It’s obvious that an iPhone, or other iOS device, is really just a small computer that you can hold in your hand and fit in your pocket. When you want to make changes to the way your iOS device behaves, you enter a world of many options, just as on a full-sized computer. The iOS Settings app – which stores settings for most, but not all apps – is a capharnaum which can confuse even the most battle-hardened iOS users.
When you enter the Settings app, you see top-level entries grouped by topic or theme. Scroll all the way down the list; it takes four screens to get there (on an iPhone or iPod touch), and there are 35 top-level entries, not counting the bottom section which has entries for third-party apps:
Some of the groupings are logical. The top section stores settings for the device’s communication features: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Carrier settings and more. The next section has settings for alert features, with Notification Center, Control Center and Do Not Disturb.
Then you get to the confusing General settings. This has 18 entries, some of which govern device usage settings (Siri, Spotlight Search or Text Size), and others that govern security features (Auto-Lock, Passcode Lock and Restrictions). There are also settings like iTunes Wi-Fi Sync and VPN, which could be in other sections.
The grouping that features General also has Privacy; this is a security setting, and would make more sense being grouped in a Security top-level entry, with, say, Auto-Lock, Passcode Lock and Restrictions.
Then next section has settings that do fit together well: iCloud, Mail, Contacts, Calendars, Notes, etc. But Phone and Messages? Shouldn’t they be near the top with the other communication settings? Compass? Why is that next to Safari?
Move down a bit more, and you get to a logical grouping: media. This has entries for iTunes & App Store, Music, Videos, iBooks, Podcasts, etc.
Then comes a group with account settings: Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Vimeo. Couldn’t they all be behind an Accounts entry at the top level?
Finally, below that section, you see entries for apps that are not part of iOS, or not Apple apps. But you can see at the top of my “other” section that AirPort Utility – an Apple app – shows up. Other non-bundled apps show up in other sections above – such as Podcasts and iBooks – so the Apple/not Apple distinction isn’t the only one. (Apple’s Trailers also shows up in that bottom section.)
There are literally hundreds of discrete settings behind those top-level entries. (I was going to count them for this article, but there are too many.) It’s very hard to find what you’re looking for in the Settings app, if you don’t know in which section a setting could be. Apple needs to take a feature from its OS X System Preferences app: have a search field at the top of the Settings screen where you can type a word that you’re looking for. The Settings app could narrow down its display so you can easily find the setting you want, or simply get to that setting more quickly.
What may be most confusing about the Settings app is the bottom section, for third-party apps. First, not many third-party apps put their settings here. Many of the apps I use have their own settings buttons and screens. This section is redundant, and Apple should probably deprecate its use. But for apps that do put settings there, many of them simply have things like Version and Acknowledgements (this is the case even for Apple’s AirPort Utility). I see no need to add yet another entry to the Settings app for information like that.
iOS devices are computers, and do have complex settings, but Apple needs to start helping users better access and understand these settings. A Spotlight-like search field in the Settings app would be a good place to start, and culling unneeded entries in the Settings app would also help. But perhaps the best idea would be to move all app-related settings to their specific apps. It makes more sense, when you’re in an app and looking to change settings, to do it from the app than to switch to the Settings app.