The iPhone, one of the most popular consumer products of all time, has become a usability nightmare. A new one comes with 38 preinstalled apps, of which you can delete 27. Once you’ve downloaded your favorite personal finance, social media and productivity apps, you’re now sitting at 46 or more.
But finding the one you’re looking for is a slog: Apple has decided, over time, that there is simply no reason to build a clean user interface for the iPhone anymore, so users cannot rely on their home screen unless they sit and carefully craft separate folders and labels for everything. The “settings” app is a labyrinth of different options for various apps and features, one that isn’t even organized alphabetically, with each option leading to more options that lead to even more options.
Apple isn’t alone. Like many companies, it has decided that there’s no need to build an easy-to-use product when it can just patch over its messy design choices with layers of artificial intelligence. If you want to find something in their garbage dump of apps and options, you must use Spotlight, Apple’s AI-powered search engine that can find everything from text messages to that one setting that they’ve buried deep in a Matryoshka of bolted-on features.
This “innovation” of artificial intelligence in your iPhone and throughout the world is not the creation of something new, or revolutionary, but simply corporations selling you back basic usability after decades of messy, thoughtless and bloated design choices. We need to call out what is going on here: tech firms are charging us more to fix their mistakes and slapping an AI label on the shakedown.
Take Google. Since 2007 the search market leader has slowly eroded the signifiers of advertisements, all while allowing results to turn into a mess of search engine–optimized content that seeks to interrupt your quest for answers with something that will make somebody else money. Users must now trick Google into giving them usable results by putting “+Reddit” or other Boolean strings into search prompts. No worries, Google has an answer: it will use generative AI to summarize search results, solving the search problem not by producing more relevant sources, but by reading them for you. One might think that the solution here would be to build a better search engine, or to reject content that was specifically built to game searches, but Google has (willingly or otherwise) fallen so far behind that it must now innovate simply to provide its original service.
This is the ultimate result of the tech ecosystem’s obsession with growth—something I call the Rot Economy. Modern tech companies (especially public ones) are incentivized not to provide better or more usable products, but instead for endless expansion of both revenue and customers. The bloated user experience of an iPhone or Mac computer results from Apple’s constant attempts to bolt on more features and services to your devices. That’s how we ended up with Apple News and Apple Music and Apple Fitness and Apple TV+, each with its own unique set of notifications and popups. This is all in service of increasing the revenue of its multibillion dollar services business, even if these apps (and their various settings) continue to erode user experiences. And the cash that Apple generates from the app store (over $100 billion per year in 2022) means that the company has little interest in trimming the number of apps that users put on their phones. This makes things more bloated, harder to find, and ultimately dependent on Apple’s artificial intelligence.
Alexa and Siri have become replacements for conscious and intentional computing. They aggregate commands into voice interfaces that, while convenient, utterly sacrifice “what we can do” to “what Amazon or Apple allows us to do.” We have been trained to hoard apps and files, while tech companies have failed to provide any intuitive or easy way to organize them. And their solution isn’t to make things more organized or usable. No, our technological overlords have decided that disorganized chaos is fine as long as they can provide an automated search product to sift through the mess.
Much like how having a hammer makes everything look like a nail, tech’s solution to problems is almost always more tech—even if tech created the problem in the first place. While one might argue that artificial intelligence allows for quicker, slicker user experiences, creating user experiences dependent on AI guarantees that any error or poor design choice becomes a single point of failure. It leaves users to sift like a raccoon through hundreds of apps and settings to find the thing they actually want to do.
As I’ve already suggested, artificial intelligence–based user interfaces also deprive the user of choice and empower tech giants to control their decision-making. When one searches for something in Siri or Alexa, Apple and Amazon control the results. They provide potentially what the user wants to see, but also a slew of other options benefiting the firms, such as their own services or preferred search results. Google already provides vastly different search results based on your location, and has redesigned search itself multiple times to trick users into clicking links that benefit Google in some way.
Artificial intelligence that is built to “guide” a user will almost always prioritize the experience that the company wants you to have over the one that you’d actually like. And while the deterioration of the user experience may not be a deliberate choice, Big Tech’s failure to continually improve the ease of use of their devices has given them an opportunity to further funnel and control what a user can do—and manipulate it to their advantage.
Depressingly, our future is becoming one where we must choose between asking an artificial intelligence for help, or fighting through an ever-increasing amount of poorly designed menus in the hope we might be able to help ourselves. We, as consumers, should demand more from the companies that have turned our digital lives into trillion-dollar enterprises.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.