Thoughts on the iPhone X and Web Design

Aaron Manire // February 2018

Having spent a few weeks with an iPhone X now, I wanted to share some thoughts on how it's impacting the ways that we design websites. I'm not referring to Safari's guidelines on edge-to-edge screen fitting, which are essentially a workaround for "the notch", but the broader trends in play. And I should note that Apple did not pioneer many of these trends (see, for example, WebOS) but that is water under the bridge. What matters now is that Apple has a well-established record of setting consumer expectations. The introduction of the iPhone is largely responsible for driving adoption of the mobile web and later, the introduction of "retina" screens in 2010 drove a wave of demand for high resolution imagery and vector art. Likewise, the iPhone X coalesces and amplifies work in design systems that take advantage of the new wave of OLED screens, pervasive gesture-based interactions, and biometric authentication. None of these change the fundamentals of web design and development, but they do further open up areas worth exploring to future-proof websites and delight users.

The Screen

The iPhone X screen has a noticeably taller aspect ratio than earlier models. When lined up, the trend line is clear. The iPhone has been unmistakably moving towards a taller, narrower profile.

iPhone X19.5:9@3xiPhone 6/7/8 Plus16:9@3xiPhone 6/7/816:9@2xiPhone 5/C16:9@1xiPhone 3GS3:2@1x
iPhone screen aspect ratios and device pixel ratios


The height of the screen is now just over double the width (19.5:9). And it's not alone. The Galaxy S8 and LG V30 have very similar aspect ratios (18.5:9 and 2:1 respectively). The industry as a whole is moving away from the heretofore standard 16:9 scale.

Have we reached the final conclusion of this evolution? Will the slimming trend continue or will the pendulum swing back? Will round-cornered rectangular internet communication devices soon be superseded by holographic projections? Who can say? In any case, what does this mean for websites?

Well, when it comes to images, aspect ratio matters a LOT, especially on devices that can rotate. A 16:9 hero image that covers the screen of a 1280x1024 pixel laptop is laughably puny on a 1125x2436 pixel iPhone X in portrait orientation.

Screenshot of Big Hero 6 16:9 image on portrait iPhone X screen
Big 16:9 hero image on MacBook Pro vs iPhone X held portrait


So it is ever more critical to consider the rendering of large showcase-style images. One option is to plan to shoot or purchase photos with plenty of croppable space outside of the image's focal point. A good example of this approach can be found in The Long Read, a collection of extended essays on theguardian.com.

Portrait and landscape-oriented screenshots of The Long Read hero image
Regardless of portrait or landscape aspect ratio, the photo fills the available screen space.


Alternatively, the image can be padded with a specific color or pattern to flesh out the missing space. This can work well with illustrations or green-screened backdrops, but try to avoid it with rectangular photos. Full-bleed photos are positively gorgeous on an edge-to-edge OLED screen.

A third option is to replace it with a different photo entirely. This approach can be done with the picture element or CSS media queries as Apple does when showcasing the iPhone X.

Portrait and landscape-oriented screenshots of Apple iPhone X promo image
The product image for the iPhone X changes depending on screen aspect ratio.

 

Component-based design

Square or circular images are handled the most consistently across a wide range of device screens, since their aspect ratios do not change when rotated. The same is true for text and other web patterns. Text inside a square box is not going to reflow as significantly as a wide rectangle. All the more reason to rigorously test and tweak the display of asymmetrical components across different regions and viewport widths. 

If the upper or lower end of media query on a component exhibits distortion, add another breakpoint and handle it appropriately. Breakpoints are for when things break. Those edge cases might be tucked away on today’s devices, but conspicuous on tomorrow’s.

Super Retina Resolution

Although the iPhone X is hardly the industry leader in pixels per inch, it is now Apple’s highest resolution phone at 458 ppi. It’s worth a reminder that older, pre-retina images are going to look even fuzzier on 2018 phones. There’s no better time than now to replace illustrations with scalable vector graphics where possible or provide multiple image sizes to support higher resolution raster images.

That said, with higher image resolution comes bigger file sizes. So, if there are more than a couple of images below the proverbial fold, it is especially worth the effort to lazy load them as the user scrolls down the page. This decreases the performance penalty and lightens the DOM, improving the user experience. 

Pitch-perfect Black

On the iPhone X, these animated gears appear to be suspended in space rather than displaying on a screen.

I know this is kind of ridiculous, but possibly my favorite thing about the iPhone X screen is the black. Not only does it provide more battery efficiency, since black pixels on OLED screens don’t consume power, it looks exactly like the neighboring material. A black background blends right into the screen and gives the uncanny impression that lighter elements are printed directly onto the surface independently from each other, or ineffably escaping the screen. I have never been fond of inverted color schemes before but I’ve now come to prefer browsing Reddit’s night theme, because it just looks so damned awesome on the iPhone X.

Try viewing this animated gif on an LCD screen and see how the effect compares. Will this have a major impact on the way you design webpages? Probably not, but it might be worth playing around with a bezel-blending background and helping to conserve battery life in certain scenarios.

Gesture-based Interfaces

While writing this blog post, I stopped to pick up some groceries. At the register, I noticed that the iconic iPhone with home button was printed right onto the conveyor belt.

After the notch, the next most apparent change from previous iPhones is the missing home button. This is a significant removal, given its singular prominence on the iPhone. Not only is the the home button a distinguishing feature of Apple devices, it is often used as a iconic representation for all mobile devices. 

Parting ways with the dedicated home button, an iPhone X user soon must learn a new navigation paradigm based entirely on gestures. Instead of pressing the button to return to the home screen, you swipe up from the bottom of the screen. This motion blends fluidly into the gesture to invoke the app switcher. This interaction is easier than double-tapping the home button, which feels clunky now. With a little practice, I've come to find this movement delightful, like I'm an ace Vegas poker dealer, smoothly distributing a deck of cards.

This has a similar effect that keyboard shortcuts can have for power users on a desktop computer. By keeping your fingers in place over the home row on your keyboard and not constantly reaching for the arrow keys and mouse, you can achieve higher levels of efficiency. Web browsers settled on a set of keyboard shortcuts years ago. Although the distance is smaller, repositioning your hand to double-press the home button and then repositioning it again to swipe through the app switcher does require several extra movements.

The upshot of this gesture-oriented interface is that swiping has been elevated to the preferred navigation paradigm and tapping a small touch target feels like a tedious fallback. It is natural for this paradigm to extend to web user interfaces. Many gestures have been around without much fanfare for years, such as carousels that rotate with a swipe. But users will begin to subconsciously register some design elements like close buttons for modals to feel increasingly dated and fiddly. I’ve been very satisfied with the Photoswipe JavaScript library because it provides gesture-based control over image galleries, notably including a gesture to pinch to close.

A simple iOS 11 gesture that translates well to web user interfaces is the return navigation in the App Store. After viewing today's promoted app, there is a pull-down gesture that seamlessly moves from an app details page back to the promotions overview listing (Today). The app details page also includes a conventional "×" to close, which provides the same back-button functionality. That fallback close button signifier is essential for new users who have not yet discovered the gesture-based navigation and is also useful to veteran gesticulators who have scrolled further down the page.

This kind of fluid UI is a real challenge for traditional page-request driven CMS's such as Drupal. To provide site-wide gestures of this nature, it becomes necessary to build with a front-end JavaScript framework such as React or Vue. AirFrance used the latter to create a fun website for listening to their music playlists that really showcases this capability.

Easy Authentication

Now that I’ve grown accustomed to Face ID for unlocking my phone, I yearn for the day when this feature is available everywhere. With a single tap, glance and swipe, I can slip through two layers of authentication and review my latest banking transactions in Mint. There’s something magically effortless about the experience, and I am a proud password monger. A high bar has been raised for authentication user experiences in general.

Face ID is not perfect, it doesn't work when I'm lying down. But it's better than the alternatives. To my surprise, it even works while jogging, when my sweaty fingertips would inevitably fail Touch ID and a passcode is too difficult to enter without standing still.

Unfortunately, we have no idea if a website API for biometrics is anywhere on Apple's horizon. In the meantime, web developers will need to make do as best they can. Currently, “passwordless” email-based authentication and piggybacking on social media logins with OAuth are a couple of options, but neither of these are in the same league as Face ID. Site visitors are going to grow even more impatient and dissatisfied with complicated password policies, despite the fact that strong credentials are more important than ever.

Evergreen Design

Despite rumors to the contrary, there is solid demand for the iPhone X. This weekend, Samsung is launching the Galaxy S9, which by all accounts will push the trends forward in 2018 models. The industry is moving at a steady clip. Instead of building websites primarily for compatibility with yesterday's browsers, we now have the means to design for devices that do not yet even exist. The iPhone X is just an opening salvo.

Aaron Manire Headshot

Aaron Manire

Director of Web Development

I coordinate Drupal development teams and plan technological growth, and like to get my hands dirty with code when I can. I enjoy that at Isovera I’m constantly learning new things, sharing that knowledge with others, and working with the terrific people who make our work possible.