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The Aesthetics of Interaction: A Response to Tog’s iPhone Home Screen Redesign

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The week before last, the legendary Bruce Tognazzini posted an article to his AskTog column proposing a solution to several problems he sees with the home screen. I read it, but my reaction was not the fawning idolatry I’d expected. It’s very difficult for me to say this but… his redesign is inelegant. The problems he identified are real and relevant, but I couldn’t help but react negatively to what I perceived to be an aesthetic dissonance in his solution. It doesn’t fit the playful aesthetic that is characteristic of the iPhone OS. So I’ve let the problems steep in my brain for a few days, and I think I’ve come up with a more elegant (or at least more iPhone-ish) solution.

The Problem

The basic problem Tog describes is that while the App Store currently has over 85,000 applications, an iPhone/iPod Touch (I’m just gonna write iPhone from now on, okay?) can only provide access to 180 at a time. Granted, that’s plenty for most people, but it is a real limit for a device that more and more people are beginning to rely on for more and more things. Tog says, “Paradoxically, this would not be a bad upper limit on a Mac or PC, as apps tend to equal trouble and the more you have, the more trouble you’ll encounter. On the iPhone/iPod Touch, however, 180 apps is terribly limiting as iPhone/iPod Touch apps translate to fun, not trouble, and the more apps you have, the more fun you can have.“ And isn’t
fun the reason for the iPhone’s success
?

Tog’s Solution

Tog offers five improvements to the home screen. One of these I have concerns about, two I strongly disagree with, and two I couldn’t agree more with.

Improvement 1 – Page Labels: This is the improvement that concerns me. While
I understand and agree with its usefulness, I strongly feel that Tog’s proposed solution both interferes with the clean visual aesthetics of the iPhone and fails to take advantage of its inherent playfulness.

Togs page labels on iPhone app pages

Tog's page labels on iPhone app pages

The big gray bar and label at the top of the screen grabs far more attention than it warrants and looks obviously smushed (technical term) between the status icons at the top and the actual app icons. Moving it to the bottom might help, but Tog’s second improvement makes that impossible.

Improvement 2 – Scrolling Pages: This is one of the two improvements I strongly disagree with. Scrolling is a last-generation solution to the problem of limited screen space. But the iPhone is a next-generation device. Scrolling is, let’s face it, boring. The flick-to-scroll gesture is an attempt at overcoming that boredom, but why use it unless you have to (e.g., songs, email messages, etc.)? There are more interesting ways to deal with this problem on the iPhone.

Another issue I have with this improvement is that it introduces confusion by
messing with the very strong delineation between app area and Dock that the
Dock’s gray bar provides. There is no indication that anything could or should exist behind it. There is a lot of opportunity for losing apps down there.

Improvement 3 – User-Controlled Icon Positioning: This Levitra or viagra is the second of the two
improvements that I strongly disagree with. Tog’s vision is to retain the grid on iPhone pages, but allow users to place objects anywhere within it. This allows large gaps anywhere on the page, which

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disrupts the iPhone’s clean visual aesthetic.

Tog’s app pages with user-defined app positions

Tog’s app pages with user-defined app positions

The visual aesthetic of a device is a crucial path for people to develop an emotional connection with it. Interfering with that path, especially on a device where so much attention has been paid to its interactive aesthetic, would represent a step backward for Apple.

Tog says, “[These] spaces act as big cues to let people know if they have hit
the right page or not. They give differing pages an instantly recognizable ‘look.’ Forcing every page to look much like every other page, as the current scheme does, increases error and slows users down.” While in many contexts I’d agree with this, the iPhone seems special. First, each app has it’s own visually distinct icon, making recognition very easy. Second, if the user has made any attempt at organization, recognizing one icon should provide a cue as to what’s on the rest of the page. For example, “Oh, here’s Rolando. This is my ‘games that are awesome’ page.” Relatedly, the mobile, omnipresent nature of the iPhone easily instills an emotional connection between itself and its owner that helps to facilitate recognition. People rely on their

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intimately familiar with them. In a desktop environment, I would never say that icons were so useful for recognition… I’d insist they were both accompanied by text and organizable by folders.

Tog’s fourth and fifth improvements I think are stellar, and my own solution integrates them as well. He says that the iPhone needs some sort of container for apps that allows people to categorize them. I couldn’t agree more. He also suggests that users should be able to put apps in multiple categories, again, my agreement is violent.

My Solution

While my solution retains what works about Tog’s solution, it attempts to achieve some of his other goals in a more playful way… a way that I find to be more consistent with the interactive aesthetic of the iPhone OS. I call it “Appsposé.” (Yeah, it’s corny, but you get the idea without me even saying anything, don’t you?)

The basic idea is the addition of a container structure called a Group, a playful interaction that allows you to access them on the iPhone, and changes to iTunes that allow you to manage your groups. A group is essentially what the iPhone has now, a series of 11 pages with 16 apps on a page. What I envision is that there would be 11 pages of groups, allowing users to install up to lasix 12.5 mg 30,980 apps. Is that enough, Bruce? : )

The second component to this solution is the interaction that allows you to access your groups. My initial thought is that it’s a diagonal flick across an app page, much like you can toggle Exposé in OS X by moving your mouse to
the corner of the screen (hence, “Appsposé”). But in OS X this is not a default behavior, but a user preference. This leads me to believe that Appsposé in general could be turned on or off by user preference and that the interaction
that triggers it could also be a preference. The options could include diagonal flicks to each corner, shaking, or perhaps pinching an app page. Tapping a group (or if pinching is the trigger, zooming on the group icon) would then replace the current app pages with the selected group’s pages. Here’s an excerpt of a junky sketch I

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did that diagrams the interactions & structures (click on the image to download the full PDF).

Appsposé: A playful solution to the problem of limited app space

Appsposé: A playful solution to the problem of limited app space

The final components to this solution are the changes required to iTunes to make managing groups an accomplishable task. There are essentially two strategies for doing this, simple and complex. The simple solution only allows people to manage groups, add apps to groups upon installation, and “favorite” apps to put them in the default group. The complex solution essentially turns apps into rich iTunes content objects along the lines of songs. Whereas now Get Info is completely useless for apps, this solution would require that users be able to create and apply their own app genres, rate apps, and otherwise personalize them. (New fields specific to apps would also need to be created, populated, & editable. Currently, apps use the same metadata fields that media content does, which makes no sense.) The purpose behind this is to allow users to create SmartGroups based on their metadata. In addition to SmartGroups, users would be able to manage their groups like playlists, including dragging them to multiple groups/playlists. I’d go even further and allow users to define and populate app pages & SmartPages like playlists as well. Hey, this is the complex solution.

I’ve run out of time to post details about how all this will work and I’ve left some problems unsolved, like communicating group & page names. If you want to see these details, including higher-fidelity iPhone screen mockups, iTunes wireflows/mockups/storyboards, and potential solutions to the group & page naming problem, let me know in the comments!

One final thing. I am not dissing Tog’s design. I feel like his thought and work are valuable because they illustrate the importance of the aesthetics of interaction design, a crucial yet often underestimated component. Design is about evolution, and I encourage anyone inspired to do so to tear my design down and evolve it even further.

UPDATE: Jaanus Kase took me up on the challenge and worked up a more straightforward solution to this problem. Check it out!

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3 Responses to “The Aesthetics of Interaction: A Response to Tog’s iPhone Home Screen Redesign”

  1. Darrel says:

    I do like Tog’s idea of the user positionable icons. It does mess with the aesthetic, but not in a terribly awful way as it retains the grid. Perhaps that’s a more traditional Mac vs. PC mindset difference. Traditionally (IMHO) it seems that Mac folks would use their desktop to organize icons in specific areas of the screen, where Windows folks tended to go with the default ‘add icons from top left to bottom right’.

    Of course, there’s a severe limit of 16 icons, so inevitably, any groupings would begin to bleed into teach other rendering the grouping concept less useful.

    Either way, I really like the term “Appsposé”

    Adding to the brainstorm:

    What if it was a two-dimensional scroll?

    Vertical page scrolls would take you from group to group. Horizontal scrolls would take you from page to page within a group.

  2. Jaanus says:

    Interesting proposal, but still a bit complex. My proposal is here: http://www.jaanuskase.com/en/2009/10/fixing_the_iphones_springboard.html

  3. Fred Beecher says:

    That is awesome, Jaanus! Thanks for taking the time to do that! That’s exactly what I was hoping would happen… that someone would poke holes in my design as well. Design is always better as a collaboration.

    And I do agree with you. My solution is definitely more convoluted and your app folders are definitely more straightforward. (Readers: If you’ve read all the way down here, definitely check out Jaanus’s design in the link above!) I do, however, think that devices like the iPhone place more emphasis than others on playfulness (but not to the complete exclusion of simplicity), so any redesign of standard iPhone interactions has to keep that in mind.

    What I think I will do is keep my “Appsposé” idea (flick or shake to get to groups), but re-think how those groups are managed. I like the power that iTunes can give you for organizing them, but I’ll think about how to do it on the phone itself. I connect my iPhone to my computer every day and didn’t realize there were a lot of people who didn’t (Obviously, I did zero user research. : ).

    Darrel: So you would flick straight up and down and go to the next group, and then flick diagonally to get to a list of all groups? Hmmm. I like that. I can see only two issues with that. First, the up/down motion might not map to the layout of icons on the grid (up = what’s to the right?). And it might need to be localizable for the Arabic, Hebrew, etc. versions. The second issue is that this interaction is kind of like Spaces so I’d have to call it “Appspaceposé” which doesn’t roll off the toungue quite as well. : )