The Evolution of Mobile Interface Design

It’s been nearly six years since the world became familiar with gesture based interaction, when pinch to zoom became common place.

Yet, while there was a flurry of apps that used these ideas, some well some not so well, the vast majority of apps standardised on simple taps and visual functionality.

Over the last year or so I’ve seen a lot more creativity in this area. As smartphones become far more common place, we as consumers have become far more comfortable with gestures. Even my two year old will happily unlock, open Photos and swipe them on my iPhone.

Feed Reading Changed Forever.
As an example lets look at the humble Feed Reader, these apps have just had a renaissance since Google announced the closing down of Reader.

I’m a long time RSS junkie and way back when I started using Feedler. Simple, good functionality, it was a comfortable utility allowing me to scroll, scan and consume vast numbers of posts quickly. As with most routines and habits I never looked elsewhere, it fulfilled my needs.

Feedler App – iPhone Screenshot

It looks like a typical app, it sticks to Apple’s UI guidelines for the most part. Everything is a simple tap away.

Here is a common function; Scan a list of posts, and mark items as read in Feedler:

Not too difficult, but since the Google Reader announcement I’ve uprooted and moved to Feedly.

Feedly App – iPhone Screenshot

Here’s the same process in Feedly:

It’s a step less, but more crucially I remain on the same screen. There is no distracting and (after a many posts, tedious) sliding in and out of content.

Notice also the final mark as read” gesture is a short” swipe. A long swipe provides the further function of marking the whole card (4 or 5 items per screen) as read.

The gestures don’t stop there either. To save a post to read later in Feedly is just tap and hold. Feedler requires going to the full post screen (with slide animation) and tapping on the Star, followed by Done and then tapping back to continue with the list.

There are plenty of differences between the two apps which you can discover yourself if you fancy going deeper into the case study, but the two apps really highlight the difference good UI and adopting gestures can make.

Advantages of the Gesture – is it just preference?
The big advantages here are two fold. The first major change I noticed was I was spending less time scanning, marking and saving content, leaving far more time to actually read and engage in it.

The gestures allowed me to very quickly flick, hold, short swipe and long swipe my way through content in one screen. No load time, and far less friction.

Secondly, moving many of these common tasks to gestures means they have no corresponding buttons on screen, reducing clutter and giving far more prominence and space to the content. Which, given all that extra time I have to engage with it is great!

The other benefits of this are the feeling of genuinely manipulating content directly, the gestures are nicely crafted so that, rather than causing the app” do something and seeing some buttons change or surrounding UI elements appear, the content itself is changing. Fading out or flying away when I’m done with it.

The challenge of gestures
It tempting perhaps to consider this such a great idea that everything can be a gesture. Those who’ve been with the iPhone for some time will know new gestures are added with each iOS version – we are now using all five fingers for some gestures!

The problem comes with remembering what to do. With no visual buttons on screen to tap the gesture is harder to suggest’ to the user.

Many apps overcome this with overlay screens with fingers sketches and arrows. This is a nice quick way to introduce the interface to start with, but you don’t want your users to rely on this each time they use the app.

The art is finding balance. Think through some questions when considering your interface:

Even Feedly has buttons, they’re not going anywhere for a while, but their usage is for more complex commands and processes such as sharing or opening in a browser.

What gestures do you enjoy using?
What apps do you love because of their playful use of useful gestures?


Posted on Mar 22, 2013 by Sam Peckham

Back to all posts