’s delivered or read is the message I just sent. Designing this way instead of display ‘Read Recipient’ on each message has its pros and cons. The good thing is only the most relevant information is displayed, and much less screen clutter. The drawback is that user won’t have a message by message status information (which most of the users don’t care anyway). So I believe Apple make a deliberate decision (Remember design is all about making deliberate decisions for the user) to choose good experience for the 90 percent of the user, rather than sought thoroughness for the rest 10%.

So as we can see from the analysis above, even designing for a small feature like ‘Read Recipients’, there are a lot of design thinking behind it, and being aware of all the pros and cons of the different solutions and making the correct (yet tough) decision for the user is the key to great user experience.

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Giant’s regret?

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Image: Nokia

Nokia has recently confirmed in an interview that they won’t rule out Android’ as a future OS option just yet. Very interesting development in the mobile industry indeed.

Some said that the move for Nokia to partner with Microsoft (which at that time had no proven success in mobile, no ecosystem strength) is a misstep in the first place. The development we saw today may just be the hard facts starting to kick in. Things might be different should Microsoft and Nokia move faster and deliver more, but for two giants like they are, I’m not surprised they haven’t  managed more.  The entire tech industry’s shift to mobile happens not only in technology front, but also in mind-set. Being mobile means you’ll have to move faster (have more products delivered per year), be more creative (some time as destructive as Apple), be more flexible (enter Samsung, with their hundreds of different types of handsets released per year), to even survive.

Having said that, I still think there’s hope for the Microsoft-Nokia duo:

1. Windows OS is unique in experience

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Image: Metro UI via AnandTech

No matter how Android fans try to defend it, the Android OS offer similar if not inferior experience like iOS. But Windows  Modern UI (used to be Metro UI, they changed the term to avoid trademark problem) is totally designed from ground up to be unique and it’s a well thought out design at that. The Windows experience feels more ‘fluidly’ in using (surprise surprise!) thanks to all the smooth and cool screen transition animations. The interface is very minimalistic and easy to use, a breath of fresh air on the look and feel of the heavily-chromed Android/iOS UI and fits into Nokia’s conventional UI style quite well. Even the most die-hard Apple fan boy can’t accuse Windows Modern UI being a copycat.

2. Windows OS is patent-infringement proof

The entire industry is keeping a close eye on the ongoing Samsung’s ‘lawsuit of the century’ with Apple, and the attention is very well deserved. Because it will carve out the future shape of mobile OS landscape. If OEMs end up needing to pay a high loyalty fee to use Android OS, then suddenly Microsoft become very appealing as an alternative. Not all company has the deep pocket and thick face to go into a huge law suit war with Apple like Samsung did.

3. Scale wise, Microsoft-Nokia is the only candidate to compete with the Google-Samsung duo.

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Scale still counts these days. Without Google’s influence on Internet and Samsung’s huge business machine on developing and delivering hundreds of devices per year, Android won’t be at the place they are today. To match it, similar scale is almost a must. (Look at Palm’s ‘downfall’ as a proof of this point, they have all the correct ingredients, just not big enough to push for ecosystem penetration to a tipping point. ) Combining Nokia’s market share and reputation on mobile device and Microsoft’s influence (mind share) on desktop OS, they definitely should be able to compete head to head with anyone.

Whatever Nokia or Microsoft want to do, they must act fast and don’t ever look back. Nokia might be the no.1 mobile device manufacturer and Microsoft the no.1 desktop OS, but those are history and holds very little credit on a fast paced, ever-changing mobile industry.