Co.Design

Why The Pull-To-Refresh Gesture Must Die

Last week, at a company event in New York City, Instagram unveiled Direct, a private-messaging feature for its popular photo-sharing platform. The press was quick to compare it to competing social services like SnapChat and WhatsApp (consensus: it’s different though trending in the same direction), but there was one subtle update to the app that many overlooked: Instagram introduced pull-to-refresh functionality, a decision not even cofounder Kevin Systrom is satisfied with. Systrom feels the gesture, which enables mobile users to refresh their photo feeds with a simple tug of the thumb, is a superfluous addition to his app, a relic of another smartphone era. "I don’t believe there should be refresh buttons," he says.


A relic of a bygone era

The pull-to-refresh gesture is far from new. An endless number of apps use the interaction for in-app content updates, including Apple's native email client, social apps like Twitter and Foursquare, and most news applications such as The New York Times. But years after designer Loren Brichter first dreamed up the novel interaction to get rid of UI clutter, Systrom and others now feel it’s outmoded—an unnecessary extra step. After all, smartphones are fast and strong enough to auto-refresh. And Systrom says moving beyond refresh buttons and actions will give mobile services a more "real-time" feel.

In earlier versions of Instagram, the app featured a button that allowed users to refresh the images displayed in their feeds. Now, the button is gone—replaced by an Instagram Direct inbox icon—and the Instagram team moved to the pull-to-refresh paradigm. "We introduced pull-to-refresh, so now when you pull on your feed, it just refreshes," Systrom says. "[But] I’d like [to get to] a day when you didn’t have a refresh button—where it just updates [automatically]."

The issue is that the gesture is so universal now that it's hard for developers to put it out to pasture. Users expect it to be part of the app experience—expect that the app will essentially be paused until they choose to click or pull to play. But Systrom believes we'll get past that paradigm—eventually. "We’re moving in that direction, but [with] baby steps," he says.

He’s not alone in that thinking. Even Loren Brichter, the former Apple and Twitter designer, now agrees. When I connected with him recently, he indicated that the pull-to-refresh concept was designed for a different time. "The whole idea of manually refreshing anything is kind of a stupid idea," Brichter told me—why even create that superficial layer between users and their content?


Simply put, it's an arbitrary feature. When you head to Gmail in the browser on your laptop, for example, the service will show you the latest emails automatically—and keep your inbox up-to-date in the background. So why would email clients on your mobile devices act any differently? Why would they wait for you to manually refresh them for new content? It’s an unnecessary step, especially in the age of fast LTE connections. Imagine if you had to pull-to-refresh your SMS service in order to receive new texts. Users would revolt!


Pull-to-action

Admittedly, there are benefits to the pull-to-fresh gesture. For one, some users like landing in a familiar place. When you open Twitter, for example, the app brings you to the last read tweet, providing context and continuity; if users want to load new tweets manually by pull-to-refresh, they’ll know to scroll up for new tweets or down for older ones. The app won’t rocket you to an unfamiliar spot in your Twitter timeline, in other words. It also saves on bandwidth for data-conscious customers.

Brichter, however, feels that it's high time his gesture evolves. "The fact that people still call it ‘pull-to-refresh’ bothers me—using it just for refreshing is limiting and makes it obsolete," he says. "I like the idea of ‘pull-to-do-action.’"

It's a promising idea, and we are already seeing some impressive and modern implementations of pull-to-action gestures. When users open Jawbone’s Up app, for example, it automatically syncs and updates with the company’s companion activity tracking wristband, UP24. So now, when users pull-to-refresh, Jawbone instead displays a bite-size, digestible summary of what data was just transferred when the program synced. Call it pull-to-review.

And on Apple's home screen in iOS 7, pulling down now gives now users access to a search box—a tweak that allowed Apple to get rid of the entire search screen from previous versions of iOS. It's basically turned pull-to-refresh into a pull-to-search gesture.

The idea here is that innovation is finally coming to vertical swipes. We've already seen apps take advantage of horizontal swipes to introduce invisible interactions—you can swipe sideways in Mailbox, for example, to seamlessly archive emails. We need that same evolution to come to vertical interactions (beyond complicated edge gestures).

Of course, there is the risk of usability fragmentation here. If apps move to the pull-to-action paradigm, it might make it difficult for users to predict what action pulling on an app screen will perform—say, if Instagram featured a pull-to-camera gesture and Foursquare had pull-to-check-in.

But it's certainly worth experimenting with and moving past boring pull-to-refresh gestures, a massively untapped resource that could give way to a new style of app interactions.

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48 Comments

  • Why can't pull to refresh and automatic refresh could be combined for things like Twitter and Instagram where there is almost always new content? So you open the app and content gets refreshed, you scroll down, seeing older tweets or photos, and when you are done you get back to the top and refresh if you want. Woahh, practical and easy to remember. Would you want it to refresh automatically if you scroll to the top? So what if you wanted to see that first tweet and not all the 137 new tweets you got meanwhile? Talking about a finding a needle in a haystack. Now, if you defend a solution like Facebook, I'm with you. But they still have pull to refresh because you may be waiting for something to show up and want to be in control of what's happening.

    All of this without getting technical.

  • Disagree. Especially with instagram and twitter. I don't check these services constantly, but binge occasionally, so I like to go through weeks of content all at once, and the auto refresh totally screws that up. For instance, I'm here, and not on Instagram right now because I was searching for a way to turn off autorefresh.

  • Stephen York

    GMail still has pull down to refresh.

    This author must have had literally nothing to report on this week.
    A bygone era? Wow. Please get some perspective. I'm pretty sure no one is suffering because pull down to refresh exists.

    Background content refresh everywhere is a good idea, but it hardly means the gesture should be locked away and considered antiquated.

    "pull-to-camera gesture and Foursquare had pull-to-check-in"...why TF would they ever do that? The rampant speculation about nothing on this post is remarkable.

  • Joe Barrett

    What if-- and I realize this is heresy-- I don't WANT my app to be updating constantly??

  • Joe Barrett

    What if--- and I know this is heresy-- I don't WANT my app to be refreshing constantly?

  • Not every user trusts that the app has the most up to date content. Providing a way to refresh can give a user a means to confirm this -- aka giving them control.

    Auto-refresh can fail and if it does the user must wait until the next refresh to get new content. Manual refresh can overcome this.

    Gmail includes a Refresh button in their web client.

    Automatic and a manual refresh should be combined for the best experience.

  • Usain Xeno

    Just because something is possible doesn't make it a good idea. People like to feel in control. Pick your battles and contribute to cross-app consistency.

  • Ironically I have to press the "Load More Comments" button on this page multiple times to read all the comments instead of the page automatically loading more comments once I reach the bottom.

  • Wes Jones

    I can't get behind this article's argument.

    As a person who lives in a foreign country with slow and unreliable internet, refresh buttons are crucial to my perception of control. I hate seeing the spinning pinwheel and not knowing what's happening.

  • “Boring” is never a reason to get rid of something. “Boring” is related to predictable behavior—which is beloved by users yet is anathema to “designers” everywhere. We need less designing for the media, gatekeepers, and other designers, and more designing for users.

  • Victor Kzam

    It's a great idea! I think it should be improved like Tweetbot 3, which has the pull to refresh button as an alternative to users, but it streams new content via Background App Refresh on iOS 7 and it stills on the same tweet, the new ones are displayed with a marker.
    That's the best solution I've seen yet

  • I actually thought this brought my irritation with the pull to refresh gesture into clearer focus, and I hope it was deliberate on the part of the authors.

  • Jason Burns

    I don't hear anything about data usage. While I can appreciate that most apps don't use a great deal of data to update, not all users understand this. And if a user with a limited data plan taps on an app unintentionally. Meaning to open the camera, or set an alarm, and instead hitting an app that suddenly begins downloading. This could quickly become frustrating. This really could be setting that users can choose, "Check the box to auto refresh". It really doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing situation.

  • Jeremy Stewart

    "When you head to Gmail in the browser on your laptop, for example, the service will show you the latest emails automatically--and keep your inbox up-to-date in the background. So why would email clients on your mobile devices act any differently?"

    First thing that comes to mind is battery life. How is something that important overlooked here?

  • Chris Kelly

    When I worked as a designer with with data hungry apps, there was huge pressure not to auto refresh, particularly if the user wasnt actually looking at the app. Pull/refresh gives me the user control, it makes me feel like Im in the driving seat. Its also a deeply satisfying movement where motion has lead the way. So no, in the rush tp be the newest of the new, stuff that actually works shouldnt be thrown to one side because its 45 seconds old. Its everywhere because its great and it works so step back and leave it alone

  • Alexander Gee

    The idea that devices will have the network connectivity, and spare battery power to sit refreshing data in real time is nice. It isn't terribly practical though.

  • Scott Jenson

    I strongly agree with this article. While I'm sympathetic to the 'dont use up all my data' argument, that can't be the ONLY driving force going forward can it? DO we really think that saving 10k of data is going still be a critical question in 2-3 years? That is thinking like an engineer, not a designer. While I never want to encourage wasteful data usage, this issue is clearly a subtle one, laid across a spectrum: it *is* possible to auto refresh without insisting that the user do it every single time.

    Take my new twitter app, Tweedle. It requires that I pull to refresh even when I first open the app, a refresh when I open the app should just happen automatically. Making the user do it manually every single time is masochistic.

    For those in this thread that are worried about auto updating content screwing up your reading experience, that is confusing updating with presentation. The official twitter app does this quite well: it auto updates but doesn't scroll so you don't even know. When you scroll up, the data is already there. That seems like a much more elegant solution.

    This should't be a flame war discussion of yes/no but more nuanced, trying to find out how as can we make things better for the user. Clinging to the past is never a useful (or insightful) approach.