Hatkirby on January 4th, 2013 at 12:00:00am
In an article arrogantly entitled "If you see a UI walkthrough, they blew it," Max Rudberg argues that new-age apps such as Clear pander to the college-aged hipster "intellectual" who likes to have the snazziest apps. His contention is that these simplistic designs, which require a tutorial on how to use them, detract from the user experience rather than enhancing it. My opinion, however, is that Rudberg is confusing gimmickry with innovation.
Clear's UI, while unfamiliar, feels rather intuitive to me. For the unfamiliar, Clear is a to-do app with a very minimal interface (an example to-do list is pictured). To a new user, it is not obvious at all how to get around the app, because instead of buttons and switches, you use a bunch of gestures to achieve things, which are explained upon first launching the app. Now, not all of these gestures are entirely intuitive, for instance, swiping downward to create a to-do is a bit confusing, but this app is attempting to change the way people think about UIs.
Instead of taking a cynical look at the reasons behind this app, let's, for the time being, consider that its authors were attempting to inspire a new way to interact with a computer. Remember, everything is new at some point. The first time you sat down and looked at a touchpad, you were doubtlessly confused. Consider the first time anyone in the general public saw a touchpad, right when they were first invented. It was weird, and for people accustomed to mice or even trackballs, it was different and unfamiliar, but it caught on, is incredibly helpful, and is, dare I say it, fun to use! If Clear wants to create an app that has a different kind of UI than you're used to, really, it's allowed to.
Let's talk about the gestures in Clear for a moment. The most interesting gesture in the app is "pinch to close a list" feature. The action of closing a list and putting it away feels logical, and in fact is similar to Apple's gesture of closing out of a photo album on the iPad version of Photos. There's the familiar "swipe left to delete" gesture, but also a new sister "swipe right to mark completed" gesture. You can pinch outward to create a to-do item in the middle of a list, which feels right because you're "making room" for the new item. There are a bunch of gestures built in to this app and yes, it does take some getting used to, but having learned them and having spent some time playing around with the app I can say that there is some satisfaction with being able to so smoothly interact with an app.
Now, Rudberg concedes that it is a necessary evil that a user may not understand a new UI, but he flames Clear's choice of a walkthrough because it is "inelegant." He suggests that apps instead employ subtle navigation hints such as hands floating along and mimicking the actions that you have to perform. This is very reasonable in games, yes, where there is one goal and one action needed to be performed, but in an office app, the app has no business telling you what to do like that. It is not a paradigm that makes sense there. Rudberg also puts forward an example of another type of UI hint that one his own apps, a cooking app, uses. When selecting a recipe, the edge of a piece of paper bobs into view which is supposed to indicate to the user that tapping the paper shows the list of ingredients. While the paper bobbing is a good UI hint that the paper is not static and can be interacted with, it is not a very intuitive hint for a list of ingredients. A simple button would have suited the app far more, especially as it, unlike Clear, was not attempting to push the bounds of UI design. It is less effective to tell a user that something can be done than it is to tell them how to do something they desire.
Pictured is another example of a bad UI hint. This is the Amazon Kindle iOS app. The shadow in the top right corner is supposed to indicate that you can scroll the top bar left and right to choose between searching, All Items, Books, Newsstand and Docs; however, this was not apparent to me at all. What makes this especially unintuitive is that scrolling to the search option actually takes you to another screen rather than just updating the view below it.
I understand the point that Rudberg is trying to make: that the presence of a UI walkthrough indicates that a UI is not intuitive enough for a user to figure out on their own. It is true that in the fast-paced era that we live in, with the short attention spans of most people and the ease and accessibility with which an iPhone app can be accessed, having to learn a new set of gestures can be annoying. However, learning to touch type was annoying (well, not for me, but it certainly is for a lot of people). Learning how to write in cursive was annoying. Getting used to natural scrolling (Apple's reversed scrolling in Lion) was annoying. These things all paid off in the end and allowed us to be more productive. So yes, while muddying your way through a UI walkthrough is annoying, and getting used to new gestures is annoying, it pays off. It's not as easy to market something that lacks familiarity, but in the end, the ease and simplicity of the unfamiliar design win out.
What ever happened to instruction manuals? What happened to the time when people actually tried to figure out how to operate something before diving in and messing everything up? Once again, it's the new era: people don't want to have to work toward something, they want it to work now and they want to understand it from what's come before. I may be going in the wrong direction with this, but it may be time to just take a deep breath, slow down, and try to immerse yourself in something new. If we keep building off of old standards and old conventions, we're going to trap ourselves within unforeseen walls.
What's my point here? Different isn't always bad.