There's a rumor that iPhone home buttons break easily, and it's causing millions of people to use an obscure accessibility feature called AssistiveTouch to avoid pressing them.
We first encountered this trend after talking to a Chinese tourist on the subway in New York. He said everyone he knew used AssistiveTouch, and online research confirmed the tendency in China.
Although some say they use it for convenience, most agree that the Chinese use that feature — which allows you to access many commands through a floating on-screen button and without pressing hard buttons — for fear of breaking their phones.
Here's that Chinese tourist in action:
The rumor is so widespread that some vendors in China tell users to use AssistiveTouch all the time.
As Wang Yijie writes on Quora: "Several years ago people began to complain about their home button being easily broken and it has somehow been a widely recognized truth, so even the home buttons are not that easy to be broken, they tend to use AssistiveTouch instead. When you buy an iPhone in China the salesman would automatically turn on this function while helping you to do the settings."
"This seems to be used by most people in Vietnam as well. Perhaps it's use is universal across Asia," commented tom1295.
"Same here in the Philippines," commented Nixon.
"All Asians do it, not only the Chinese, but also Singaporeans, Koreans, and Japanese," commented Miguel Mateo.
"Not only Asia, but here in Brazil it's pretty usual for people to use Assistive Touch. The main reason is that the home button breaks relatively easy," commented LeoB.
"That's true. Also happens in Brazil," Luiz Santana commented.
"In Brazil this is also fairly common between iPhone users," commented diogonovaes. "I think Apple's smartphones are so expensive here that most people hold on to them for as long as possible."
"This is actually very common in Brazil, too, where iPhones are even more expensive than in China or Europe. Mostly teens are seen activating this accessibility feature — even if they don't need it — to 'save' the home button and avoid costly repairs," commented smenezesbr.
"People in this entire region treasure their iPhones and use them in this way so as to be as delicate with them as possible," Ron Wilson added about South America. "The intensity of their use of the home button combined with their pride of ownership has led to this type of behavior becoming commonplace."
"AssistiveTouch has been used all over Latin America, especially in Peru. I discovered AssistiveTouch very early while reading everything I could about iPhone; thousands of users like me began using it because we did not had the opportunity to replace it due to lack of post-sale technical support in this part of the world," commented Walter Cabanillas.
Concerns about customer service appear to be a major reason for this trend.
"Although Apple's customer service is pretty good in China, most Chinese are used to crappy service and no-return policies from Chinese businesses. So, they try to avoid having their expensive iPhone quickly having issues," commented Rex Remes.
J. Blair pointed out the same in an email:
1. Fixing cost of the Home button is very expensive (to most Chinese iPhone owners)
2. Repair quality and integrity in China worries most Chinese. Experience tells them that repair shops could charge an arm and a leg, also who knows if they will swap their old parts with your new ones??
3. Chinese believe (or told by resellers or friends) that using the home button too frequently might easily breakdown. The safest way is to use the software button to avoid all above worries.
Thus it seems that iPhone buyers around the world — perhaps particularly in emerging markets — are terrified about breaking them and thus use them far differently from how they were designed.
This trend is worrying or at least strange for Apple.
"[F]or a company that is looking to China as its largest market it is worrying that the primary interface feature on their flagship product induces a workaround behaviour for perceived risk of breaking," writes consultant Jan Chipchase on Medium.
It's true that some people (including the tourist on the train) say they use AssistiveTouch as a matter of convenience.
"A lot of people use it here in Austria as well. I personally don't use it but A LOT of people do. I saw people in France use it on my travels and some tourist.... Apparently it's quite handy :)” Davor Trnovljakovic wrote by email.
"[M]ost intriguingly it suggests that consumers can do without the button," wrote Chipchase. "From that starting point new interfaces are born."
When we tried the feature (turned on via Settings / General / Accessibility / Interaction), however, we found it fun but not very useful. Indeed, pretty much anything you can do with AssistiveTouch you can do faster by pressing hard buttons or swiping the screen.
Yet millions of people around the world use that special accessibility feature every day for fear of breaking their iPhone.