Saturday, February 28, 2015

To evolve, or not to evolve?

That's not even a question.

Be it building shelters, gathering food or traveling long distances; people always had an innate desire to do things better and faster. It's been always possible to improve some part of an activity or a tool related to it. Even entire professions have been forgotten after becoming obsolete. Thanks to the increasing pace of technological advancements, our children won't anymore recognize objects their parents grew up with.

Except when it comes to user interfaces.

I grew up with computers around me, and my kids will grow up with even more computers around them. Over the years, they've gotten a lot smaller and immensely more powerful. What hasn't really changed, is the graphical user interface staring back at us. The desktop metaphor with windows, icons, menus and a pointer (WIMP) has stayed intact for over 40 years.

The first mobile devices had no touch screens, and had to be navigated with either directional keys or a scroll wheel. It was logical to use the same approach for such a miniaturized desktop, but when touch screens became more popular, user could directly interact with things. This made controlling a pointer redundant.

After the mouse pointer was removed and touchable things made a bit bigger for suitable finger operation, everything was ready for profit-making. Nobody seemed to question, whether an interface paradigm originally designed to be operated with a keyboard and mouse (WIMP), was really applicable for a mobile touch screen use:

Unlike desktops, mobile devices
  • are primarily used without a supporting surface (table or similar)
  • are used in dynamic environments with disruptions
  • can't assume user is constantly looking at the screen
  • can't assume both hands are available for a basic operation
  • can't assume equal amount of time is available to perform a task

Regardless, all mainstream mobile operating systems treat mobile use the same way as desktop use. The familiar button-based navigation model, dating back 40 years, does not really qualify for mobile use. It requires too much attention from it's user to be efficient. Too much precision to be comfortable. Too much time to be fast.

Replacing mouse and keyboard with touch alone, just decreases the speed user can control the system, making it actually worse than the desktop. It's been a wobbly decade of mobile user interface infancy. The only way it's gotten any better, is through nicer visuals and smoother transitions. But that's just surface - a better hardware clad in finer clothes.

At this rate, my grandchildren can still identify an Android phone, because baby steps were considered good enough. That's a valid strategy as long as everyone copies one another, and no alternatives exist: a family tree that looks like a ladder. It's an open invitation for smaller companies to deliver less inbred products, that are designed to adapt to your life, instead the other way around.

If you still think those archaic desktop conventions are enough to keep your massive software business afloat today, you're not the first one. The bad news is, that the only way a dinosaur could avoid extinction, was to stop being one, and evolve into something else.

Before it was too late.

Thanks for reading and see you in the next post. In the meantime, agree or disagree, debate or shout. Bring it on and spread the word.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Breaking the application grid

Some time ago, I wrote an article about the role of applications on a smartphone. This time, I want to burrow deeper both into their actual presentation and location, where apps are physically found from.

Meet the app grid (launcher / app drawer). Before gunning everything down, let's find out the problem before fixing it. We should always try to live how we preach, right. My top issues with multiple pages, filled with app icons in an neverending array, are:

  • Icon arrangement is the only way to personalize how the grid looks. It might work for some cases, but as it grows longer, it starts to be tedious to find anything from it.
  • Related to the above, an even grid does not offer enough cues to find things in it. It's slow to scan through a single row after another.
  • Moreover, icon folders/groups alone leave little room for building information hierarchies. Be it an app, contact or a link to a website, attaching them to your launcher makes everything one step closer to a mess you don't want to tread on. This is the point when Android home screens start to sound like a great idea.
  • Finally, and partially related, your app usage is traditionally divided between a task switcher (active apps) and a launcher (installed apps). If the app is not present in the task switcher, you have to exit it, and go to the launcher instead. Even worse if you have to hunt through multiple home screens between the two.

While Sailfish OS already solves the last one by combining app drawer and switcher, to form a single location, the grid is still just a huge mass of identically spaced icon rows, with very little visual cues for our eyes to lock on. That's the gray part on the image below (click to enlarge).

The blue half of the image on the other hand, illustrates how user could arrange icons to support their personal use. Don't take it as a suggestion how to arrange anything, as it's just an illustration. Obviously, the problem exists also horizontally arranged pages, but the presented solution is a bit challenging to pull of in that direction.

If you find the idea ugly or messy, it's easy to understand. From a visual point of view, a repeating pattern and a strict order is appealing to look at, even though they harm the long term usability of finding things from it, especially when the amount of icons increase. Don't worry, it's not the first time usability and aesthetics collide.

It's also worth noting, that while most people might not concider the app grid a problem on their Android devices, they still like to pin app icons and other stuff on their home screens. It clearly tells that the grid quickly becomes unwieldly to browse.

Now, I would like to entertain a thought: what if the app grid would've been fixed to support more dynamic layout for people to personalize. As a part of the software, the launcher already exists. Why not make it more customizable, instead of building Home screens on top to hide the issue?

Would Android still have multiple home screens? Nobody knows.

Would it be simpler? Absolutely.

Would it break the Android UX? Nope, just that archaic app grid.

Thanks for reading and see you in the next post. In the meantime, agree or disagree, debate or shout. Bring it on and spread the word.