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.
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!
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.