I recently called 2012 the year the interface disappeared, voicing my excitement and concerns with gesture-based interfaces. Apps like Clear and Paper challenge us to rethink what is possible with touch. We got pretty excited and designed a completely gesture-based Languages prototype to show people at SXSW. I had the privilege to show the prototype to some folks I really respect — Steve Krug (Don’t Make Me Think), Evan Doll (Flipboard), Jared Spool (UIE), David Barnard (App Cubby), Josh Clark (Tapworthy), and Whitney Hess, to name a few — and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and very helpful (thanks guys!)
After mulling over the feedback with the team, we’ve redesigned the prototype to include some buttons. Here is why.
Buttonless only works for extremely simple apps
Virtually buttonless experiences can delight but that only works when you eliminate not just the buttons but the functions as well. Imagine if Clear attempted to include even half of the functionality of power-user apps like OmniFocus and maintain a relatively buttonless interface; it’s impossible. Why?
- Number of gestures: Tap once, tap twice, tap and hold, swipe left, swipe right, swipe up, swipe down, pinch out, pinch in, twist, drag a part of the screen… Without buttons, there are only so many different functions you can allow with these interactions.
- Memory: we can only use a small number of gestures without making user’s brains explode.
- Mental model: using gestures for certain functions will feel extremely forced. Gestures only work for functions where the user’s mental model matches how the gesture works. You can help form the user’s mental model using metaphor. If it’s a book, the user expects to drag the page to flip it. Users can easily grasp gestures where they are directly manipulating objects like that but many functions are so abstract that you will be hard-pressed to find gestures that feel natural for them.
So part of the genius behind Clear wasn’t just the gestures but the minimalism, without which the app would break down. There is obviously a market for these kind of minimal apps but that route generally excludes power-users who will complain of the lack of functionality. That’s fine for cases like Clear where a large enough percentage of the population doesn’t need power features but you need to question whether that’s the case for your own app before making the decision to go the minimalist route.
Buttons are not our enemy. They are not as satisfying as directly manipulating objects with gestures but in interfaces that accommodate more than a few simple functions, they are often very necessary in order for the interface to make sense.
I’ve also come to the conclusion that buttons may be the best way to teach gestures, especially when considering making our apps accessible (which, I know from first-hand experience, Apple’s App Store managers pay attention to *very* much). More on that later.
That said, our new Languages design is very much gesture-driven but includes buttons where gestures don’t make sense or to supplement less-obvious gestures.
My mind is exploding with thoughts on gestures and I plan to write a lengthy article that covers gestures in depth, with some ideas on how to best teach gestures as well. In the mean time, check out Josh Clark’s great talk, entitled Buttons are a Hack.Tweet