On Hidden Touch Gestures

I downloaded Clear the other day to see what all the fuss is about and I’ve run into a slight moral-UX dilemma.

Everything about the first startup of Clear is a tutorial. The default list is all items to help you learn what gestures to do when acting out the essential functions of the app. Add a new task by pulling down, navigate back to the list of lists by pulling down more, swipe left to delete, etc.

Clear hides all these actions behind the list UI in an obsessive way. The concept is what makes Clear such an interesting app in the first place; a list app without all the UI overhead of list navigation elements. But what it gains in cleanliness, it lacks in immediate usability.

As an iOS developer, I try to find ways to make apps intuitive to people without having to use a tutorial. In general, this means avoiding the less obvious touch gestures and swiping a list and dragging items are essentially the only two items in my gesture toolbox. My users should be able to tell me what they can do in a screen easily, with minimal experimentation.

So back to my dilemma: I enjoy using Clear myself and I wish I could add touch gestures into any app I build because they are quite useful for getting rid of extra navigation elements. But I can’t, not yet at least.

While watching user testing it’s pretty obvious that the majority of people don’t automatically understand most touch gestures. Even if you teach them how to navigate by swiping back and forth, it’s not easily memorable and it surely doesn’t remind users what to do when they’re faced with the problem down the road.

Apple has approached this problem in their apps using both methods. There is always a longer flow that takes you through an edit or delete button where the interactions are almost tap-exclusive and, in apps that have extra polish, you can generally swipe or three-finger-something to bypass those extra steps if you know how.

This seems to be the most reasoned approach. Let power users have their quick methods while retaining easy discoverability for novice users.

But is this a long term solution or just a bridge to a world where everyone knows how to swipe to delete?

Clear would play an important role to force users towards a better understanding of possible touch gestures in the latter case, while in the former they simply target power users exclusively.

While I like the idea of this being some middleground before we’re all touch gesture-aware, I don’t see that as a realistic vision.

What makes products like the iPad special is that anyone can pick them up and roughly know how to operate a well-built app. We’ve seen this again and again with babies (and cats) and anyone else who has never used an iPad. It’s just natural to use those few core gestures. Removing functionality unless you know secret swipe zones is going against this principle.

If gestures are going to be the only way to navigate, we have to at least make them discoverable - and not by tutorial. Something must remind us that an action can be taken here.

I don’t think icons fill this role very well as one has to learn what the icons represent. And whatever solution is correct will not be based on a purely Apple aesthetic, it has to work across any touch device.

Are there any apps that do a particularly good job at both using different touch gestures and informing users about them?

Sun, Mar 11, 2012