05
Feb 14

Whats the matter with all the new iOS apps?

in 2010 we gave my mom (completely computer illiterate) an iPad and my father in law (self thought savvy computer user) an Android tablet (the first Sony tablet).

Four years since, my mom is googling, youtube-ing, facetime-ing, emailing, photographing, shopping and cannot imagine her life without her iPad. My father in law returned his tablet to us last year very dissatisfied. He moved to Windows Surface Pro. He just could not figure out Android.

The simplicity and consistent behavior of iOS is one of the primary reasons for its adoption. Just three basic gestures to learn – swipe up/down, swipe left and right and pinch zoom and you were never lost in the navigation because of the single page app design and big bold navigation buttons that gave you the option of what is possible – Back, Next or cancel. It was impossible to get lost in the navigation tree.

Most apps today are no longer complying to the standards. Most apps just run in a container on the iOS but are really web apps. There is a competition to dream up the next user paradigm, the next cool UI. It is making the apps hard to use and will eventually hurt iOS because no longer will there be a difference between the app on iOS or Android.

Apps now need a manual on all the gestures that are needed. Not intuitive any more. Take the Facebook paper for instance, Swipe up does not scroll as you would have expected, it navigates you into the story and when you are in the story, swipe up will go further into the story by opening the video or the link in the story.

I recently started using two apps – Inside and Facebook Paper. Both do essentially the same thing. They help navigated stories – stories within a category and stories across categories. Each of them accomplishes this very differently – almost opposites.

Consider the problem as follows. Imagine a large table on which stories printed on paper are arranged in rows and columns. Stories that are of the same genre are arranged one below the other in a column. Each column then represents a genre. You start with the first story and decide if you want to read more stories in the same genre or move to another genre. The process repeats in each genre. This is essentially the navigation that both Paper and Inside are enabling.

The way to navigate in the Inside app is that you scroll through a genre (swipe up and down) and you switch genre by swiping left and right. Simple but you still need to read the instructions since it is not obvious that one can/should swipe right/left. But not a big departure from how you use other apps.

Facebook Paper on the other hand splits the screen into two. The top shows you a story in a bigger frame. The rest of the stories are arranged in film strip like fashion at the bottom of the screen. The gesture to navigate is swipe left and right. It matters where you swipe – if you swipe on the strip at the bottom you are navigating stories within the same genre. If you swipe on the big frame at the top you are swiping between genres. You select a story by touching the story. Once in the story you can swipe up and down. Swiping up and down means different things depending on the story. If the story is longer than the page up and down scrolls the page. If there is a link to another story then swipe up navigates into that linked story. You better remember where you are and the actions that got you there so that you are reverse your actions to uncoil back to where you want to be.

The animation and movement is cool but it makes Facebook Paper hard to use without first reading and committing the instructions to memory because there is nothing within the app to help you remember the gestures.

The navigation problem that both Inside and Facebook Paper deal with are the same ones that existed from the very beginning and one that almost all apps dealing with content face. Navigating within a context , navigating across to another context and drilling down to details of an item within a context.

Whats wrong with an overlay that shows navigation possibilities (back, next) and leave the gestures as they are? Why the fascination to dream up new ways to navigate and all by gestures alone? I am all for new ways of doing things but I believe it is the designers’ responsibility to know the difference between a better way and just a new way. Just to be different.

I am afraid to upgrade any of the apps on my mom’s iPad anymore. They may render one of the best things in her day useless.