If you were to design a smartphone interface from scratch, without any legacy issues, would it look like a bunch of app icons sitting on a home screen?
No. Because that would be stupid. Would you want your users to be hunting around for the right app every time they want to do simple things? That ruins flow. And it unnecessarily taxes your brain by making you shift your mental model each time you switch apps. You’re always thinking Is this the one with the swiping left or the one that scrolls down?
There is a lot of background processing in your brain just to move from app to app. I sometimes skip simple tasks on my phone because I can’t go app-diving one more time or my head will explode. My brain seems to have a finite capacity within a given day for “hunting for the right app.”
When you have my kind of job, losing flow is devastating. I’m a fan of new technology, but objectively speaking, the smartphone is the biggest threat to creativity since communism. My phone interrupts me all day long. And if I have a new idea that I want to jot down before the next interruption, it is nearly impossible because of the app-hunting legacy model of phones. I usually forget what I was thinking because I get interrupted or my mind moves on before I even decide what app to use for my note.This is all worsened by the fact that modern life is making my attention span shrink to nothing.
So what would a proper smartphone interface look like?
It would be a blank screen. Like this, except with a keyboard at the bottom.
Let’s say, for example, you start typing (or speaking) on the blank screen…
Your smartphone starts guessing that you are either writing an email or a text message because “Kenn” is almost certainly short for Kenny and you have been communicating with someone by that name. A hovering menu appears at the top right while you continue, offering you the chance to choose your app (email or text) whenever you please. You can do it now or wait until you stop typing, to preserve flow.
Halfway through your typing, the OS understands that this is probably an email message because your recent messages to Kenny were all email. The OS starts wrapping an email interface around your message as you type. It also automatically attaches your history of email back and forth to your new message, at the bottom.
The idea here is that you start working first, to maintain flow, and only later do you select the app. And by the time you need to select the app, the OS has done a 95% accurate job of doing it for you, so you simply proceed without ever actively selecting the app.
Does this work for all sorts of apps? I haven’t thought through every possibility, but I think so. Let’s see some more examples and I’ll tell you how the OS would guess the right app and auto-surround your work with the most relevant options.
If you type… Then….
wea… Local weather info pops up
wel… If Wells Fargo is your bank, the sign-in page
eat A restaurant search app or search engine pops up
saf… Safari browser pops up
Goo… Google search box pops up
Stev… Either text or email (hover menu choice)
Ala… Open alarm clock
tw… Open twitter
My bagel is… Hover menu for Facebook, Twitter,
Pick up… Reminder app opens for your to-do list
Thurs… Your calendar pops up to show next Thursday
Stop saying I am reinventing the DOS operating system. DOS was dumb. The smartphone can see your work as part of a larger context. It will know what you need based on the situation.
Smartphone users are experienced at typing because we do so much texting. We do it quickly and effortlessly. So my suggested blank-screen interface goes with our strengths instead of making you play a game of Where’s Waldo to find the right app before every task.
How did we get the app-centric terrible interfaces of today? I think it goes back to the dawn of personal computers. In those days it was no big deal to first pick the software (Word or Excel) and then spend a few hours within an app doing one task. There was no mental tax involved in switching apps because you only ever used one or two. So the app-first model became normal.
Fast-forward to the original Apple smartphone. The business model required an open market for software providers, and they each got their own little branding, navigation strategies, and real estate on your screen. It works great until you have fifty apps. The app-first interface is a total failure at this point. It works, but the cost is so high I am having legitimate thoughts about abandoning my smartphone for good. (I won’t pull the trigger, but why am I even considering it?)
If you don’t like the blank screen with a keyboard interface, here’s another idea that is better than current phones: Use faces for the interface.
By that I mean my home screen icons should be the faces of people I deal with most often. If the icon with Bob’s face shows a little “2” on it, I know I can click to see two messages from Bob, or perhaps I have one message and one meeting today with Bob, or one task to do for Bob.
The main insight here is that humans reflexively arrange their tasks by the human that benefits from it. Sometimes the human is yourself, so your face is on the front page too. I doubt you can think of a task that does not relate to a specific face in your life.
And finally, a word to current makers of smartphone operating systems. If my OS interrupts me to ask about updating software, you failed. Please keep working on that until you get it right. Make your machine conform to my flow, not the other way around.