The challenges creating virtual representations of physical layouts

The way that Apple represents a physical space in a virtual environment is really starting to bug me more and more. With the advent of IOS 7 and the heightened ability to see apps visually next to one another in a virtual space has made the need for a rethink more urgent.

Switching between apps may seem easy, but depending on how you switch between apps, the apps change their order based on which one you’re using at the time. This was slightly annoying in the previous versions of iOS, but it becomes just downright frustrating in iOS 7, where zooming out (4 finger swipe up) shows you a thumbnail of the apps that you’ve used in the last while. The app that you select from this list then moves to the beginning of this list. If you want to go back to the app you were previously using, the intuitive motion would be the 4 finger swipe from left to right, but instead of just leaving the app in the current position and making it active, iOS moves this app to the beginning of the list so there are no apps to the left! You have to swipe from right to left to get to the next app, or the one you were using last.

app switching issues
Why change the order of things?

I question the way that Apple implemented their ‘multitasking’ in the first place. You can only work on one app at a time in iOS anyway, so why have the paradigm of the home screen with its static app layout and then also provide the user with a counterintuitive Multi-tasking arrangement of apps that are currently ‘in use’? How could a user be expected to remember the order in which they last used their apps? If I’m switching between apps on my iPad, I usually only need to switch between 2 apps to do basic copy and paste tasks. Anything more than that becomes tedious on an iPad and I’ll usually resort to using my laptop.

IOS is supposed to keep your state when switching to another app, so why not simply keep the recently used apps in the order in which you used them?

I would really like to see a more consistent handling of physical space translates into virtual environments. This can be the make or break for interfaces. No matter how unique or innovative virtual interfaces are, as humans, we have specific ways (barring cultural and a few other exceptions) that we expect to interact with the world around us. If the order or placement of items in a virtual world is not what we expect, we’ll be confused and less likely to use the interface, or reach the desired outcome.

I’m also keen to start looking into a new paradigm for mobile (and indeed other devices) OS design. The current home screen and app list feels very siloed and is making less and less sense to me.

Try not get in the way


Possibly one of the strangest and most annoying designs in iOS 6 is the notification overlay, as shown in the image above. Annoying, because one cannot get rid of it once it appears – one must wait a few seconds until it flips away, back into obscurity. Strange, because it doesn’t follow the conventions of the rest of the interface. It animates into view as if it were printed upside down on the back of the foreground layer. No doubt someone thought that this was a cool animation, and yes, it is a nice effect, but it is just that – an effect. The multitasking paradigm that iOS adopts is that of layers stacked one on top of each other or layers next to each other. Having these 2 spatial paradigms competing is tricky enough. Take for instance the 2 different ways you can switch between apps in the iPad. First, you can double click the home button (or four-finger swipe upward) to reveal the last few apps that have been used. When you select an app, the animation is one of a the new app as a page being brought to the top of the stack and the old app being sent behind (although its not quite clear exactly clear where in the stack it’s being sent to, but that’s another topic altogether.) The second paradigm is that of the apps being laid out next to one another, with the active app showing in the screen and the previously used app to right of the screen. You can use a four-fingered gesture to drag the app to the right into the viewport.

In order to use these 2 paradigms interchangeably, one has to hold in ones mind the image of the apps being stacked on top of one another and at the same time laid side by side next to one another! Why confuse the user?!

The point I’m getting to is that Apple introduced yet another physical model that the one now needs to hold in ones head – that of a notification that cuts itself a little rectangle at the top of the apps viewport and forces itself upon you without warning and without a way to dismiss it. You may think that it’s not so bad – it’s only a few seconds. However, those few seconds can totally disrupt your flow. In the case I’ve highlighted above, I was drawing when the notification appeared. I was about to change tools but had to wait for the notification to disappear – it was obscuring the toolbar. Often I’ve tried to grasp at the corner of a button sticking out from under a notification only to be switched to the app doing the notification. Frustrating and flow wrecking.

I’ve often questioned the necessity for notifications interrupting my activity in my current app. One of the great pleasures of using my iPad is that I have one app and one app only open in front of me when I’m using it. Mono-tasking. Multi-tasking is not possible for humans anyway, and certainly not productive. I write better on my iPad, mostly because I can focus on the single task at hand. Notifications, when they were first introduced to iOS, were seen as a necessity, highlighting activity in an app that was still busy, but not visible, bringing to your attention an occurrence that was deemed important. This very model of working is something I, and many others, question as a fundamental problem of the way we work in our modern lives. Apple has not made this better, rather they’ve made it worse. Not only does it visually disturb the current viewport by tearing the top part of your screen, but it doesn’t allow you to dismiss it! It’s as if a colleague, seeing that you’re deeply engrossed in a task, walks over to your desk, picks up your keyboard, holds it for 5 seconds then puts it down and walks off again.

The issues highlighted in this article may be solved in the next version of iOS, version 7 and hopefully they will be solved gracefully. I haven’t had the chance to investigate the new OS yet, but will certainly do so when I can and feed back with my opinions. Here’s hoping that they move closer to a single, more unified model of the OS.


I’m on a usability drive. I want to make sure that whatever website or web app I write is immediately and easily usable. So I’ve almost finished reading Steve Krug’s “Don’t make me think”. Great book, great style of writing. So now I think of everything in terms of usability. Take the coffee cups that Vida e uses. They don’t cater for my style of coffee drinking. I like to drink my coffee hot. No patient waiting around for it to cool down so that it doesn’t burn away the lining of my throat (if there is such a thing). I want to get that caffeine rush and I WANT IT NOW! But what’s with these pathetic mugs? Sure they look pretty, but how are you supposed to hold the bloody things? You put your index finger through the eye and the cup automatically slips down so that the cup is pressing against your middle finger. But the cup is hot, so you can’t keep it there. So you rush that first sip so your finger doesn’t burn, but because you have to take a sip really fast, you end up taking a rather large slurp, larger than you normally do, and you burn your tongue, palette and anything else that’s in the path of the burning hot l(j)ava. Using a straw would just be poncey and it would probably melt. So I either have to wait for the coffee to cool, or steadily burn both my middle finger and tongue/throat, etc.Who thought these mugs were a good idea? A designer, probably. One that doesn’t actually drink coffee. Probably one of those typical Capetonian hippy-types that only drinks spring water and the occasional dainty porcelain cup of Chamomile tea. Probably with the pinky pointed skywards too.Would it not be too much to ask that everyone does usability tests? I’m sure it wouldn’t be too hard to offer a free cup of coffee in exchange for a few simple questions, such as: “can you actually drink out of this mug?”. I’d be the first to put my hand up for that.