Improving Apple's Airtags

  • 2 Jun 21
  • 12 mins read
Improving Apple's Airtags Improving Apple's Airtags

Apple are indisputably a leader in intuitive design—on many occasions raising the bar for how a product feels, and delivering some of the best user experiences I've ever seen.

But after spending a few weeks using AirTags, I'm disappointed.

I also noticed that the majority of the reviews I'd read online used stock imagery, whilst demoing the tags in a controlled office environment. It's likely that the rush to release reviews quickly—for relevancy—meant that very few people tested them thoroughly.

But to appreciate the intricacies of a world-class UX, you need to really get 'into the weeds' of a product. Which is what I've done.

This isn't a review of the Apple AirTags, but rather an intimate analysis of how they could improve very specific parts of their user experience.

Even Apple misfire from time to time.

Summary

5 ways to improve the UX of AirTags

1. Why you need real-time positioning

If any Apple device gets within range of a lost AirTag (approximately 100 meters), then it silently—and unknowingly to the passer by—pings its location through the 'Find My' network, telling the owner where the item is.

Or at least, that's how it's supposed to work. My experience was underwhelming, and it took me hours to eventually trigger an alert:

But despite opening the notification immediately, it only showed me the location of the device 10 minutes ago—as in, 10 minutes before the notification was sent.

This location being historical, and in not real-time, causes a few problems.

There's a nuance to location-tracking which turns a datapoint (a location), into useful information: the ability to predict a future location.

Most of the time this is subconscious and situational—i.e., when tracking a parcel, you know that the item is moving. But in the case of AirTags, you actually need two pieces of information:

  • ⚡️

    1. Where is my device right now?

    i.e., the exact location of it.

  • 🚗

    2. Is my device moving?

    i.e., has someone picked it up, or is it still on the ground?

Without this context, it's hard to make a rational decision about what to do next. "Is my bag in a bush by the side of the road, or in a car being driven away?".

It's likely that Apple have the data to provide a far more useful breakdown, even without knowing the live location:

Adding 'previously spotted' markers to the map like this would hugely improve the user experience of actually recovering a lost item.

2. AirTag not reachable

If your AirTags are close enough to you, then you can tap a button within the app, and the device will make an audible chirp from its internal speaker.

It's designed to help you locate the precise location of a tag.

But if you're not within range, you see this:

"Move around to connect" is so ambiguous. It doesn't explain the cause of the issue.

From my research, there are many reasons why this message could appear, for instance, if someone has removed the battery of the AirTag.

But it doesn't even warn you of that being a possibility. Instead it's prompting you to 'move'. And what does 'Move around' mean? Wiggle my phone? Walk around my house? Drive around the block?

It'd be really easy to improve this and educate the user by making the notification clickable, which would open a modal with more information:

A non-interactive message telling you to 'move' is thoughtless and unhelpful—which is very rare for Apple.

At worst, people could find themselves walking round and round their house, not knowing that the AirTag battery could have been removed, and no amount of movement will help you find it.

3. The most stressful notification ever created

One of the news-worthy features of the AirTags is that if you try to use them to secretly track someone's location, then—if they have an iPhone—it'll send that person a notification to let them know that they're being tracked.

It looks like this:

And Apple have done a great job of explaining what this is, why it's been triggered and where it's tracked you.

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A quick note here: it managed to accurately track me throughout the entire time where it was "not reachable" and wouldn't update the owner. (i.e., my previous suggestion of showing where the AirTag has been should be entirely possible).

But besides removing the battery, there's not much that you can do at this point.

The only information that you can see about the owner is their phone number—which, if they've actually been trying to stalk you, will likely be fake, as there's no validation when entering it.

In other words: if you're really being stalked, then this information will be useless, so Apple may as well proactively help those experiencing false positives.

It's hard to imagine a more anxiety-inducing notification than being told someone is mysteriously tracking you—so the damage of a false positive is significant.

Here are a few things that Apple could provide access to, which may cut the amount of time that the user is panicking for:

  • 👀

    Has the owner marked the tag as lost?

    This may change your perception of the situation entirely.

  • 🗺

    Where were you when the tag was first spotted near you?

    Where were you with other people (whose numbers are your contacts)? Where were you when the tag was first near you? How long was the owner of the tag with you, before you were on your own?

  • 🚗

    The tag's name

    If it was called 'BMW Tag', then you may immediately remember that you've borrowed your friends car for the day and it's sat on your driveway.

  • How long ago the tag was activated

    If it was first activated the day it started tracking you, that's more suspicious than a tag which has been active for a year.

Although you may believe that you'd be rational and immediately think of these factors anyway—such as borrowing someone's car—you'd be surprised how irrational people can be.

My point isn't that Apple should add any of these data points specifically, but they should be proactively trying to make the UX of a false positive less stressful.

4. Custom messages

The process of marking an AirTag as lost is easy—it's a few taps inside the 'Find My' app.

It even starts with some light onboarding, explaining that you're going to leave a number and a message for the person who finds it.

They then show a disabled input field, with a pre-set message of "This item has been lost, please call me".

Confusingly though, that message is non-customisable.

Which begs the question: if this message is never customisable, then why is being displayed as an inactive input field?

For clarity, the confusion here is that having it look like an inactive field implies it is sometimes a field. But it's not, it's never customisable (at least, not yet).

But using a different element—like, basic text—would be far easier to understand, and introduce far less doubt. And a core aspect of building a great user experience is reducing the amount of time it takes to digest information.

5. The search for milliseconds

Maybe it's a British thing, but occasionally I find myself in a public area, such as a train station, and notice an A4 piece of paper with 'Wet Paint' written on it.

"Okay, but what paint is wet? All of it? The handrails? The walls? The doorway?"

Now imagine a very similar sign that says "wet paint on handrail", with an arrow literally pointing to the handrail.

It's incredibly likely that in both scenarios I walk away without painty hands, however with the latter, I worried less about how to navigate the situation.

Or rather: even a basic 'wet paint' sign reduces painty hands, but its ambiguity creates anxiety and takes longer to process.

Apple have created this 'compass-like' mini-game to help you find items once you're within close proximity to them.

And in a well-lit office environment it works well, but if there is insufficient ambient light, then it doesn't work at all. It just shows a "More light required" message.

They haven't explicitly explained why, but the most popular theory is that the iPhone uses the camera to work out positioning and movement.

Just like a 'wet paint' sign, a few changes to the content—such as literally lowering the messaging on the screen, to be nearer the torch button—would certainly reduce the amount of time it'd take someone to understand and react.

Sure, we're talking about milliseconds—but it's a perfect example of how subtle design changes can create quick wins.