Co.Design

Clear: A To-Do List App With A UI From The Future

This simple gestural interface breaks the usability rules of today, but may help set the ones for tomorrow.

To-do list apps are lame. Why? Because managing the system—learning how to input items, strike them out, sync them, tag them—is often more complicated than low-tech methods like writing something on a Post-it. But people still keep inventing them. The latest, an iPhone app called Clear, is at least interesting for what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t sync. It doesn’t tag. It doesn’t "intelligently" sort anything. It also doesn’t have any obvious clues in its gestural interface for how to actually use the thing. Is this bad design, or the future of UIs?

As you can see from the demo video, Clear boils basic to-do list functionality down to something like a pure sensory experience. To-do items are displayed in thick blocks of bright color like vertical xylophone keys, with no beveled buttons or menus in sight. Instead, the UI is primarily gestural. To add a new to-do item, swipe the list downward to spawn a new colored tile. To delete it, swipe it to the left. To check it off as completed, swipe it to the right (and get rewarded with a charming little dinging noise). To move an item up or down in a list to reprioritize it, just tap and drag it. And to move up and down in the list hierarchy (for example, moving between a grocery list and a list of things to accomplish at work), pinch in or out. Anything else is probably too complicated to be worth including, so Clear doesn’t.

Interaction-design greybeards like Donald Norman and Jakob Nielsen would say Clear’s gestural UI breaks two fundamental rules: "Visibility (also called perceived affordances or signifiers)" and "Discoverability: All operations can be discovered by systematic exploration of menus." (It may actually break more than that, but these two are the most obvious "sins.") Clear’s flat tiles offer no visual signals about what to do with them. Are they buttons? Sliders? Text boxes? All three? And as for menus, Clear doesn’t have any. So systematically exploring them to discover all of Clear’s functionality is a non-starter.

But designer Francisco Inchauste disagrees. Clear does have affordances and discoverability, he argues—it’s just ahead of its time, relying on gestural conventions that are still somewhat in flux now, but will seem to the people of 2025 as intuitively obvious as pointing and double-clicking on icons seem to us now. Those interactions (known as the WIMP paradigm, for "window, icon, menu, pointer"), after all, are no more objectively "intuitive" than pinching or swiping on a touch screen. We’re just so used to them after three decades that nobody needs to explain them anymore. We all simply expect WIMP-style graphical user interfaces to follow those rules, just like we expect a doorknob to twist and unlock a door.

Inchauste believes that, in time, users will come to just expect the conventions of Clear-like interfaces, too. What looks like an affordance-less cipher now, Inchauste says, will simply be so obvious to future users as to be automatic. I’m inclined to agree with him, to a point. It’s true that without seeing Clear’s demo video first, I’d probably be perplexed by its UI. But the truth is that the gestures Clear takes for granted are the same ones we’re all starting to take for granted with touch-screen interfaces. The "swipe down to make new stuff appear" gesture started with Tweetie and is now basically standard in most apps. Pinching to move "in/down" or "out/up" is also a near-universal convention thanks to Google Maps and iPhoto. Clear’s other gestures are subtler, but none of them jump out as completely alien; they all feel familiar enough to "stick," cognitively, after seeing them demoed just once.

If Inchauste is right, these "invisible" gestural affordances will allow our apps and digital tools to be cleaner, quieter, more ambient and incidental—in other words, more like the other "plain ol’ stuff" that we take for granted in our built environments. Sure, an ancient Greek might be momentarily perplexed by a modern doorknob if he were to be teleported into the 21st century. But that doesn’t mean no one should have ever invented doorknobs.

[Clear for iPhone | via Francisco Inchauste]

[Image: Igor Kisselev/Shutterstock]

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30 Comments

  • Shiraz

    Why do design 'gurus' so often jump to conclusions? Are they so hingry to debte and showcase their knowledge? was it too much to consider that the app might include a guide for first time users? Or that maybe, just maybe humans are intelligent enough to learn new tricks?

    Having just downloaded and actually used the app, I think people are overthinking this. It's a simple app that works. Thats all. The starting guide when you first launch the app perfectly explains the gestures. Using the app one handed is really easy as a result of the gestures. The app does what it's supposed to: basic usable to-do lists.

  • NameIsDavid

    The problem with an interface such as this is that there are too few gestures for too many possible app interactions, making standards possible for only a few select gestures. Apps will reuse gestures for different purposes, creating confusion. Reeder uses a left-swipe to send an article to Instapaper, for instance. Clear chooses to punt on this issue by deciding to avoid adding features that go beyond the simple gestural language. Yet, even Clear already breaks a standard iPhone convention: right-swipe delete.

    Other problems with the app are redundancies. You can't sort, so position represents priority. Than why the gradient "heat map"?

  • santo

    But...
    Even the "standard" swipe-right-to-delete is a two step action.
    You swipe but the have to confirm that you want
    To delete the item.
    Not much different from swiping right and when you want to clear items
    You just pull up. A no-brainer.

  • Ben Capozzi

    Going to give it a try; I've abandoned all my GTD apps over the years, months, and weeks. Omnifocus, THL, Things, Producteev...

  • Macadda

    I think the "create a Task" pull down gesture is a mistake. Most of the App use this gesture to refresh the page or reveal hidden tasks such Search or call...

  • Usr

    For anyone who has missed it, you can create new tasks simply by pulling down, or tapping an empty space. You do not need two hands.

  • RB

    I love this style of UI, but it should definitely come with a demo bundled in for those that haven't seen the video before hand (I'm assuming it will though).

    It does have one pretty important caveat however - judging by that video, it seems you'll always need both hands to use the app. When you consider how much time you spend using apps and only having one hand free, you'll soon realise that people will stop using the app for that reason alone (I use apps mostly while on the go, and I'll often either have something in my other hand, like a bag, or will be holding on to something, like a handrail whilst on the train).

  • Bachinphx

    Sounds to me like you may have "other" things in your hands that we don't want to know about. Oh, and nobody says "whilst" either!

  • senorvicente

    Let's not forget context here. The device itself comes with it's own set of affordances and expectations. Smart phones are now expected to include these gestural interfaces and you're not going to find this app on a Windows XP machine. In this instance, one might argue that the device offers the Visibility and the Discoverability is built into the interaction by gesture itself.

  • Fred Zaw

    SCENARIO:

    You are such a busy person, you've gone through more to-do apps than you can count. You download Clear and you are excited to use it. 

    You are rushing on your way to work one day, coffee in hand. You remember you need to pick up your laundry on your way home from work. 

    Well too damn bad! You need two hands to use this app. You go to to work with dirty underwear the next day.

  • Ben Work

    What about assigning tasks to other people?  Anybody in the crowd know any apps that allow you to manage tasks with others in this sort of pristine UI?

  • Morgan Wadsworth

    I wouldn't say assign...because that's adding process that I would have to do time and time again. If anything...allow the user to make certain lists belong to a group "groceries", (my wife has access) My wife sees the most up to date list. As she knocks off items they disappear from both of our lists...That would be great, I set it up once and never again have to worry about countless "assign" interactions.

  • Daryl Chymko

    This looks a lot like any.DO that has been out on Android for a few months (with the 'xylophone tiles', side swipe to clear, etc)

  • Anand Prakash

    I agree with the clear's design. They might be a little ahead and some visible cues would be welcome, maybe some dim icons which show the left and right swipe actions for the first few days a user uses.

    I have tried a lot of todo apps and I feel that all tend to be overcomplicated. Only other feature I would want from clear is an alarm icon, which reminds me about the task at 8am next day.