Some of the most interesting design work these days is happening in phone apps and tablet experiences. Here are the innovators that are changing the way we work and play. This article also appears in the Fall/Winter 2012 issue of SAY Magazine.
An app is an app, right? Not if you talk to some of the developers pushing the boundaries of what we expect from mobile devices — and what they can actually do.
Gone are the days when mobile design meant a few strategically placed buttons and menus in an app. Now apps have to be intuitive to gesture and device — and context-sensitive. Some apps don't have buttons, while others work without you even realizing what you are doing — regardless of the platform you are on.
Here are a few of the people leading the way in mobile interface design:
Matt Bango, Chartbeat
Bango is the UI designer for Chartbeat, a real-time analytics service that helps Web publishers understand where their traffic is coming from and what people are actually reading as they are reading it.
While Chartbeat's iPhone app offers little to be desired, Bango's website design for Chartbeat, which works perfectly on iPhone, iPad and Android, is likely to change how future apps are created.
The Chartbeat website is as good as any app around but completely live and resizing to your mobile device's screen resolution while looking beautiful at the same time — no mean feat.
With colorful, easy-to-understand graphics that allow people to quickly grasp the information as it happens, Charbeat makes boring data mining into something that will have any site owner mesmerized for hours.
Dustin Mierau, Path
Path, the social networking app for the iPhone and Android, offers a different take on the standard mobile interface breaking the rules of standard menus.
"Path was designed for mobile first, and it's mobile only. It was designed for people to share more personal ‘moments' with only their closest friends and family," said Nate Johnson, Path's vice president of marketing. "Social networks were originally designed for the desktop, but the growth of mobile has created a new trend of smaller networks built and designed for mobile and for more intimate sharing with smaller groups of people. We designed Path to be simple, personal and mobile."
The playful menus that spring out of nowhere show what is possible when you don't play with the usual rules. Mierau and Path's designers and engineers have worked together from the beginning to create a product that delights through design, information and communication across Android and iOS, suggesting that cross-platform design is possible even though operating systems can be quite different.
This app is about sharing, and you can quickly see that as soon as you load it up.
Dan Counsell, Realmac Software
Based in Hove, England, Counsell founded Realmac Software, maker of apps for Apple's desktop and iOS platforms. The company's first mobile phone app is Clear, a to-do list that tries to be better than pen and paper — as well as stand out from the dozens of to-do apps already on the market.
"We wanted something eye catching. The app is designed for the fast at hand," Counsell says on why the UI is so vastly different from anything you've ever seen.
In fact, it's so different that there are no buttons. Everything is controlled via gestures, which makes it quicker to use. The app's 500,000 users agree.
What's the most important element for designing mobile apps? For Counsell, it's all about the iconography. "If you get the right icon, you save yourself a lot of time and space — especially for multilingual apps."
Realmac Software's next project is expected to push how we use our iPhone even more.
Don Lindsay, Research in Motion
Putting someone from Research in Motion Ltd. (RIM) on the list might seem strange to some, but if you've seen BlackBerry 10, you understand why I'm doing it. Lindsay has had to completely redraw RIM's operating system while at the same time play homage to what its users are used to and want.
BlackBerry 10 pulls this off very well with a number of design quirks that are likely to be "borrowed" by other app developers and manufacturers in the years to come.
For Lindsay, the new operating system's success stems from a number of factors, but primarily, he says, "Close collaboration between the hardware and software design teams allows for ideas to flow between the physical and virtual worlds of buttons, shapes and materials."
Lindsay says he's proud of the "peek" gesture feature, or the ability to partially drag an application or layer out of the way to reveal additional information. And, he's made it available for every application developer to take advantage of.
"One of the most important attributes of BlackBerry, and especially BlackBerry 10, is the notion of ‘flow,' where the actions necessary to complete a task may transverse multiple applications. It is critical that all of the applications work together to create this flow, and having a true common, or shared, interface only strengthens this capability. The flow becomes seamless as you move from application to application."
Andrew Allen, FiftyThree
With so many drawing apps for smartphones and tablets, creating one that stands out is a feat in itself. But nonetheless that is what Allen and his team at FiftyThree Inc. managed to do with Paper, a simple but incredibly beautiful app that has been downloaded more than 1.5 million times since it went live earlier this year.
"Most of our interfaces today are flat rectangles - essentially little pictures. Those visuals tell us how something behaves. The look of Paper reflects and informs its function. The interaction is based on the metaphor of a journal, and so the aesthetics are loosely based on that. Yet it's not an exact representation of a real journal. We use just enough elements to suggest the metaphor without having to faithfully reproduce it. It's a sort of iconography of the metaphor," says Allen. "The reason Paper looks so refined is because we integrate design and engineering throughout the process."
Open the app, and you are presented with Moleskine-esque notepads titled "Making Paper," "Ideas" and "Sketches." Tap on a notepad and away you go. You can start drawing with your fingers within seconds. Playful swipes reveal a pen and color pot, while a pinch closes the page. Even if you don't draw, you will want to.
Mills, ustwo studio Ltd.
Chief Wonka. That's how Mills (no last name) describes himself on his email signature, and if you were to visit to the company's Studio of Dreams in London's Shoreditch area, you would quickly see why.
Mills is the co-founder of ustwo, an app design agency with offices in London, New York and Malmo, Sweden, that create everything from standard apps for big corporations (H&M, Barclays and others) to playful stuff that tries to push the boundaries of what you can and should be doing with your smartphone.
Past apps include Granimator, an app that lets you build customized wallpapers for your iPad with illustrations from some of the best designers in the world, and Whale Trail, a game that lets you play with Willow, a floating whale gliding through the sky collecting color paint droplets and dodging thunderclouds (yes, it is as surreal as it sounds).
Mills believes that every app should be approached fresh regardless of the platform.
"If you are designing for Android, you should design for Android," he tells us before adding that design is the company's differentiator against the competition. And users of the company's apps certainly notice how different they are.
Jack Dorsey, Square
If the name sounds familiar, that's because Dorsey previously co-founded Twitter, and now, as the founder and CEO of Square Inc., he's looking to change the way we pay for things.
Square re-imagines the credit card machines we find in shops and the way that data is recorded. Perhaps more impressive than the simple design of the app is the back-end support that allows Square's users to analyze who bought what and when, even down to whether a spot of rain means their shops will be busier.
One of Dorsey's goals with Square's design was to offer "a delightful user experience" rather than overwhelm people with menus and endless pages. He definitely hit the mark.