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Apple, Kindly Remove Your OS Gestures from My App Canvas

Posted Oct 23, 2011

Big touchscreens demand big gestures. The iPad in particular begs for swipes and multitouch combos that let you slap at the whole screen to control apps instead of tapping delicately at tiny buttons.

iPad apps like Facebook and Twitter, for example, demonstrate that it's much easier to move through your history by nudging the canvas back and forth than it is to hit Safari's tiny Back button. Small touchscreen buttons require extra thought and motor control—brain and strain—compared to coarse gestures that let you fling screens aside.

With iOS 5, the iPad finally gets exactly those kinds of coarse gestures to move between apps. Yay, right? Swipe left or right with four or five fingers to switch among recent apps, or pinch with four or five fingers to close an app and zip out to the home screen. No need to find the iPad's elusive Home button; you can just paw at the whole screen to navigate apps.

I'm a huge fan of the spirit of these gestures, but I'm not crazy about the excution. I wish Apple had followed the interaction already adopted by other platforms, including BlackBerry Playbook, Nokia N9, and the next version of Microsoft Windows. All of these platforms use edge gestures, a technique that is at once more internally consistent and more deferential to individual apps.

The operating system is the frame

Frame
With iOS 5, iPad gets welcome app-switching gestures. But touch actions that should be limited to the edges are encroaching on app real estate.

Edge gestures let you move back and forth among apps by swiping from the edge of the screen. You start on the frame, or bezel, of the device and swipe into the canvas, creating the illusion of knocking screens aside by pushing them at the edge. If a swipe starts at pixel zero, in other words, it's interpreted as an operating-system gesture for moving among apps. In Windows, Microsoft refers to this as "Edge UI." See for yourself how it works:

This approach is elegant for more than its simplicity. Edge gestures match physical action with the conceptual metaphor of the operating system. If you consider apps as the front-and-center canvas of the device, then the operating system is the frame, the infrastructure that supports and presents the canvas. When OS-level gestures start on the bezel frame of the device, action matches expectation: this gesture works outside the current app. You're working on the frame—the operating system—both physically and metaphorically.

iPad's new app-switching actions are not edge gestures. Instead, these four- and five-finger swipes work within the canvas itself, territory that is supposed to be dedicated entirely to the current app. This creates some confusing competition with app interaction: will this gesture apply at the app level or at the operating-system level? Apple could have avoided this ambiguity by using edge gestures to switch apps. Likewise, to close an app and return to the home screen, a four- or five-finger swipe down from the top edge would fit the bill.

This isn't only about metaphor, though. I'm jealous that Apple appropriated these gestures for the operating system.

Apple bogarted some sweet moves

We are in the earliest stages of developing a touchscreen gesture vocabulary and, in particular, of exploring the possibilities of multitouch gestures. Multifinger swipes, taps, and pinches promise to help us create interfaces that we play like an instrument more than we use like a tool.

My favorite example of this is Uzu, an addictive visual toy for iPad. The app has ten modes triggered by holding one to ten fingers to the screen. Here's a demo by Uzu designer Jason Smith, who gradually begins to direct the app like a full visual orchestra:

This sort of full-hand use of touchscreen apps is promising. Just like expert typists fly through words, or power users deploy keyboard shortcuts fly through tasks, multitouch gestures can likewise help us to move just as effortlessly through touch interfaces. Abstract multitouch gestures are the keyboard shortcuts of touch. If done right, they will be expressions for fluidly transforming intent into action.

In that context, full-hand swipes and pinches would be mighty handy gestures for designers to deploy at the app level. Alas, Apple instead hijacked them for the operating system. By putting these gestures inside the canvas instead of at the edge, Apple has swiped some great gestures from designers' arsenals.

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Comments

13 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

Oct 25, 2011 12:59am [ 1 ]

While I get the point you are trying to make, I think that either approach still suffers from poor discoverability/affordance. In fact, I'd argue that gestures taking place within the app canvas have more chances of being discovered accidentally than the ones involving seldom touched areas of the screen.

Oct 25, 2011 9:16am [ 2 ]

Thanks for your feedback. I would wager that ANY multitouch gesture will go undiscovered by most users if we provide no visual cues. Multifinger gestures are almost always abstract and have no corresponding action in the physical world. So I don't think that a four-finger edge gesture will be any more or less discoverable than the same gesture in the app canvas.

And that's fine! It's okay to teach. There's this oddly persistent idea that gestures, which are invisible, must be discoverable and found without aid. That's confining. If we stick with that point of view, we'll never get beyond single taps and swipes.

We DO need to provide visual cues and instruction for these gestures. I believe we can take inspiration from video games for this, among other places. I've been talking about this a lot lately in presentations. See, for example, this presentation PDF for details about coaching, leveling up, an power ups: Buttons are a Hack (Web 2.0 Expo).

sandifop
Oct 31, 2011 11:36am [ 3 ]

I also get your point but do not find edge gestures a success, after having used them for a few months. I find myself re-swiping or activating applications with icons near the edge. The former happens far too often, the latter less frequently.

Do you know if the IP on edge gestures is already owned?

Nagromme
Oct 31, 2011 11:58am [ 4 ]

I like the article's argument. Makes sense. But only for ONE finger edge gestures, as Apple does use for Nitification Center. But 1-finger side gestures would be way too easy to trigger by accident. And multiple-finger edge gestures are awkward: one finger hits before the other, allowing it to interfere with rapid detection of normal 1-finger swipes. And turning your hand to fit 2 fingers in the bezel is awkward both mentally and physically. For 3/4/5 fingers, these problems increase.

At least Apple's non-edge gestures are very forgiving of how/where you arrange your fingers. (And they can be toggled off, for certain rare but cool many-finger apps. Like Apple's own GarageBand!)

Luke
Oct 31, 2011 12:23pm [ 5 ]

Nagromme— I don't think I'd agree that these gestures have a "toggle off" function. It's not really practical to go into the settings, find the right menu, find the setting, switch it off, run the app, then to later close the app, go back to the settings and switch it back on, and to do thisfor every multi-finger app. These gestures are very sloppy, and especially un-Apple-like.

happy halloween
Oct 31, 2011 12:56pm [ 6 ]

Agreed with your overall points - but let's not neglect to mention webOS (RIP, sigh), which had implemented "edge" gestures before Windows or Blackberry! And it did so in a more graceful (and more importantly, semantically appropriate AND user-friendly) manner, in my opinion.

Shaun
Oct 31, 2011 3:45pm [ 7 ]

On the iPhone, I wish Apple would enable a swipe up from the bottom to show the app switcher (similar to the Notification Centre gesture). I really dislike double-tapping the Home button. Especially as mine is a little flakey and sometimes doesn't register a double-tap, or registers a double-tap when I press only once.

Seems like an obvious solution.

Stetson
Oct 31, 2011 4:26pm [ 8 ]

@Luke: It could be a notification center type control panel, where you can add individual apps as exceptions. Apps could also add themselves with user permission, also much like notifications:

  • Launch a new app
  • "This app would like to use custom four and five finger gestures. This will disable system Multitasking Gestures while you use this app. [Don't Allow] [Allow] "

If later you changed your mind you could always go to the Settings section and change the setting for that app.

RickB
Oct 31, 2011 5:14pm [ 9 ]

How would these edge gestures work when the iPad is in a case? I just tried swiping my iPad from the edge and because of the thickness of my case my finger doesn't hit the screen until at least 10 or more pixels in... More like 30 because the case is quite thick.

Bill
Oct 31, 2011 7:50pm [ 10 ]

I'm frankly shocked by your idea of using "coarse gestures" with an iPad. The iPad is a highly refined and elegant device; your assertion that you are a "huge fan of the spirit of these gestures" is very disturbing.

James
Nov 1, 2011 12:12pm [ 11 ]

I like the iPad2 iOS 5 four finger gestures to switch apps (swipe left) and task switcher (swipe up). Many apps already have single or dual finger gestures. These Apple gestures resemble trackpad gestures on OSX. Sure it is not obvious and a way to communicate the option is lacking. I've shown the feature to a few users and they were amazed as they had no idea it could do that.

The iPhone screen is too small for 4 finger swipes.

Jack
Jan 27, 2012 6:53pm [ 12 ]

This article makes a great point. In effect Apple has prevented the application from using anything more than two finger gestures. I have tried adding some basic three figure gestures in my applications. Most users can't help but occasionally drop the other two fingers on the screen resulting in a pinch, therefore closing the app abruptly. I am talking about average users, not the highly dexterous Apple staff who thought they were only hijacking a few gestures, but in reality took the whole bunch.

I think Stetson and others have a good point. There are many ways Apple could open this up and allow apps like Uzu to work again.

Ilynn colon
Apr 14, 2013 8:48pm [ 13 ]

How do I remove Hester's. All I can do is create them.they make me crazy.

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