Rethinking the Camera Lockscreen Button and Mobile UX

Apple iOS 5 lockscreen and camera button, via Pocketnow and MacRumorsI don’t usually think about the camera button on my mobile devices. Its there. I assume that it will be ready when I need. And aside from maybe a confirmation to unlock the device, it just works. So, do mind my silly brain when I find that one of the new features coming for iPhone/iPad devices is the ability to take a photo right from the lock screen. It feels like a design compromise instead of the solution to a problem.

This will sound nothing like me in times past. But the camera button is one of the few places on a mobile device where I think that a physical button (or a virtual one that sits on the top/lower right side of the device should be. I’ve never been a fan of those devices that forsake that button for something on screen as it feels unnatural and many times puts your hands or a finger in the way of what you are viewing. I get it though for simplicity’s sake. It just doesn’t make much sense to me.

Mobile cameras are at the moment tools. You see something, the picture is either there in your memory or sits a bit longer for you to mechanically take a reproduction of it. Done with enough artistic flair, a mobile camera can be used to tell a story with any number of photos. A good mobile camera actually lets your mistakes work to your benefit and don’t overemphasize what can be seen with a mechanical eye versus what you see with your organic one. They are marvels, and as such, how we’ve learned to live with cameras (before mobile phone ones and long after) is like reading – something that’s very well behaved within our social practices.

Buttons to make that happen are question of compromise. You can get a pretty slim device when you get rid of the buttons. And you can also do some neat things with auto-focusing, smile detection, facial/environmental recognition, and panoramic views with a two-stage button. Its not needed. But its behavioral to press a button and then expect an action. Its natural enough to feel right, but I’m not sure that its the right action given what mobile devices can do now.

But that lock screen. Putting a button on there to access the camera seems like a good idea. You want to take a picture, you’ve only got a moment, so boom. But then its not. Its a shortcut. It doesn’t really change the behavior as much as it is a variation on the old one (unlock to snap). I’d like to have seen it done a bit differently – you know, with a bit more understanding of the context of how we use a mobile device and even cameras:

  • Person sees something they’d like to take a picture of
  • They turn their mobile to the side (landscape with bottom of device facing right)
  • Camera’s lens turns on and an unlock button appears on the top-right of the screen
  • Person taps the button and it snaps the picture and unlocks the device for more pictures
  • Person turns device to portrait orientation (bottom of the device is now pointing down)
  • Device goes back into locked(-screen) mode and the last picture taken is now the background for the lock screen

A few things to consider there:

  • I’m asking that the software is intelligent enough to know the difference between a person holding the device and turning it, and then a causal laying down of the device on its side when it is locked
  • For those who like those cases that hold the device on its side, could such an implementation also use the ambient light sensor to note that there’s not enough light and therefore not turn the camera on?
  • I’m changing the idea of a button on the device to a virtual one, but keeping the “capture” button in the same relative position, therefore there’s no obscuring of the image at any point by the person.
  • It could then be possible to change the position of the “capture/lock” button to the top-left to handle lefties

I know that some won’t think that there’s anything wrong, and maybe even that its innovative, with how Apple (and Microsoft with Windows Phone 7) have addressed taking a picture in a seamless manner from a locked device. But, I wonder if they are merely just trying to shortcut to an experience instead of actually designing a lockscreen-to-camera feature that takes advantage of the behavior of people, their preconceptions about cameras, and the sensors that these mobiles have which are mostly under-utilized?

Try it. Pull your mobile out of your pocket/off its desk and turn it to take a photo while the screen is locked. Does a shortcut button actually work how MS and Apple have gone about it? Or, does what I suggestted have some merit to be further explored?

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