The Volume Indicator in iOS 13 Isn’t Better—Just Different


If you don’t already know, iOS 13 has a feature the Apple user community has been clamoring for. At long last, the volume indicator will no longer block the content you’re trying to watch. Or, at least, it will block less of it.

For over a decade, the volume indicator on iOS remained the same. It was a frankly enormous, largely opaque gray box with a speaker icon and segmented indicator. We’ve all seen it, and there’s a good chance we’ve all been driven partially crazy by it.

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Apple’s previous volume indicator had a great habit of obscuring the very content you wanted to see.

The absolute horror show of the erstwhile volume indicator led many developers to build their own proprietary volume indicators. Most apps dedicated to media playback, whether audio or video, have their own volume UI, typically controlled and indicated by a slider. This is a superior option for a few reasons. First, the current volume level is always visible. Second, the indicator doubles as a useful control. Adjusting a value in the same place you see it is a bedrock principle of intuitive UI design. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect from a company like Apple, honestly.

The vanishing volume value makes sense when it’s a giant square in the center of the screen, but there’s literally no good reason for it to be that way. The new indicator may be an improvement over the old indicator, but that’s no surprise: it would be hard to do worse. For a company with such a storied history of excellent design, it was baffling that Apple would simply allow such bad design to not only exist, but persist, for years of updates.

Of course, the variance between apps for something as basic as volume control is far from ideal. That’s confusing to new users, and consistency in a UI design has always been a founding principle of Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines and all other interface guidelines across platforms. A moving target is harder to hit, and shifting the volume control and indicator around is a moving target. Worse still, Apple started using different indicators on media playback and system volume, sparking even more mystery and mayhem.

What’s Wrong With the New Volume Indicator?

The good news is that, after ten years of wandering in the desert (so to speak), Apple has deigned to fix the problem. But their solution is baffling, at least to this correspondent.

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First, it’s ugly. This is doubtlessly a subjective opinion, and it might not be shared by all the readers of this post. But it is certainly an opinion shared by a large portion of the mumbling masses that make up the comment sections of the various Apple forums we frequent.

Second, it’s oddly positioned. Why on the left? It seems that horizontally across the top would be the better choice. That is, of course, where the indicator appears in landscape mode. But it seems that the ears of the iPhone would surely be the best place to locate a temporary status report. Why should this icon be on the primary part of the screen, let alone obscuring a significant percentage of it.

Finally, it’s pointlessly large. For what reason must the volume indicator occupy such a significant portion of the minimal screen real estate available on most smart phones. It makes a little more sense on an iPad, but for an iPhone, the value is unclear.

Some noise has been made about supporting users with vision difficulties, such as elderly or partially-sighted users. But there are dozens of more important and much tinier indicators on the iPhone. The battery indicator, the signal strength bars, the time, app names, notification text: all of it is more important to the user than the current value for system volume.

And yet, the volume indicator occupies some strange place of higher priority in Apple’s understanding of their software. And for what possible reason? If I wanted to enlarge anything on the operating system, it would probably be the button I have to press to dismiss my alarm, but that’s largely unrelated to this issue.

Other Solutions Abound

volume indicator apollo
Apollo’s more subtle volume indicator. Source: Reddit

This issue is particular baffling because there are already so many excellent app-specific reskins of the volume indicator. Our favorite Reddit applications, Apollo, uses a small bar tucked away in an “ear” of the iPhone, to the left of the notch. Other apps have similar indicators, and it seems like a natural place for a status icon.

So why would Apple use such a poor redesign? Sure, it matches the volume indicator in Control Center. And sure, it fits with Apple’s other design choices. But beyond that, it seems as if they overlooked a great solution simply because it wasn’t invented at Apple.

Conclusion

Perhaps, in ten more years, we’ll see a volume indicator that makes better sense. For now, we should just thank our lucky stars they didn’t make it take up the hole screen, like the unforgivably poor incoming call screen. But we can beat that dead horse another day.

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Alexander Fox

3 Comments

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  1. Thanks for posting – Just upgraded to 13 yesterday and one thing I miss about the old volume HUD (believe it or not) is being able to see any kind of numerical or percentage level for volume. The iOS 12 one at least had notches to count so you could see how much volume was changing as you adjusted, but now I can’t find a way to gauge that. Hoping someone comes out with a workaround that gives you a little more specific control!

  2. I know the volume indicator on the iPhone could be positioned better but I personally feel it’s step forward from the indicator that used to cover the whole screen. I genuinely think this volume indicator is better than the last. It’s nice to see someone shares a different opinion

  3. I do not like the new volume indicator, while the old one may have not been the best, I believe this is much worse because it is very hard to see. I basically have to hold the volume up for 2-3 seconds just to make sure it is at max. With all the various options available it would be nice to have an option to select the old style or new style.

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