Reverse designing the iPhone X Notch
Reverse Engineering is a way to understand how a product/system was made from looking at the solution. While Reverse Engineering is widely common and it almost accurate in explaining in background technology, Reverse Designing try to be more opinionated and it's built around few anecdotes.
Apple unveiled a new iPhone, with an interesting design detail, a Notch. To give a context, this is the notch...
In terms of hardware, the notch serves the purpose of accommodating a speaker, microphone, two cameras and other sensors and illuminator to support a variety of functions including True Tone display, Face ID, Augment Reality features, Audio/video calls and future Selfies. It's kinda like a Mini Xbox Kinect sitting up there.
The problem of Notch.
I haven't seen the phone in person and haven't used enough to know whether this will be a problem for normal use. But the overall feedback from media/twitter is that it's not pretty and it's not the best solution. Apple could have either fixed it at the hardware level, by adding bezel in the top or through software by adding a black status bar.
It's absurd to say blindly that these solutions are bad. They are indeed pretty and it's quite easy for Apple to implement just through a software update, but for some reason, Apple didn't go with that and it actually doesn't recommend App developers to hide the notch with black status bar. This is a bold #embracethenotch move. Which actually made me write this article and question what would be the possible reasons for this design rationale.
For the sake of clarity, I'll question myself why the hardware/software notch wouldn't work at every step. Do note that, my essay on this is not to convince you to believe in the notch, but rather a design exercise for me to question why things are designed thew ay they are
Augment reality / Camera as an Interface?
One of the things iOS showcased this year was Augment reality through AR-Kit. While it's still early, it has apotential to become a whole new platform. More and more Camera-based interfaces will popup. While they will work on current iPhones, it might not feel as immersive as iPhone X. The bezel not being there makes you feel like you are seeing it real. The reason ultimately boils down to screen to body ratio. The more the screen, the more consumers might feel immersive. If you feel doubtful about that statement, check out iPad as an example. I find all the AR demos in iPad feels more immersive than the phone, primarily because the frame stays out of the way by balancing with a huge screen. iPhone doesn't have this luxury, so they went all screen and arrived at a notch in the top.
Now having a hardware bezel takes away this immersive experience permanently. Having a software bezel might be inconsistent when users are switching between camera and non-camera screens.
If you are using multiple Apple devices, you might feel that somehow they are all reliable, work with the same intent, and designed with same care. This coherent device experience is possible through company's strong mission.
Apple might have a long-term vision for all their products and how they would probably evolve in next few years. This is one of the reasons they constantly take risky decisions because they know it would pay off in a long run.
Instead of small iterations towards the end goal, as shown below (A), Apple took the other approach (B). While approach (A) looks prettier, it doesn't move towards its vision as fast compared to approach (B). Moving towards vision also means showing value to users / training them to adapt all screen phone.
I don't think Hardware bezel or software bezel would aid this process to reach their end goal faster. It might actually slow down their mission or in fact, make them as same as a big company which is afraid of bold changes.
Apple has to design for billions of devices. It has the potential to change the industry's direction every now and then. So it might be not just designing for 2017, but it designs for years to come. This means it might be not just designing for current constraints, but also future constraints. So having a hardware bezel will be restrictive soon.
We saw iOS-11, but I'm sure iOS 12 design is already in works or already close to design completion. 2018/19 iOS software might be completely different and might even revolve around this notch. One design direction they might make is to go with a darker interface similar to Apple watch for the next OS.
Right now most of the iOS interface highly depend on text, graphics, images, videos. The future iOS might not rely on just these, but may be more on AR/Camera-based UI. IKEA, for example, launched Places App where the main screen is a Camera-based UI. This is not new and Snapchat was a pioneer to bring this interface to the mainstream. This trend will just get bigger in next few years when AR Kit takes off.
In this case, both Hardware / Software Bezel will act against the visual cue that's guiding the users about the camera interface that's behind the traditional content.
Apple's famous marketing campaign enforces on their ability to think different. While there are countless bezel-less android Phones with an edge to edge display, I see Apple is being okay in being different than them. Apple is not just afraid to embrace its difference, but actually making it as a bold brand statement. In the sea of phones that are coming next year, consumers will identify the screen even in dark because of the notch. Some of the marketing materials also feels inline with this
We will only know whether it pays off on a long run, but for now, Apple is being Apple itself when comes to taking risk and being bold with it's decision.
Accessibility of the control centre?
Since the home button is replaced with a swipe up gesture, control centre takes up less prominent gesture in the top right corner. So the ears are kinda the visual indicator to reinforce that users can swipe from two ears for two different goals - notification and system controls. Having a black hardware/software notch might actually make users feel that status bar is disabled. This might be a weak reason, they but could have added up to the design decision.
It might be another Nose problem?
The beautiful Sunset you saw on your last trip? The first time you saw an adorable puppy? The Amazing dress that you tried out in the shop? All these memories have one thing that's common, but you will not be able to relate to it. It's your nose. Yes, In all these memories, your nose was there but conveniently removed by your brain. In fact, your brain constantly ignores your nose until you start to focus on your nose. This is what I try to frame as the Nose problem. Apple designers and internal users might have felt the same after using the phone for few days/ months/years.
Apple might have even tested out the OS with software bezel to see how test users might react with/without the notch, and it might not have found anything conclusive to use this big hack? In other words, it might not be a real problem and our brain might start ignoring the ears after few days of usage. This could be one of the major reasons why Apple might have felt confident in releasing iPhone X. Whether it's true or not, time and usage would tell.
The article was written with few major assumptions on both Apple and it's consumers part. I try to be less as a fanboy and more as a designer when I reverse designed the rationals. Of course, this could be all wrong and Apple might just cover it's notch with a software update soon because they are known to accept their mistakes too.
Did I miss out any other major rationals or any of these points don't make really any sense? Feel free to tweet me about it!
Oh and if you are planning to get the iPhone, but not fully convinced with the notch, the real reason might be it's price