There’s a shift in the way we interact with content and it’s awesome. The iPhone & iPad have changed how we create, how we interact with our websites and applications. Not only have they brought us high-definition displays, they’ve introduced us to a world of gestures. Our UX, designs and interactions will never be the same.

When mobile first started it’s explosive rise, our websites and applications behaved just like their desktop counterparts: We simply replaced the finger taps with mouse clicks and we ignored the hover state. But now, designers are almost forced embrace gesture-based interactions. Apps used to have a pretty standard layout: title bar, home, settings and usually a tab bar at the bottom. They were very utilitarian and convenient. But now, designers are taking a step back and really looking at how a person interacts with the app. We are starting to think about the device more in terms of an extension of the person, rather than a small computer. They can be fun, they can be engaging and they can be redundant, it’s how we as designers see them, implement them and how the users embrace them that will determine the success of our applications. The key is natural, grounded interactions. Let’s dive in:

The Shift: Examples in the store.

There have been a number of recent apps to hit the app store that have exhibited a more natural attempt at interactions. You could argue that this was first implemented by the simple action of flinging an Angry Bird, but how can it apply to productivity and consumption applications? Paper by Fifty Three is an intuitive idea sketching application for iPad. Not unlike you would in the real world, it uses notebooks to house your ideas and sketches. Paper takes the simple action of moving from your notebook back into your collection and thought about from a real life, practical interaction standpoint. Instead of just tapping a back button, or even swiping back, they explored the interaction from a tangible perspective. You would close the book. So that’s what they did. Pinch to close your book. Paper UX Brilliant. There’s no real learned behaviour there, save for users to get a feel for the natural movements, but essentially it’s navigating the way you do in the everyday world. There’s countless other examples out there. Almost every popular todo app uses a swipe to cross off items, just like in the real world, even iOS mail uses it to allow users to quickly delete or mark emails. These interactions are quickly coming into more and more everyday apps.

Ok, Great. So How Does That Make my App Better?

Well, to start off, gestures are here to stay. But it’s how we map them back to natural movements that makes YOUR app stand out. If you’ve spent any time in the app store lately, you’ll notice there is a growing shift towards this kind of thinking throughout all the apps being released today. Gesture-based interactions are not only unique, but have the potential to provide a better user experience. With everything now existing in the digital space, it’s important that the interactions there feel natural. Treating the device like an extension of the person not only increases usability, but makes the experience more engaging. From a marketing or business standpoint, this is important. The more engaged the customers are, the more likely they will use your product more often. You reduce the risk of become a one-off app that just sits on the back page of the iPhone with the rest of the forgotten apps, like the island of misfit toys.

Perfect, I’ll Just Add Some Gestures!

Wait! Please no. There’s meaningful, natural interactions and then there’s gestures for gestures sake. In terms of the latter: Don’t. Just, don’t. While we talked about gestures making an app more engaging, there’s another side to that coin. Engagement isn’t the only factor, you have to have great content and a purpose. There is a refreshing trend in consumers nowadays that has come with the transparency and accessibility of the internet, and that is people are no longer susceptible to blatant marketing ploys and gimmicks. Consumers are attracted to the genuine. The same applies for interactions, don’t just throw around gestures as a gimmick or because you think they look cool. They have to have a grounded natural feel and purpose, otherwise it will hinder, rather than help your experience. As Luke W put it: “Appropriateness of gestures is not due to the technology but to the space.” It’s when you take a step back, look at the interaction and say “how would I do this outside of a digital environment?” You take that, and see if there is a nice natural way to translate it to the screen, if there is, great! If not, stick with the traditional interaction. The point is, bringing interactions back to a basic, human-natured level lets users focus on the goal of the app instead of how to achieve that goal.

Conclusion

Although we are not at the holographic manipulation level that Tony Stark is at yet, where you can flick away unwanted objects, or crumple up a design and throw it away, we have progressed a long way in a very short time in the world of gestures. As long as we keep grounding them properly, we are in for an amazing ride. The world of Natural Interaction is growing, maturing and becoming more profound. There are more and more opportunities for implementing gestures. The key to success is natural, grounded interactions.

Further Reading

Natural User Interface Channel on Vimeo – a nice collection of examples

Re-Imagining Apps for Touch – Luke W.

New Design Practices for Touch-Free Interactions – UX Mag

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