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Random blog-like rambling from Rachel's brain. A mixed up mess of usability posts, fiction, and travel.

On Mental Models, Multitasking and the iPhone

Rh_iphone_upright_2 Amongst my software engineering friends the most frequent complaint I hear about the iPhone is that it does not multitask. That's a true statement, but what interests me about it is you don't hear complaints about that from the vast majority of iPhone users, only really, from engineers. That observation got me thinking a bit about the difference between what a user perceives as multitasking vs what a software engineer considers to be multitasking.

Upfront I will tell you this: none of my meandering thoughts on this have been researched.

What I suspect might be the case though is that a not insignificant portion of iPhone users don't actually know that their amazing little devices aren't multitasking. Why? Well, from their perspective they themselves are multitasking all the time with the device, especially if they have push notifications turned on. Consider the following use case:

A woman sits in the airport, a little bored waiting for a flight, so she pulls out her iPhone. She pops in her earbuds and fires up the iPod functionality before moving over to Safari for some web surfing. She runs across a video, which she clicks on which moves her over to the youtube application. When she's done she hops back over to Safari for more browsing. Along the way, she gets a phone call which is pushed to her attention. She answers it, chats, and goes right back to browsing.

From an engineering perspective, none of this is really multitasking. Each application, with the exception of the iPod which can run in the background, is loaded one at a time. Contrast this with the Palm Pre which can have all these applications running at the same time.

So why aren't more people annoyed that the iPhone works that way? Why aren't more people jumping on the Pre train for that tasty multitasking?

Short answer: that woman in the airport already IS multitasking from a user perspective. Her mental model of the phone and how it functions is completely independent of the engineering of the device. She sees herself as simultaneously listening to music, surfing the web, fielding phone calls, watching videos and monitoring her email. It doesn't get much more multitasky than that.

It's tempting for those of us who understand the guts of something to think that users ought to see things the same way. I've read through threads of conversations on this topic where critics of the iPhone call the users of said device flat out stupid for not seeing this particular limitation. But really, what's the problem? Does the user's mental model have to match up to the physical model for the device to be truly usable?

No. It merely has to closely approximate it in a way that is seamless for the user. The iPhone may not actually multitask, but it offers an illusion of multitasking that is good enough for the majority of its users and there is nothing wrong with that. 

Up until a point anyway. Enter Google Latitude.

Latitude, if you aren't familiar with it, is a web application that can track a user's physical location and publish it out to the user's various followers. A fine stalking application for those who want to be stalked. It's most useful when it can run in the background so the user does not have to take a particular action to trigger the application to do its thing.

When Google introduced the application for the iPhone they launched it as a web application (get it here) and at first that seemed ok. But, but, the iPhone doesn't multitask does it? That means Latitude can't run in the background while we go about our business of wandering off, checking email, playing Snood, and reading restaurant reviews on Yelp.

Google Latitude rather broke the delicate mental model that was keeping some users happy.

It won't surprise me to see more special cases like that start to arise. Eventually, Apple may well have to reinvestigate some of the decisions they've made with the iPhone's engineering. Maybe they'll even switch from faux multitasking to true blue multitasking. They've demonstrated that they listen to complaints about a number of things, so perhaps this too will get fixed if it truly does require fixing.