The Case for Gestures

A few weeks ago I came across Zite after having it recommended to me as a great way to discover interesting news in an environment capable of intelligently determining the kinds of content to serve its users based on their reading habits. More interesting than the actual content though, which I found consistently uninteresting and commonplace, I grew especially attached to the gesture-based interface: on the main screen swiping to the right switches between news categories, and swiping left moves back in the stack; in individual articles, swiping to the right brings me back to the main screen. And that’s only in the iOS app: in the iPad version, swiping to the left and right moves through a tiled interface of news stories; swiping up or down on a single item designates it as an item of interest whose kind I would like to see more of or an article whose type I want to read less of, respectively. Although few and not particularly significant, these gestures, once learned, felt so natural and commonsensical that I found myself fumbling in my other apps, only to be confounded by the lack of gesture support. Especially in my then-RSS reader Feedler and Instapaper, where I do the majority of my reading on my iOS devices.

On a larger scale, the gestures enabled on the iPad — four-finger swipe to the left and right to switch apps according to their order in the launchpad, four-finger swipe up to reveal the launchpad, and five-finger pinch to reveal the home screen — have proved especially useful to me, and are much more widely applicable than those offered only in Zite. And that’s disregarding the universal downward swipe to reveal the notification center available regardless of the app or whether I am using my iPhone or iPad.

Thankfully, gesture support is not limited to the operating system. Reeder, the popular RSS reading app I switched to after learning of Google’s plan to shutter Reader, supports gestures in its iPhone app, though not in the iPad version. Chrome also supports a number of gestures, many of which I find myself using every time I open the app. Drafts, my current favorite cross-platform writing app, also uses gestures to greatly simplify the user interface and streamline the user experience. Similarly, Tweetbot makes excellent use of gestures to simply its interface and boost the user experience.

Given the significant mileage I get out of the built-in iOS gestures and those enabled in my favorite apps, I often find myself frustrated by the lack of support for those or similar gestures in other apps, or a particular gesture I feel would be especially useful system-wide. I would love to see a five-finger spread gesture implemented in iOS, for example, to go from the home screen to the first app in the launchpad as the opposite of the five-finger pinch gesture, which mimics the functionality of the home button on the iPad. Or in Instapaper, to use an individual app as an example, I would love to see the option enabling swipe to return to the main screen on by default; prior to writing this article I had no idea that such a feature existed, and I missed it sorely.

Unfortunately though, arguments against building in gesture support are in no short supply: many users, unable to intuit the existence of this type of functionality or accurately predict its effects, would likely excuse their lack of understanding as erratic behavior in the app. To combat this problem many developers have included guides designed to educate users as to the capabilities of the app, but these have been widely condemned as the mark of a failed user interface. We have placed an artificial barrier in front of developers, impeding their progress in this area for the sake of those unable or unwilling — or both — to step forward and match the pace of progress in this industry.

Not without good reason, I am afraid to admit: while gestures can be used to improve the entire experience, a downside does certainly exist. It is not all that uncommon for me to find myself sliding my finger across my iPhone’s screen three, four, or five times attempting to trigger the gesture to return to the main feed window in Reeder, for example, or to forget which direction I should swipe to expand a single tweet in Tweetbot and which direction I swipe to view the entire conversation. Gestures can be confusing and frustrating — I will admit that. I will, however, leave you with this: given the inelegant alternative — for there really is only one alternative, buttons — which is the less of the two evils?

My preference always has been and always will be to choose gestures over buttons. I can only hope that with time, this hope will be realized in a much better and more widespread manner than it is now. Until then though, I’ll be content to swipe between apps and paw at the screen, like an animal.