iOS 11 Control Centre

28 June 2017

The main difference between the iOS 9 and iOS 10 Control Centre was the separation of audio controls into their own page, an intentional move to lower the amount of stuff on screen at a time, splitting audio controls into their own page. The iOS 11 revamp is a harsh swing in the opposite direction, incorporating more buttons than ever into a single view.

The new design packs an assortment of different buttons and sliders into a tight space, a grid of irregularly sized blocks reminiscent of a Tetris game. When I first saw it, my eyes didn’t know where to look. The stacked widgets eschew the linear hierarchy of the previous incarnations and my first impressions were not very favourable.

Each individual platter on the screen looks decent; some of the icons even animate in response to state changes for a nice touch of whimsy. Holistically, the layout is messy.

I retracted my negativity after a couple days of using it. I had to consciously remind myself that this part of iOS is compartmentalised for a reason; it serves as a convenience dashboard to perform common tasks and adjust frequently-used settings.

Writing that down sounds pathetic — it’s such a trivial observation — but once I reaffirmed to myself what the basic premise of the Control Centre is, I could overlook the weird layout and appreciate the functional benefits of the new approach. Glancing at Now Playing, perhaps pausing the song or skipping a track, without having to worry about what page I am on is a huge win.

iOS 10 brainwashed me into thinking that one additional swipe to change page was a reasonable price to pay. I feel silly now for thinking that was acceptable. With a specific goal of access to quick actions, any Control Centre design that involves fewer intermediary interactions has to be superior.

It isn’t just about removing the need to swipe, the mental assessment of the current state of Control Centre also falls away. Your brain can rely on the button always being there. As soon as you finish swiping up, your finger can instantly start moving to the learned position of the Play/Pause button (for example).

After a few days of using iOS 11, muscle memory takes over. I can pause music with my eyes closed, something that wasn’t possible with iOS 10 because I wouldn’t know if Control Centre was on the first or second screen.

The switch from a rigid card design to a free-flowing grid enables additional features and flexibility. iOS 11 lets you add additional actions to show in Control Centre via Settings. New buttons appear in rows at the bottom of the screen as existing controls shift upwards to accommodate. You can even change the order of the square shortcuts by dragging the items up and down in the Settings list. In the future, it’s easy to see how Apple could add free-form customisation of the entire modal panel, letting users drag and drop widgets just like apps on the Home Screen.

If this design motif carried across to the main apps, I would not be happy. It lacks coherent structure and clean appearance that a real application needs, but it is well suited to Control Centre. The vertical stack will neatly reflow into the upcoming 18:9 extra-tall ‘iPhone 8’ screen too. I am onboard with this.

Another usability improvement with the new design is the sliders. Changing volume and brightness has to be the most-used actions for Control Centre and the new layout emphasises their importance. The previous iterations of Control Centre used generic system sliders for these controls, oriented horizontally with a small nub and even-smaller track.

iOS 11 uses non-standard slider controls to great effect. The sliders are bulbous and almost as wide as an average human finger — your finger can’t miss them. I also find it easier to drag things up and down rather than left and right. I have accidentally dismissed the Control Centre when I meant to turn down the brightness a couple of times, though.

I don’t want to give the impression that the new design has no flaws; the number of taps required to switch audio output is a frequent frustration. Few things are truly perfect. What I can say is that my knee-jerk response to the ‘slap-dash’ appearance didn’t play out in practice. This is a better direction for Control Centre than what iOS 10 offered.