Please stop this gesture madness

by Alexander Baxevanis on 10 August 2012

In the beginning there was Clear - the iPhone app that turns managing your to-do list into a game of gesturing around the screen (if you haven't seen how this works, you can watch a demo video of the app). At first I thought this was a folly that was quickly going to fade away. But a few weeks later somebody decided to redesign another basic app, your humble calculator, to also use gestures. Rechner app prides itself on being  "the world's first gesture based calculator" and makes you perform gestures instead of tapping buttons for the basic act of adding 2 numbers. Its creators have also created a pretty demo video that makes adding numbers with gestures appear as compelling as performing magic. What neither of these videos shows is that before you start using either of these apps you'll need to go through a couple of tutorial screens to find out what gestures you can use and what they do. A tutorial before I can add numbers or scribble some to-dos? Thanks, but no thanks! Here's what these tutorials look like:

Tutorial screen showing a gesture for the Clear appTutorial screen showing gestures for the Rechner app

The first screen, one of the 7 tutorial screens shown when the Clear app is first launched, teaches you the elaborate gesture that the app's creators have thought up for going one level up. You may have noticed that you need to hold the phone in one hand and pinch with 2 fingers on your other hand to perform this gesture. That's something most other apps accomplish by using a standard 'Back' button, and you can usually tap this button with your thumb on the same hand that you're using to hold the phone. Perhaps Clear should be branded "the world's first two-handed to-do app"? The second screen, "explaining" how to use the Rechner app, assumes people can decipher the gesture notation and understand that you need to 'swipe right twice' to multiply. I'm not sure how this squares up with Rechner's creators' claim that their app is "200% more efficient", since on a standard calculator you'd only have to tap the multiply button once. So what do these apps offer in exchange for having you learn & perform all these gestures? On Clear, most gestures could be replaced with a couple of buttons at the top of the screen for adding & editing tasks, and going back to the previous screen. Sure, this would have meant that the screen could show 1 less to-do item, but that's hardly a tragedy. On Rechner, removing the action buttons from the calculator keypad leaves more space to make the number buttons bigger, but did anyone complain that they were too small in the first place? The only thing both apps consistently offer, is the potential for mistakes. When you can perform gestures anywhere on the screen, and most gestures do something, it's very likely that you'll end up accidentally activating one. And because gestures don't come with labels, you won't know what you've just done. So, dear app designers & developers, please stop this gesture madness. I know gestures look cool, but they're also:

  • Difficult to discover - do you really want your app to start with a tutorial?
  • Hard to remember - unless they map to a natural action
  • Easy to accidentally activate and cause confusion
  • Not making an app more efficient - it takes at least as much time to drag your finger across the screen as it takes to tap a button

There's many good use cases for gestures (e.g. for directly manipulating objects on a screen, or for secondary actions), but reinventing the calculator or the to-do list isn't one of them. Have you seen any great or terrible uses of gestures? Leave us a comment, it'll be interesting to see what else is out there...

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