Mute means mute

By | 2012/01/15

iPhone mute switch

Over at Daring Fireball, John Gruber has a post, “On the behavior of the iPhone mute switch“. This article arose from the well reported case recently of a conductor halting a performance because he was (justifiably) disturbed by incessant iPhone ringing. John reported that the owner of the iPhone hadn’t realised he was at fault because it was actually an accidentally set alarm playing on the phone while the hone was on mute.

Gruber ends by saying:

if the mute switch silenced everything, there’d be thousands of people oversleeping every single day because they went to bed the night before unaware that the phone was still in silent mode.

I’m calling that this is poor UI design on Apple’s part. I read and understand John’s rationale completely, but it’s wrong.

Mute means mute.

Every phone and device I’ve owned up until the iPhone which has had a mute switch has worked on the simple premise that if the mute switch is engaged, then the device is silent. No ifs, no buts, no exceptions.

The iPhone mute switch is not a hard switch and seems to be ignorable on a per-app basis. For instance, you can’t watch use the YouTube application with mute enabled – sound still plays. You equally can’t use the Apple supplied Video utility either on mute. Equally, there are games on the iPhone that will still play sound, even when the phone is on mute. (I can’t think of specific examples at the moment – I delete these when they do it. And give a bad review on the iTunes store.)

It’s frustrating, and annoying. What if I’m out somewhere and I want to quickly show someone a clip of video, but I don’t care about the sound? It could be that we’re in a fairly quiet place and I’m wanting to be discrete. Why do I have to remember to start frantically dialling the volume down, while the phone is muted, just because the application in question gets to ignore my preference? What possible reason (other than a narcissistic self-aggrandizing belief that he/she knows best) would a game developer have for explicitly ignoring an engaged mute switch? OK, so I admit I’m not an iOS developer, and maybe the Application designer has to explicitly check for mute being enabled and then choose to not make a sound – but if so, that points to an even more fundamental flaw in the entire mute process on the iPhone.

Gruber gives the pleasant example of the iPhone being “smart” enough to still wake people up when they’ve accidentally put the phone on mute before bed, and I agree this can be handy, but there actually needs to be a middle ground. You see, “mute means mute” is well enough for dumb phones and dumb devices, but we’re talking about a device here that’s got the ability to have per-application settings, and controls over sounds, etc. In essence, if there are exceptions to the “mute means mute”, these should be user controllable.

What I believe would be a more sensible approach would be:

  • Default action is “mute means mute”;
  • Within the Settings – Sounds area, there would be a “Mute Exceptions” option, and that would list all the applications that request to be able to play sound even though mute is engaged.
  • With the exception of the Clock app, this would be “No” in all cases.
  • The user could toggle-on permission for any given application to play sound while the mute button was engaged.
  • Without this permission, the application would be denied access to playing sound by the OS while the mute button was engaged.

This would be a far more sensible design, and take advantage of the fact that the phone is significantly more capable than a dumb device, and able to be better customised to suit the user’s experience.

It can also work in the reverse for people too, who actually prefer to run the iPhone on silent most of the time, but occasionally want audible alerts. As a simple example, my iPhone runs mostly on silent. However, every now and then I’m on-call, and when I’m on-call, I need to get audible alerts for SMSs, regardless of the time of day. (Want? No. Need? Yes.) So I want the option of still keeping the phone on silent, but having SMSs, and maybe even phone calls, to get audible alarms. Going into a “Mute Exceptions” area and just toggling on “iMessage” and “Phone” for two weeks would be exceedingly handy.

It would be up to the individual app designer as to whether he or she wants to pester the user that the phone is on mute and they’d get a better experience by turning sound back on.

But at the end of the day, it should always be up to the user as to whether sound emits from their device.

Ultimately, it should be one of the two situations:

  • Mute means mute, or
  • Mute means mute unless excepted by the user.