iPhone 4 Antenna issues are a UX issue: What the user doesn't know makes them happy.

Apple this morning is reporting that they've figured out what is really going on with the iPhone 4 antenna. 

We have discovered the cause of this dramatic drop in bars, and it is both simple and surprising.

Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong. Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength. For example, we sometimes display 4 bars when we should be displaying as few as 2 bars. Users observing a drop of several bars when they grip their iPhone in a certain way are most likely in an area with very weak signal strength, but they don’t know it because we are erroneously displaying 4 or 5 bars. Their big drop in bars is because their high bars were never real in the first place.

To fix this, we are adopting AT&T’s recently recommended formula for calculating how many bars to display for a given signal strength. The real signal strength remains the same, but the iPhone’s bars will report it far more accurately (ed: emphasis mine), providing users a much better indication of the reception they will get in a given area. We are also making bars 1, 2 and 3 a bit taller so they will be easier to see.

As Gruber reports, this is the best phone antenna ever created. All the lab tests show its amazing. So what's the cause? The antenna does get attenuated if you hold it a certain way, but in a less dramatic way than 4 bars dropping. Perhaps only 20-30%. Not worse than other phones at all. Turns out it is not an antenna issue, but a user experience issue. 

Mark Twain said if you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything. The pithy saying applies here. I can just imagine the wheels turning as Apple engineers and execs scramble to understand the situation. But it starts with a simple, pretty innocent idea: gosh, the bars look so low. AT&T reception is terrible. Lets just add a couple bars, and nobody will be the wiser. Years later, the issue is exposed in a public and grand fashion as a truly unintended consequence.

While truth will set you free, a little fib will make people happy...

When I was at Microsoft, we had a related UX problem with Microsoft ActiveSync. Customers would consistently complain about how awful ActiveSync was, even calling it ActiveStink. But after a pretty comprehensive review of feedback and failure rates, we figured out that ActiveSync wasn't that bad at all. For instance, we'd often show this error:

The server happened to be down at that very moment, but it would sync again and be fine. We put "Attention Required" and we'd call out that they hadn't synchronized against Exchange. 

What did Blackberry do? Nothing. It wouldn't tell you that the server couldn't be contacted. Users just kept thinking they were up to date. And if they weren't? Oh, it wasn't the Blackberry's fault. It was probably the server or the network or something. Everything is fine. They loved their Blackberries. Brand loyalty through the roof.

Is it important that I'm connected? Or that I FEEL connected?

When it comes to communication technologies, there's a unique UX force at work. There are few things more annoying than a communication device (that costs hundreds of dollars no less!) that makes me feel disconnected. So device makers are forced to think about ways to make people happier by hiding errors or pretending things are fine. There is a very real incentive for them to do so, as I saw first hand with the Blackberry vs ActiveSync status issue. Sometimes it can literally make your brand.

But in the case of Apple, sometimes the things you do to make your users happy can come back to haunt you.



19 responses
There may be an issue with UX, but that doesn't mean the physical antenna problem doesn't exist as well. Anandtech did a pretty good analysis with actual measurements of signal attenuation:

If you scroll down to the table, the iPhone 4 has a loss of almost 20 dB compared to the 3GS's 2 dB when holding the phone naturally. When you're in a 4-bar area, this can take you to 1 bar due to the 20 dB difference between 1 and 4 bars. The dramatic decrease in the bar display is probably what the Apple release refers to, but the signal attenuation is there and does appear to be worse than the 3GS.

The baseline reception on the iPhone 4 is better than that 3GS though, so that helps to mitigate the issue, but there will be higher probability of dropped calls if the original signal wasn't that high in the first place, and this is something that a pure UX fix won't be able to address.

Ah but if you don't hold the phone there, you get better reception than 3GS. =D

Tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

by using the "antenna is on the outside" as a selling point, they opened themselves up to the obvious question of "what happens if I touch the antenna?"

You also can't talk about how much better reception your phone has and expect people to not try to prove you wrong.

I'm sure my phone has similar issues when I hold it, but I don't know, because I can't see the antenna and try to touch it in the right spot.

I think it's funny that part of the solution is to make the bars taller :-)

Great post Garry - VERY interesting.
Sums up my feelings nearly exactly. They got caught lying. Trying to sneak in a few extra bars on me Apple!
indeed very interesting, still wondering how stuff like this can occur though
Does anyone remember when they did this shortly after the release of the original iphone? I do recall and update and then all of a sudden everyones signal had 'improved'. Lovely how they had to backtrack now. I wonder if they'll make adjustments for the white phones coming out later this month.
Pretty interesting (having read other reports) that ALL phones suffer in one way or another with these issues. I can relate, because family and friends laugh at my radio blocking abilities (if I stand between a laptop and a wireless router, you can see the signal strength fall through the floor)
As said in "A Few Good Men," "You can't handle the truth!"
Well, as you already know the most noticeable difference between the iPhone 4 and its predecessors is the new design, which incorporates an uninsulated stainless steel frame that acts as the device's antenna and you will use Free Viagra too. It's the nicest part, isn't it?
Apple iPhone 4 also provides a significantly improved 5 mega pixel snapper back with an LED flash that can take pictures of digital quality snaps and record videos in HD. There is also a front VGA shooter designed to take advantage of Apple's iPhone last four attributes, FaceTime, a video-call technology that allows smooth transition from voice to video from the iPhone 4 is via Wi- Fi. Melioration Besides hardware, Apple iPhone Version 4 uses the novel operating system IOS, which gives support for multitasking, Melioration e-mail, files and a number of other significant changes.

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