Thursday, August 3, 2017

iPhone Pro: We’re going to use a soft home button, right?

Recently, there have been quite a few interesting takes on what Apple would do with the home button on an iPhone with an edge-to-edge screen. I’ll refer you to two takes in particular. For the sake of this post, let’s call the device in question iPhone Pro.

Make sure you read both of these in their entirety. There’s some really great thinking here.

First, Allen Pike made a case for the huge app titles in iOS 11, which could support the back button and other functions that could be relocated to the bottom of the UI. Quite brilliant, actually! I’m just not on board with a soft home button.

Then, Max Rudberg riffed on this with his own take, expanding on Allen’s concept in regards to the iPhone Pro’s alleged ‘notch’. I’m a big fan of his second concept depicted below.

Max Rudberg. iPhone D22, hiding the notch.
Max Rudberg’s concept: iPhone D22, hiding the notch.

Of his four concepts, this one seems the most likely to me. Apple could also blend in the bottom and make it black like Max’s last concept, but that would defeat the purpose of an edge-to-edge screen for me. It would be perceivably smaller in most apps as a result. Having the bottom area take over the color scheme of the app and adapting would make the most sense and in accordance with Apple’s UI design.

That said, I think Apple should take it one step further and just remove any and all representation of a home button. We’ve had ten years of training and know exactly where the home button is supposed to be — in the middle-bottom part of the phone. Why do we need a software reminder taking up screen real estate that could be better served for other purposes, as demonstrated by Allen and Max? I’ve never been a fan of soft home buttons on Android and hope Apple bucks the trend.

Here’s how I’m proposing they do it (borrowing from Max’s concept): a bottom-edge home button area activated by 3D Touch.

Edge home button, activated by 3D Touch.
Bottom-edge home button area, activated by 3D Touch.

As I’ve mentioned before, I feel the home button functionality could be replicated by a 3D Touch press along the bottom edge (the area highlighted by the red box). This would be similar to the now-removed left side 3D Touch edge press to activate the app switcher pre-iOS 11. 1

If you don’t think it would work, without looking or specifically trying to hit the home button, try pressing the red box area on your iPhone 7 or 7 Plus. If your results are similar to mine, your thumb should hit the home button’s bottom edge and activate it. This would leave the middle section free for other elements to be taken advantage of by apps or the system.

Supporting Evidence

It seems increasingly likely that the iPhone Pro will use face recognition in lieu of Touch ID. As identified by notorious iOS prodder Steve Troughton-Smith, there are references to this feature possibly being called Pearl ID. In other words, whether the home button is represented or not, your fingerprint would be irrelevant.

Steve has also discovered settings for a ‘home indicator’ (among many other things) that can be hidden by default within apps.

To this, Dave Mark from The Loop says:

This raises an interesting question. If the home button no longer has dedicated real estate but is, instead a fungible, virtual spot, with the ability to be turned on and off, what happens if an app runs full screen? How will you exit the app?

In other words, if a game takes over the full screen, presumably the home button will not be there. What will the user do to force exit the app, to return to the home screen?

To be crystal clear, I don’t see this as a problem. I see this as an interesting puzzle. We don’t know that the home button will disappear, we don’t know that developers will be allowed to grab the full screen without saving room for the home button.

Great points by Dave. I think all of this could be solved with a 3D Touch home button on the edge.

Peeking and Popping the Home Button

3D Touch can differentiate between levels of pressure, which is why we can peek/pop UI elements on the screen, but the existing static home button only interprets one level. Taking a 3D Touch-activated home button into account, here are some sample interaction methods I can think of that would be great no matter the button’s implementation.

For ease of explanation, let’s use two levels of pressure referred to as Peek and Pop.


  • Peek: takes you back home just like normal.
  • Double Peek: enters the App Switcher just like normal.
  • Peek (hold): engages Siri just like normal.

Essentially, all the interactions we use the home button for now.


  • Peek > Pop: enters the App Switcher or engages Siri.
    • I would prefer the App Switcher in order to make up for the removed left-edge gesture, but I could see how triggering Siri could work here too.

Conclusion: UI is getting out of our way

Apple is on the cusp of releasing an iPhone that is different in many ways. In the examples described, the iOS UI and UX may differ slightly when compared to the traditional iPhone line, but to repeat the same formula for years on end just doesn’t make sense either. As Gruber has been saying, it’s risky for Apple not to try this — for what essentially could amount to a power user iPhone.

Apple has been criticized a bit for 3D Touch with regards to its hidden nature. In some cases, it’s not exactly clear what UI elements you can 3D Touch or when you can touch them. I use it quite a bit and would mostly agree, but therefore regard it as somewhat of a power user feature.

For instance, some have described the use of 3D Touch on home screen app icons as analogous to a context click on the Mac, which makes total sense. Same goes for the incredibly awesome keyboard gesture used to move the text cursor and select text. I could never go back to tap-and-hold for text selection after using the 3D Touch implementation. The thing is, most people probably don’t know of these interactions unless they’ve read about it in the Tips app, online, or someone has told them. Even then, I’d wager most people forget about them or are simply content with the basic interaction methods.

My point is this: UI is increasingly getting out of our way. Maybe we lose a little intuitiveness in the process, but I think it’s worth it. Apple is building a new interaction language that will become so ubiquitous in the coming years that its intuition will matter less and less.

  1. I’m still salty about the removal of that gesture, but perhaps this is the reason why.