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At a time when more and more people are stuck at home and turning to video calling solutions, it seems that what should be one of the most useful and handy tools for iPhone, iPad, and Mac users is creating more frustration due to Apple’s decision to be more whimsical than practical in making its design decisions.
Most video conferencing apps offer variations on a simple grid-like presentation of all of the participants. Some, like Zoom, offer the ability to arrange everybody in a video wall, while others such as Google Meet offer a more straightforward presentation that shows the person currently speaking front-and-center with others arranged in a series of thumbnails at one edge of the screen.
Even Apple’s original iChat for Mac, which only supported calls with up to three other people, managed to balance both design and practicality in its user interface, displaying each participant with the cool reflective design that was one of Apple’s signature photo effects at the time, but still arranging them side-by-side in a layout that made you feel like you were all sitting around a table.
By contrast, we’ve been forced to ask ourselves lately what Apple’s designers were thinking when they came up with the design for Group FaceTime — a series of floating heads that drift around the screen and resize according to whoever is talking. It’s one of these user interface designs that looks impressive and fun in demos, but can quickly get distracting or even dizzying to actually use for calls with more than a handful of people.
It’s a painful user experience that many are running into these days as they’re forced to find other ways to keep in touch with large groups of friends and family, and it’s one of the reasons why even we had to admit that solutions like Zoom can be better than FaceTime for large group calls — despite some glaring security and privacy issues.
A Dizzying Experience
In fact, users are beginning to turn to social media to voice their frustrations with the FaceTime experience, as a new thread on Reddit shows.
It was constant flying boxes moving all around. There were 8 separate participants with 25 people total. I didn’t expect it to be neat and orderly (my family rarely is), but I also didn’t expect it to be flying in and out and all around making it impossible to focus on one person because they would shift and move constantly.Reddit user Toby1stofHisName
One the problems that’s being highlighted by many users is not only the layout itself, which can be confusing enough, but the fact that FaceTime’s algorithms try to enlarge the image of whoever is speaking in order to give it prominence. However, if multiple people start speaking it can quickly get chaotic, and of course there’s always a bit of a delay between when a person actually stops speaking and FaceTime recognizes that it’s time to fade them back into the background. On top of this, certain types of background noises will also throw off FaceTime into thinking that somebody is speaking, even when they’re not. The result can be a discombobulated experience of windows constantly growing and shrinking as they’re moving around the screen at the same time.
While FaceTime does allow you to lock an individual window in place simply by double-tapping on it, that causes it to expand to cover a large portion of the screen that makes the other participants difficult to see at all, somewhat defeating the purpose of a group video chat. The feature appears to be designed more with the idea of allowing you to focus on a single person who may be giving a presentation.
It’s actually an unfortunate design decision in an app that is otherwise so ridiculously easy to use that you should be able to get your family together with no more difficulty than placing a phone call (assuming they’re all using Apple devices, of course), and while the floating design is nice and can work really well in a call with only a handful of people, it gets unwieldy very quickly unless every participant is willing to mute their mic when they’re not talking. Further, since FaceTime is a video calling app rather than a video conference app, it doesn’t have any kind of “host” mode where one person can exercise control over the call.
While we strongly believe that Apple needs to address this by adding the option to switch to a simpler grid-style Group FaceTime view, for now there are ways to work around this problem if you really want to help minimize distractions.
First and foremost is getting all of your participants to mute their microphones except when they want to say something. This avoids the interruption of having somebody else’s window interrupt and take over the view when their doorbell rings or their dog starts barking in the background.
Another option is to enable “Reduce Motion” in your iOS Accessibility settings, although this requires finding that setting. It’s also a system-wide toggle that will affect a lot more than just Group FaceTime, disabling screen transitions, animated effects in Messages, and even typing autocompletion, so it’s an imperfect solution at best, since you either have to turn it on and off before and after every Group FaceTime call, or live without many of the other animations that make your iPhone so much fun.
Of course, at the end of the day FaceTime is far from the only game in town when it comes to video calling, but it remains our preferred video calling solution to keep in touch with small groups of friends and family, since Apple has made it so incredibly easy for anybody who already has an iPhone, iPad, or Mac — there’s nothing to install, nothing to sign into, and nothing to configure, which makes it a great way to place spontaneous calls to friends and family without having to worry about getting everybody on the same page, so it’s really disappointing that Group FaceTime can be so unwieldy for large groups when it’s otherwise such an easy way to stay in touch with extended family.