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The Secret Sauce Gesture Behind Vine And Snapchat

The two hottest media-sharing apps of today use the same simple gesture to distinguish their purpose.

When the iPhone hit, everything changed. We didn’t need to have 50 specialized buttons tethered to smartphones anymore. Rather, the screen could pull up a keyboard as easily as a shutter button or a set of browser controls. So that’s what apps did. They gave us more and more buttons—some big, some small, some incredibly fluid and radial (seriously, have you seen Path’s buttons?)—and we were content.

Then six years since the iPhone’s release, two apps came around and said, "We don’t need no stinking buttons at all." As an added bonus, they were the hottest two apps in media sharing today. Vine and Snapchat both use the simplest of interactions—holding your finger anywhere on the screen (which I’ll call "tap-and-hold")—to power core functions in their interface. And in each case, that single interaction changes everything about the app.

In Vine, you create six-second videos touching the screen each time you want a new cut. It’s an absurdly intuitive way to create a relatively complex short video. Even amidst a windy sleet storm yesterday in which I could barely keep my eyes open, I was able pull out my phone and film a vine of my trip to the store. My wet and numb fingers could tap-and-hold anywhere on the screen, and I knew I’d be recording.

Compare this approach to building the same product in iMovie. I would have had to shoot multiple clips (using a shutter button to start recording each time). Then, I’d need to sort through thumbnails and a timeline to position each cut. iMovie is a remarkable mobile clone of Apple’s powerful desktop nonlinear editing software, and yet it feels archaic next to a UI that just lets me shoot a rough video instantly.

Interestingly enough, Snapchat uses tap-and-hold in an entirely different way. Their camera app looks straight out of Apple’s API, with its touch-to-focus and shutter-button UI. Instead, where Snapchat deploys the tap-and-hold maneuver is in viewing content. A friend will send a photo that expires in five seconds, and for all five seconds, you need to hold a finger to the screen to keep seeing the media.

Whereas Vine uses tap-and-hold for convenience, Snapchat uses it purely for your inconvenience. A finger on the screen means that this limited window you have to see a friend’s funny face is only more obscured, more fleeting. Ergonomically, it also means that taking a screengrab—which Snapchat can’t block because it’s in iOS’s core functionality—becomes a very difficult thing to do. You have to twist two arms in this fantastically awkward way, constantly at risk of dropping your phone and totally unable to enjoy your few moments with this ticking time bomb of a picture. It’s really a brilliant trick on Snapchat’s part.

Truth be told, tap-and-hold is amongst the dumbest things our touch screens can do. It’s not the product of countless hours of polished engineering, like pinch-to-zoom or the feeling of a perfect swipe. It’s the same interaction model inside the most basic touch-screen prototypes we have. It’s pre-proof-of-concept stuff, yet it’s absolutely rocking the world of mobile media sharing today.

[Image: Phone via Shutterstock]

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  • Nikhil

    I'm no Apple fanboy, neither am I crazy about Windows Phone, but having used both, have to say that the use of tap-and-hold has been in from the start in a Windows Phone. And if after "eight" years of the release of an iPhone, if an app has just found this "amazing" new way of interaction, well, I'm frankly surprised it took so long.

  • Felipe Edoardo

    Hadn't heard of Snapchat and will check it out, but I think your comparison of Vine and iMovie is just unfair. Of course  it's much harder to edit clips together in iMovie compared to Vine, but Vine's magically simple formula only works with its also magically simple - and short - videos.

    It would be impossible to spend your whole vacation holding a button, just to get an hour of auto-cut relevant footage. In the same way, the Notes app can be great to quickly scribble a reminder, but try to write a novel on it. To each purpose its own tool.

    Also a quick correction: the iPhone was released in 2007, no 2005.