Alarm Mode != Silent

Your classical bedside alarm clock has three modes, typically set using a hardware switch:

  1. On
  2. Off
  3. Alarm

When it’s “on” it makes noise. When it’s “off” it makes no noise. And, when it’s in “alarm” mode it will make some noise at some predetermined time in the future, which can be set, but will otherwise make no noise until then.

The Apple iPhone, on the other hand, has just two modes, set using a hardware switch:

  1. [blank]
  2. [orange]

When the phone is in “[blank]” mode it makes noises. When it’s in “[orange]” mode, it will vibrate rather than ring, and will make some noise at some predetermined time in the future, but will otherwise make no noises until then.

I mention all of this mostly because an old guy in NY has been in the news this week after he interrupted an orchestra performance with an alarm, when he thought his phone was in “silent” mode.

This has kicked off a big debate about the design of the mute switch.

John Gruber thinks it works just the way it should, or at least, says that if it didn’t work that way it would cause even more problems – which is correct, I think.

Andy Ihnatko thinks that mute should mean mute (i.e. [orange] = “off” rather than [orange] = “alarm”)

Marco Arment argues…

The user told the iPhone to make noise by either scheduling an alarm or initiating an obviously noise-playing feature in an app. The user also told the iPhone to be silent with the switch on the side. The user has issued conflicting commands, and the iPhone can’t obey both.

Actually, that’s not correct. By selecting [orange] mode the user has put their phone in alarm mode, not silent mode, which, doesn’t actually exist, unless you turn the phone off completely. So, the phone is doing exactly what it was told to do.

I think that Apple could do a better job of describing the two modes that are set using this hardware switch.

The first thing they need to do is replace the icon.

Currently, when you switch into [orange] mode (i.e. “alarm” mode) , the following icon is displayed temporarily on the screen:

That’s confusing!

This is all a new user has to help them discover what this switch does.

Having said that, it’s not obvious what the correct icon would be – it’s actually pretty complex mode to describe in one small picture: “vibrate rather than ring, but otherwise make noises I’ve asked you to make”.

How would you solve this problem? Can you think of a better icon? Or is there a hardware solution?

9 thoughts on “Alarm Mode != Silent”

  1. Annoys me that Apple still does not have the Blackberry like bedside mode which turns off all alerts except the alarm. My apple alarm sequence is 1. turn on flight mode, 2. turn down brightness, 3. set alarm.

    Then wake, turn up brightness and turn off flight mode.

    Blackberry has done it for years and it’s immediately missed as soon as you move to an iPhone.



  2. Every dumbphone I’ve ever owned – one Sony Ericsson and two Nokias – has had the alarm trump the silent mode. In fact, all of those phones, when fully switched off, would turn themselves on in order to ring the alarm. I’m not sure if the iPhone does the latter, but I think it probably should. In any case, I’d wager that most phones on the market today work the way the iPhone does.

    An alarm clock gets away with its design and naming conventions because it has only two emitting functions. It plays audio, and it rings an alarm. Alarm Mode isn’t a good name for the iPhone hardware switch because, as Marco points out, there’s a wider set of well thought-out rules for what type of audio will and won’t play in this mode.

    Most phones call their mode ‘silent’, even though it does not mean absolute silence. The iPhone continues the tradition of calling this mode ‘silent’. The official name for the button is the “Ring/Silent” switch. Is there a better name? Probably not. You can’t capture a complex set of rules with a single word. And you don’t want to simplify the rules, as Andy argues, because that’s the tail wagging the dog. So you pick the most descriptive word for the job. ‘Alarm Mode’ doesn’t tell the user anything about what the function does, except that it has something to do with the alarm – and, in fact, the alarm has nothing to do with the switch’s primary function – to stop the phone from ringing when a new message or call received.

    Just like you can’t capture the rules in a single word, you won’t capture them in a simple, recognisable icon that fades away after a couple of seconds. The current icon, which illustrates ‘silence’ in a universal way, is the right one. Thinking up a new icon to solve this problem is, I think, a wild goose chase.

    Some, like Andy, have suggested that giving users more control, by allowing fine-grain options in the Settings app to define exactly what the Silent switch does, is the answer. It’s not. And most users never open the Settings app anyway, so the debate is a non-starter.

    In reality, the current design is probably the best compromise, given that if it wasn’t, we would have been debating this long before one overblown story about one man at a show – three and a half years after the introduction of the iPhone.

    I had one idea, that I only sort-of half like. Rather than buried deep in Settings app, a single setting could live in the Clock app, where the user is already forced to look every time a new alarm is set. It could live under the “Snooze: On/Off” setting –

    “Play in Silent Mode: On/Off”

    1. I already fully dislike my suggestion.

      Firstly, it wouldn’t have helped the man at the orchestra, as he didn’t even know an alarm had been set.

      Secondly, it achieves nothing, as nobody knows, at the time they set their alarm, which hypothetical situation they may be caught out where the alarm is due to go off and the phone in silent mode.

  3. The issue arose because the guy allegedly didn’t know he had set the alarm on his iPhone.

    Either (1) is lying to save face, but looking dumber in the mean time, or (2) should be complaining about his PA, not his iPhone, who must have set up an alarm to go off while he was at the Orchestra (side comment: I wonder if she had already resigned and did this as a prank like setting the hotel alarm to go off load at 3am in the morning).

    @Rod Drury – I am sure that the iPhone alarm use to turn the phone on but this no longer seems the case. I too just use aeroplane mode at night – it is one button and a toggle so cant imagine how a special mode would be quicker. I dont want data at night so this is not a problem and is no different to having the phone off. What does the blackberry bedside mode allow that the aeroplane mode doesn’t (other than brightness which I dont see as a major)

  4. I was reading somewhere this morning someone’s post arguing that the icon is in fact reasonably correct, it switches off the notification bells but the speaker remains on (i.e. as a contrast with the icon displayed when you turn the volume all the way down)

  5. The picture isn’t that confusing at all. Using haptics, i.e. vibration to tell the user that the ringer will not ring but vibrate. So there is two signals being given the to user, one visual the other haptic. Personally I think Apple have this correct.

    @amnon I agree. Never let users as is the case here with Andy have such fine control will only add to the confusion of the functionality of what is actually happening when the switch is used.

  6. Why did the goose have his phone on in an orchestra anyway? If you take technology into an arena where it could potentially leave you looking like an ass, either thru ignorance or even a faulty gadget – then you can hardly stand up against those eyes glaring at you and blame it on Apple. Imagine if it happened in the midst of a steamy interlude with your beloved – blaming the late Steve Jobs would no doubt be a premature and sober end to the session!

Comments are closed.