The Zenbar

So I posted my 8Ball concept to The Verge forums. This was a rewarding experience. As a developer you can get caught up in your own world and it can be hard to get feedback to give you that push. This is especially so when working on a big project. Sometimes you need a break to re-generate.

Anyway, the 8Ball concept was a little break from work and really about proving the concept of a totally new gesture for fast app switching. The comments were both positive and negative. The positive focussed on the validity of the gesture. The negative that the UX sucked a bit. 

To a proud designer, this of course presented a challenge. 

So I spent a Sunday, this time working on the UX and taking any comments on board. The result is Zenbar. I again posted to The Verge forums. I enjoy the feedback from some clever commenters. The first reply was a great suggestion, slightly fading all but the top icon when pulling down to better illustrate focus. 

Introducing Zenbar.

Spurred by the hideously unwieldy double home press that Apple uses to provide access to the multitasking bar, I came up with a single gesture to achieve a better user experience. The double tap was passable before the iPhone 5, but now, well, it shits me. Having said that, Apple’s method is still considerably better than competing platforms, but that’s generally a given (see analysis in 8Ball post).

Zenbar uses the same single gesture concept, however, this time I spent attention on polishing the UX rather than creating something just to showcase the gesture.

To explain the gesture. Firstly, let’s look where your thumb is most likely to be. Your thumb naturally points upwards when holding your device. It is also likely to be around the top navigation bar area. To this end, the least range of movement will be in the top left or right of your screen, depending on whether you are right or left handed.

Therefore, the concept centres around the introduction of two new “pull zones” at either side of the current notification centre pull zone. The current notification centre pull zone is reduced, as it does not need to be full width, and is easily reachable from either side by logically condensing the pull zone. This allows for two new easily reachable pull zones to be freed up.

Therefore, switching apps is achieved by a single gesture. No tapping required.

OK. So this is all nice and quick. However, a number of commenters on the 8Ball post thought that there also needed to be a solution to accessing the full multitasking bar. So, I thought about this.

The Lock Zone

Once the distance of travel reaches around 75%, the Zenbar is then moved into what I term the lock zone. Releasing the finger will then clip the Zenbar to the base of the screen.

So there we have it.

It is probably best to watch the concept in action on the iPhone 5 in this 1 minute 15 second video. Best to switch to 720P if you have the bandwidth. Before viewing I must warn that I have grubby little kids and I forgot to clean the table. My wife will kill me. But that’s my problem. :)

So that was a bit of fun. I don’t jailbreak, so I hope Apple picks up something similar (or comes up with a better idea still) for iOS7. 

8Ball

8Ball

8Ball is a design concept to make switching apps faster and more convenient.

These days, most smartphones can keep multiple apps alive in background processes. The main benefit being to let you switch between different apps quickly without losing your place. For example, you might be reading something and want to quickly look up some related information. Or you might have received a message that you want to quickly respond to and then switch back to what you were doing earlier.

In some ways, it’s a lot like switching between windows on your desktop device. Except that switching windows is much easier due to the ability to see what you have running and switch by a simple mouse click. 

So how do the three most popular platforms handle app switching?

Android
Android’s much touted ICS update has a painful method whereby you need to hold a button for two seconds then spend time scrolling through a space inefficient representation of running apps. This comprises a selection of UX nightmares.
  • Delay.
  • Large amounts of movement.
  • Multiple hands on larger phones.
  • Delay in recognition and choosing.
  • Large amount of scrolling.
  • Multiple actions.
Windows Phone
Windows Phone also uses a press and hold mechanism. This then displays a card style interface of running apps, whereby you can flick through the last eight apps. Due to scroll physics, a card style horizontal scroll is certainly better than a large sized vertical scroll, but again, it is hardly optimal. Problems are:
  • Delay
  • Large amount of movement.
  • Delay in recognition and choosing.
  • Multiple actions.
iPhone
iPhone provides a relatively simply double tap of the home button, however, there are still a number of issues:
  • Difficult to do with one hand, especially on iPhone 5.
  • Large amount of movement. 
  • Multiple actions.
8Ball

So, is there a better way? Perhaps there is.

Firstly, let’s look where your thumb is most likely to be. Your thumb naturally points upwards when holding your device. It is also likely to be around the top navigation bar area. To this end, the least range of movement will be in the top left or right of your screen, depending on whether you are right or left handed.

Therefore, the 8Ball concept centres around the introduction of two new “pull zones” at either side of the current notification centre pull zone. The current notification centre pull zone is reduced, as it does not need to be full width, and is easily reachable from either side by logically condensing the pull zone. This allows for two new easily reachable pull zones to be freed up. 

iPhone Pull Zones

Pulling down on either of these zones will then cause the 8Ball wheel to appear. It is carefully calibrated to take into account range of motion and size of screen. The last 8 apps appear as balls. Pulling downwards will spin the control so that an app may be selected. Releasing the thumb once an app is selected will switch to the selected app.

Releasing the thumb when an app isn’t selected will spin back to the original app. Pulling the thumb all the way down, will cycle exactly once through the apps, and toggle the original app icon to appear as the home button, thereby creating an easy way to activate the multitasking bar at the base of the screen. Upon completion of the gesture, your thumb is exactly over the multitasking bar, should you need to use it.

So there you have it. A means of quickly switching between apps that involves an absolute minimum of effort. Just one gesture. Not even a single tap is required. 

Here’s a video of what it looks like in action (it’s in 720p if you have the bandwidth). 

Perhaps there’s a better way still?  Who knows? Hopefully this provides some food for thought. I know one thing for sure. I would love to have it on my iPhone 5.

Leaked photo of the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4. Slightly larger form factor this time.

Leaked photo of the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4. Slightly larger form factor this time.

The Renaissance Born in a Playground

A recent post on Daring Fireball, the popular website of Apple enthusiast John Gruber, made me think. Gruber sees the ubiquitous iPhone Twitter client as a “UI Playground”. A place of adventure where, due to the simple nature of Twitter and well known feature set, developers can get creative and really think about how they can make a difference. Stamp their mark. Show off their chops. 

I think it goes further than this. Much further.

In fact, iOS itself is the playground. This might fly in the face of the so called anti-skeumorphic brigade, the self proclaimed expert designers mired in yesterday’s desktop* thoughts of a standard computer system user interface. The thought pattern is that smartphones & tablets are computers. Computers run programs. Ergo, once the user (eventually) understands the way to use this powerful computer then everything falls into place.

These folk believe that because we are in fact interacting with a computer system everything on it should feel like a computer system. There is a single divine way in which mere humans must interact with these marvels of technology. This is no place for emotion. It must be standardised else people may forget they are using this sophisticated piece of magnificence.

I think there is a problem with this thought process. A big problem. It comes from a desktop mentality where the world is the computer. Within this world, applications co-exist side by side in a multi windowed environment driven by strict relatively inflexible instruments such as a keyboard and mouse. 

Mobile however requires a different way of thinking. Step one to redemption is to get up from the desk. Then look at the world and ask if everything is driven with a common world interaction interface? No. You see, mobile devices aren’t just used at a desk. They are carried into the world that exists away from a desk. They are carried into your life. You don’t interact with the mobile device, it becomes a part of you. 

Perhaps these type of people would have a common colour scheme on everything around us. How dare a notepad be anything other than white. Why does that calendar have a photo on it? Why is that lounge suite not grey velour? Why does your Aston Martin have hand stitched leather? 

It is very much a case of web designers and desktop specialists trying to dictate their experiences on mobile. Having spent the past 19 years working with mobile and also having great success in the pre iPhone era, I was constantly surrounded by news of other failed mobile projects, I can tell you that a key reason for failure was the use of desktop principles and design. One size fits all might work at a desk, but not so well away from one.

So, back to iOS.

The beauty of iOS devices is that the device becomes the app. The device fades into the background and morphs into a new gadget. It is the ultimate creative canvas. Developers can forget about the device. They create a brilliant new electronic ‘thing’ that can be magically delivered into the hands of people everywhere. They aren’t creating computer programs. They are creating wondrous new life gadgets.

Ever wondered why the most creative developers are so enamoured with iOS? It’s because they aren’t constrained. It is their playground and nothing gets in the way of the creative flow. 

Compare, for example to Windows Phone. Guess what? It’s a beautiful slick computer user interface. In one way, that is a great strength. However, it is also possibly the biggest weakness. It is mired in yesterday’s idea of the computer system interface. With Windows Phone, there is no creative canvas. This isn’t a playground. It is a colour by numbers and join the dots book. It is no place to create works of art of your own. This is about as appealing to the creative developer as Playstation Singstar to an indy rock band.

Android has been quite a success. However, you need to consider what type of success. There’s two distinct camps at either end of the technology appreciation society. The ‘budget Smartphone’ buyer that believes they are purchasing something like an iPhone but for much less money. They aren’t exactly sure what an iPhone does, but they have a feeling that they need something like one. These are today’s budget feature phone buyers. At the polar opposite is the tinkerer. These people are more interested in viewing their clock speed in a floating widget than viewing a Swiss Railway clock. They would rather monitor CPU temperature than outdoor temperature. To them, the little computer is the main act. They don’t want it to morph away. It is everything. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it’s not for everyone. 

So, for Android, from a creative playground perspective, the audience isn’t as clear cut. Add to this, the enormous spectrum of devices and form factors, and design is either forced to lowest common denominator or, a duplication of work in order to ensure spectrum compatibility. These are two of the things that creative designers hate. Limitation or duplication. 

Of course, if a blockbuster iPhone application really takes off, it will likely generate enough interest from users of other platforms to provide the financial incentive for a port. The creative designers have little interest in doing this, because, quite frankly it is as boring as batshit. They’ve already run around in their perfect playground doing this, and want to do something challenging and new. This has given rise to specialist firms that just do ports. It’s drudge work, but currently very lucrative indeed. It’s no playground though. 

All of the above also applies to the tablet market. Perhaps more so. This however is really the subject of another post. Let’s just say that having worked extensively with tablets in the 90s, I know why they never took off. Microsoft and Android are currently frantically rolling out “innovations” that were a lot of the reasons tablets failed in the past. Sometimes history can be your friend, but I guess you had to be there.

So there you have it. We are in a period of wonderful innovation in mobile application software. I will argue that the reason for this is iOS. Apple created a compelling playground for creative designers. A rich OS that doesn’t get in the way. Devices that have both uniformity, immense audience and unparalleled reliability. A development platform that is rich and, from a UI perspective quite remarkable. A distribution mechanism that could only previously be dreamt about. This all adds up to something more than the sum of its parts. It liberates creative developers and lets them simply create. 

A renaissance born in a playground.

* Desktop refers to WIMP desktop based operating systems which run on both desktop and notebook computers. 

I suspect I may already own an iPad mini, but I’m just not sure. Maybe it is simply a question of scale? One man’s mini is another man’s full size and vice-versa.

I suspect I may already own an iPad mini, but I’m just not sure. Maybe it is simply a question of scale? One man’s mini is another man’s full size and vice-versa.

Hello World.