Recently, I watched an eminent UX designer give a talk about the need for timelessness in digital design. He wanted to know: Why shouldn’t digital design be as long-lived and as endlessly useful as Helvetica, or a chair by Mies van der Rohe? And then the designer went on to say there’s actually examples of timeless digital design all around us. Case in point: Apple’s iOS, and its ubiquitous home screen filled with app icons. With all due respect to the designer giving the presentation, that’s the point at which my eyes rolled straight back into my head.
iOS is a creaking, rickety mess. You could harp on the details, a la Don Norman. But the big picture is this: A home screen filled with dozens, even hundreds of icons, some of them buried in folders, none of them consistent, and all of them shouting for your attention–that’s not the way of the future. IOS, and the wall-of-apps modality that’s been carried forward by Android, isn’t scaling to the UX problems of today. To name three: How do you find the exact right screen, in the exact right app, exactly when you need it? How can apps link within each other so that their capabilities augment when it makes sense? How or why would you ever go looking for new apps? These weren’t problems when the iPhone first launched, or when the App Store first opened. Back then, apps were a novelty, and mobile computing hadn’t become the default mode of everyday life. But they’re problems now, in an era where more of our lives are mediated by our phones, and when half of smartphone users download zero apps each month.
I’ve had my eye out for a long time on what could replace the wall of apps. Turns out, Google is working on a possible contender–an experimental mobile OS dubbed Fuchsia. The OS is still in a very early stage–it’s hard to imagine it landing anytime in the next couple years–but what’s there so far is intriguing. The most obvious feature is that the wall-of-apps icon is gone. Instead, there’s a scrolling feed of “stories,” which include your recently used apps.
That’s where things get interesting, if you start extrapolating just a bit. It’s notable that these early wire frames don’t actually use the word “apps.” By contrast, calling these cards “stories” tends to suggest that each card might be an app–but it might also be a bundle of apps, which you accessed, say, in trying to find a sushi restaurant nearby, then booking a reservation, then hailing an Uber. It’s easy to imagine all kinds of things stacked together in a single story. Say, for example, you had one story that broke down into three separate cards, each revolving around an app you use all the time. Those three card mights be dedicated to the happy path you take through an app to get various things done–say, checking your likes on Instagram, or checking out what your closest friend has posted in the last 24 hours. The point is, a story could center around what you were trying to get done instead of the app. And the OS itself might work as a kind of abstraction layer above the app, identifying what it is you want to do, and making that action as easy as tapping open a card.
That simple shift in perspective solves a lot of problems with current smartphone UX–for one, the tedious repetition and app-hunting involved in something like arranging for a dinner date. And, for another, the tediousness of wading through app UIs when you only do a couple things with each app. Instead, it orients the UI around verbs–which, as many product designers will tell you, is the real meat of human-centered problem solving.
To be clear, Fuschia might not go anywhere. Google might not be focused on building the hypothetical functionality I’ve laid out above. One can only imagine the internal power struggles involved in anointing Android’s successor, and ingrained user habits make new UI paradigms extraordinarily hard to pull off. But there are indications that Google does know what it’s doing. When the project was first teased with developers, one of the development leads said that Fuchsia “isn’t a toy thing, it’s not a 20% project, it’s not a dumping ground of a dead thing that we don’t care about anymore.” And, by way of explanation, Google has described Fuchsia in fascinating, albeit coded, language. As Ars Technica explains:
Google’s documentation describes Magenta as targeting “modern phones and modern personal computers with fast processors, non-trivial amounts of RAM with arbitrary peripherals doing open-ended computation.” Google hasn’t made any public, official comments on why Fuchsia exists or what it is for, leaving us only to speculate.
Speculating is fun! So let’s keep going. “Modern phones and modern personal computers” sure does sound like a bet on a modality beyond the smartphone’s present wall of apps–not to mention the knotty, still unsolved problems associated with transitioning between desktop and mobile devices. We’re still light-years away from the dream of ubiquitous computing, as first conceived in the 1980s: Computers that don’t care about what device we’re using, but instead recognize what we’re trying to do, whenever we’re trying to do it.
Which brings up one final, intriguing piece about Fuchsia. Besides the scrolling stack of stories, one of the only other UI features in the current build is a search box, which lives below the story feed. The idea seems to be that you won’t be scrolling on your phone just to search for an app–rather, your phone will be smart enough to combine all the things you might be searching for into one place, with smart results presented according to context. Imagine if all you saw on your phone was stories, and a search bar. Searching for “best sushi in New York” might bring up your favorite reservation app. Or it might bring up other apps, or even web results. That sure would beat the way Search works today, and it sure would solve the problem of discovering useful apps you might actually want. And, from Google’s point of view, it sure would be smart to place Search–their bread-and-butter cash cow–at the center of a reimagined mobile UX.
With typefaces and chairs, the problems don’t change much over time. Having readable text and a place to sit, after all, are things that we’ve pretty well solved, even if our tastes change. But the problems are always changing in interaction design. It’s a feature, not a bug, that there is nothing eternal in digital design, other than core UX/UI principles such as feedback, navigability, and consistency. Let’s hope that the big tech giants are working to solve the nagging annoyances and time sucks they made, when their mobile phones began eating the world.