An Ingenious iPhone To-Do List Comes To The Desktop

With a few thoughtful tweaks, the hit iPhone app preserves its minimalist soul.

How do you transform an iPhone app so futuristically minimal that it doesn’t even have buttons into something that will work on an old school keyboard-and-mouse-driven Mac? That was the challenge Realmac Software faced when they decided to re-create Clear, their innovative to-do list app, for OS X. Clear made headlines with its tile-based gestural interface, which introduced novel but intuitive interactions (like “pull to clear,” which deletes completed to-dos) to the iPhone’s arsenal. But as frustrated Windows 8 users know, flat and gestural may work great on a mobile device but fall flat on a traditional desktop.

The teaser video for Clear shows its gestural interface on both iOS and OS X.

Dan Counsell, founder of Realmac Software, tells Co.Design that porting Clear to the Mac desktop wasn’t part of their original plan for the software. But once iCloud offered an easy way to sync Clear’s data between an iPhone and a Mac, it’s easy to see why Counsell decided to create a desktop version of his app. It also helped that Apple’s desktop hardware has been evolving slowly but surely in a touch-screen-like, gesture-based direction. If you’re using the multitouch trackpad on a new Macbook (or the Magic Trackpad instead of a desktop mouse), many of Clear’s interactions translate pretty much perfectly from the original iOS version.

But not all of them. “We had to add ‘click to clear’ for those users who don’t have a Magic Mouse or Trackpad and can’t ‘pull to clear’ like the iPhone,” Counsell explains. Embracing the keyboard was also essential. Counsell didn’t want to add unnecessary steps to typing text into a list–even clicking an item to select it was deemed too much trouble. Instead, you just start typing, and Clear automatically creates a new list item for you.

This lets Clear’s desktop interface look and act 99% identical to its iOS counterpart, even down to the small, upright-rectangle shape of the window. Where many to-do apps spawn enormous dashboards that can take up the whole screen, Clear just looks like a little iPhone screen tacked onto your laptop. “The app definitely remains focused on quick simple lists to enter and manage, and I think its default window size is in tune with that, encouraging conciseness over lengthy, detailed notes,” says Phill Ryu of Impending Inc., who helped design both versions of Clear. “Of course, on Mac you can resize it as large as you’d like, which fits the platform’s flexibility.”

The desktop version of Clear even preserves one of the iPhone app’s more whimsical touches: its sound effects. An app that chimes, clicks, and hums whenever you poke at it might seem irritating while multitasking on a laptop alongside 20 browser tabs and a Photoshop document. But Counsell demurs: “Because of the fluid UI and musical audio cues, people tell us they just love idly playing around in the app, that it feels somehow therapeutic, just like doodling on a notepad perhaps.”

Ryu agrees and says that Clear’s sound effects aren’t just sci-fi ear candy but an essential part of its gestural interface. “Clear on both platforms is designed to be played with,” he explains. “I don’t mean that it’s a toy but that it’s best learned through touching it, and trying things, and seeing how things react to your touches and swipes. To that end, we worked in the sounds as an additional layer of useful interface feedback. We’re visual animals, but we like to hear things respond to our touch, too.”

Ultraminimal, tile-based gestural apps may not be taking OS X by storm anytime soon, but Clear stands as an intriguing case study in how to map the conventions of mobile UIs onto their more full-featured desktop cousins without sacrificing usability. Maybe someone at Microsoft should put “hire Clear team as consultants” on their to-do list.


About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.