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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Messages on iOS 10: Better features, worse usability

I like a whole lot of what Apple’s trying to do with Messages in iOS 10. Message-sending is the killer app of smartphones, and Apple’s text-and-photos approach to messaging was too basic. With iOS 10, Messages is fun again.

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I love those stickers. They’re silly, sure, but they’re a ton of fun.

And effects! Don’t get me started. Sending the word balloons, but with the Lasers effect? It’s the best. I really do enjoy sending messages with those effects, though I admit that my enjoyment is almost entirely ironic. It doesn’t matter. They’re silly and fun.

But here’s the thing: Apple has packed tons of fun things into Messages in iOS 10—but the interface itself has broken down. No, Messages isn’t as inscrutable as Snapchat, but it’s not what I’d call a well-designed app. It’s an app that’s full of features, but too many features are impossible to discover. Overall, Messages for iOS 10 is just way too complicated.

Let’s start with the blue up arrow, which has replaced the Send button. Its placement, where the old Send button was, is probably enough to get across what you do when you tap it, but I’ve seen numerous people upgrade to iOS 10 and then get confused how to send a simple text message.

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What’s worse than the arrow itself is what’s hidden behind the arrow. If you use 3D Touch (or touch and hold on non-3D-Touch-capable devices), you get access to all those effects—four effects that animate the bubble you’re sending, and five that animate the entire message window. Those effects are fun, and once you know to use 3D Touch they’re pretty easy to send (though if your grip’s not secure, you could find yourself pressing the send button instead of bringing up the effects window).

What about discovery? There’s simply no way, short of trial and error, for someone to figure out how to send effects. This is a problem with a lot of the design of iOS 10, where there are lots of extra features concealed a tap or swipe away, but without any indication that there’s anything more you can do on that screen. (Try to toggle shuffle on and off in Music. You have to know to scroll the album art up to reveal the additional controls, but how would you know? Again, once you know the feature is there, it’s pretty nifty—but it’s just frustrating unless you are in on the secret.)

On the iPad, there’s an ink button parked on the keyboard. Tap it, and you get a white area where you can draw a message as if you were writing in ink. I don’t really understand the rationale for placing that feature inside a software keyboard, and I always forget that it’s there, but that’s where Apple has put it. On the iPhone, it’s even weirder—you get to the interface by turning your phone on its side so it’s in landscape orientation, at which point the writing space appears.

All the other features are located under a gray greater-than symbol to the left of the text input area. Tap that symbol and you’ll see three different symbols—a camera, a heart with two fingers, and the somewhat familiar App Store logo. The camera icon is clear enough, though you have to swipe to the right to reveal that you have access to a full-screen camera view as well as the traditional photo-library picker.

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The Digital Touch view (the heart with two fingers) has been imported from the Apple Watch, and combined with a video-camera feature. I’m willing to accept that this is the most Snapchat-like of all Messages features, and that someone my daughter’s age might find it awesome. I find it a little confusing. You can tap a carat icon to take the Digital Touch panel full screen, so you can draw an animated messages in a larger space. There’s an animated panel just above it that shows you what different finger gestures will do, and if you tap it, a help page will slide up. For a simple, fun feature, it’s not so simple.

Then there’s the app store. I like the idea of a Messages app store, full of sticker packs and apps that can integrate the intelligence of standalone apps with the freewheeling conversation of a text message. But the complexity of this interface is pretty breathtaking. Here’s how to direct someone to the Messages App Store: Tap the gray greater-than sign, then the App Store icon, then the four-circles icon in the bottom left corner of the screen, then the icon with a plus symbol that’s labeled Store. Four taps to get to the App Store seems like a lot, but there it is.

Finally, let’s talk about the message window itself. Stickers can very easily cover your conversation, and it’s not obvious how to get them out of the way to read a text. The Tap Back feature, which lets you give a quick reaction of one of six icons to any given message, is invisible unless you go looking for it—or activate it accidentally.

I like Apple’s instincts in transforming Messages like it has in iOS 10. But the interface is in need of a lot of refinement. Some features aren’t at all discoverable, and others are buried behind complex chains of icon taps and slide-up interfaces. (I’m also not sure why Digital Touch and the ink-writing feature are different.) There’s a lot of fun stuff here, but for more people to embrace it, they need to be able to find it and use it with ease. A messaging app shouldn’t be boring—but it also shouldn’t be hard to use. In iOS 10, Apple has traded one problem for another.

See more iOS 10 coverage.

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