In-app Gestures and Mobile App Usability

When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, touchscreen-centered interaction got mainstream attention and users learned that they could not tap on the interface but also zoom, pinch and swipe it.

Parents are amazed by how fast their children understand how a tablet or smartphone works. And today success of a mobile app can dramatically depend on how well gestures are implemented into its user experience.

What Gestures do People Use?

According to the Luke Wroblewski article, the study asked 40 people in nine different countries to create gestures for 28 different tasks like deleting, scrolling, zooming, etc.
Source: Touch Gestures

Source: Touch Gestures

The important thing to note is that the gestures tended to be similar across culture and experience. For example, when prompted to “delete,” most people — regardless of nationality— tried dragging the object off screen.

The Power Of Gesture-Driven Interfaces

One of the main reasons gesture controls feel so natural and intuitive to us is because they resemble interacting with a real object. Let’s take a more practical look on gestures:

  • Less clutter. The more an app relies on gesture controls, the less buttons on-screen, thus more space for valuable content. This make the app very content-focused.
  • More delight. A gesture, once discovered and learned, can become a delight to use and can improve user experience by reducing steps in the user flow.
  • More potential. While buttons might seem to be useful triggers, gestures have great potential to make interaction with content more intuitive and fun.

The rise of touch and gesture-driven devices dramatically changes the way we think about interaction. Animation paired with gesture-control essentially tricks the brain into thinking that it’s interacting with something tangible. So we become that much more immersed in the experience.

Source: Dribbble.

What are Downsides?

As Thomas Joos points out, one of the biggest drawbacks to gesture controls is the learning curve. Be aware that every time you remove UI clutter, the application’s learning curve goes up.

User Effort

The main thing to know about gestures is that they are always hidden. People need to remember them. If you hide an option, less people will use it. The more you rely on gestures over visible buttons, the greater the possibility for confusion.

There are several ways around this, but Max Rudberg in his post “If You See a UI Walkthrough, They Blew It” , advises against walkthroughs.
Example of UI walkthrough you always skip.

Example of UI walkthrough you always skip.

Too much information at once might lead to more confusion. The safer option is to explain the trickier gestures slowly and over time, preferably with subtle visual cues. Given some iteration it could be transformed into a more gradual discovery.

Mailbox was a good example of onboarding— users get a walkthrough where they have to try each gestures before actually starting to use the app.
Onboarding tutorial in Mailbox app for iOS

Onboarding tutorial in Mailbox app for iOS.

Takeaways:

  • Without visual cues, users could get confused about how to interact with the application. A bit of exploration is no problem, but users should know where to begin.
  • Walkthroughs should explain only the most important interactions. Don’t explain everything at once. Users will skip it.

Consistency

Most gestures are not standard and consistent across apps yet. They are not obvious for users.

Even a simple gesture like swiping over an email works differently in various mail apps. In Apple Mail client swipe to the right gesture stands for Unread action:
Right-swipe gesture in Apple Mail app for iOS 9

Right-swipe gesture in Apple Mail app for iOS 9.

But in Gmail app for iOS it stands for Archive:
Right-swipe gesture in Gmail app for iOS 9
Right-swipe gesture in Gmail app for iOS 9.

Takeaway: Because there is so much potential and room for interpretation, gestures can also be confusing, especially when users switch between devices with contrasting controls.

But What About Tinder?

Tinder changed industry with the swipe gesture. They literally teach the whole world what swiping right means. This interface choice is about as good as it gets — simple and easy to understand.

Moreover, their looping capabilities are phenomenal — using Tinder becomes addictively fun. This keeps users on the app “for just five more minutes.”
Tinder app for iOS

Tinder app for iOS.

The interface is based on two main moments — cards and swipes. Cards enable users to accomplish that task in a quick, easy way. And using a gesture rather than a button allows user more efficiently complete the action. Tinder simply made this action essential for the app.
Takeaway: There is simply no a one-size-fits-all solution. Tinder’s swipe solution works well for Tinder app and might fail in yours.

Conclusion

Gestures are a great way to make an app more content-focused, original and fun. But when designing an innovative mobile product, predicting user behavior can be very difficult. Never forget that gestures are hidden controls and have to be memorized. And visibility is still a very important principle to consider when designing mobile apps.

In order to make a “good” gesture, you have to start by looking at the current state of gestures in the mobile world.

When it comes to selecting button or gesture, think of it this way: Does the action the user is completing in their experience directly correspond to an action on the screen? If so, a gesture might be a good alternative to a traditional button click action.

That’s all. And now let’s stop talking and start making!