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2012: the year the interface disappeared

March 8th, 2012 Jeremy Jeremy

First, doh! The New iPad looks amazing and iPhoto for iOS is ridiculously inspiring for app designers. It reminds us that touch presents us with new ways to manipulate software, which is what this article is all about.

Second, it’s been way too long since I’ve blogged.

Third, wow, we’ve got a new redesign. What do you think?

Fourth, innovation is in the air and it all started with a to-do app of all things. You’ve heard of it; it’s called Clear by Realmac Software, Milen and my friend Phill Ryu’s new studio Impending.


Phill questioned everything: the need for a navigation bar at the top, chrome, inessential features, and even buttons. Phill hates buttons:

“Buttons are about the most unsatisfying interaction you can have in a touchscreen device. Just think about it. At least when you’re using a mouse, you click a button, and you’re clicking a button. When you’re using a phone you are smudging glass, and there is absolutely zero feedback.”

I think that’s awesome. A huge part of great design is figuring out what we can obliterate and Phill did an amazing job at that: it’s demolition design! No buttons, just gestures. It’s a very satisfying and fun experience and one that I’ve integrated into my daily life.

I like to think that I question inessential elements and features but Phill’s demolition design put me to shame. It’s downright inspiring.

This is scary

Clear is controversial, dangerous, and inspiring. Chrome disappears and gestures are the interface. Starting with Clear, apps won’t be cool just because they look pretty. There are lot’s of pretty apps. I think to make a cool app in 2012, we need to pay heavy attention to the interactions – each interaction needs to be delightful. Now the danger is that people are going to see Clear and mimic it; they’re going to throw usability out the window and build super unintuitive gesture-based apps. We don’t want to go to that extreme — as David Barnard rightly points out, user interface chrome definitely has it’s place — but we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. I think we need to find ways to use gestures to improve the user experience. David has some good ideas here too.

Designing gesture-based interfaces

When we are designing gesture based interfaces, I think we need to keep in mind at least four points:

  • Gestures can make interactions faster and easier. It’s easier to swipe the whole screen than tap on a target on the screen.
  • Directly manipulating objects is so much more satisfying than pressing a button and getting a result.
  • Gestures can remove the need for buttons and chrome, as Clear has done. This can make the app really clean. The problem then is that users might not know how navigate the app if they don’t know the gestures. They aren’t as discoverable as buttons so we may need to play some usability tricks to make sure our users can easily figure them out and remember them.
  • Gestures are cool. That shouldn’t be underestimated.
  • Update: I can’t believe I completely forgot to mention one of the most important. Gestures are terribly undiscoverable. While Clear’s gestures look extremely intuitive, they are actually not. They are only intuitive if you watch a video or tutorial illustrating them being used. Without such help, we would be clueless on how to use Clear and would easily get stuck. This means that with gesture-based interfaces we need to always be thinking about how to teach users our gestures or provide alternatives to them.
  • Gestures sometimes require two hands. Make sure that there is some kind of alternative to a two handed gesture. Pinching is often cooler than tapping but make sure you don’t require users to pinch to use your interface.

Rethinking Languages

That said, we have been completely re-imagining the Languages design. We’ve questioned features and unessential UI, taken a chrome-less, very much buttonless gesture-based approach, and think we’ve added a few of our own innovations along the way. To see if a gesture-based interface *really* works, you really have to use it so we conducted several hackathon sessions with our Sonico buddies over in Austria and prototyped all the major gesture interactions.

Let me tell you, it rocks and I can’t wait to show you what we’ve come up with.


Speaking of which, I’ll be at the South by South West conference in Austin for the next week and would love to get input on the gestures we’ve been working on in Languages so please ping me if you would like to meet up and get a demo.


Screen Shot 2012-03-08 at 11.51.34 AM

Christain Billings and Matthew Miller did some amazing work on the icon and teaser website!

We’re starting our marketing initial marketing push for Languages. I’ll be at SXSW giving out previews to the press, I created a @languagesapp Twitter account and Facebook page. Last, but certainly not least, we just launched a pretty incredible teaser website that you really have to check out.

Let me know what you think… Exciting times!

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