Update: The proposed design described below has been released as Cue.

One of the clearly understood problems associated with touch interfaces is people are often left guessing as to what gesture(s) can be performed throughout an app. There are common interaction guidelines to follow, but that can only take us so far. One of the obvious ways to help solve this issue is to articulate the interactions allowed through gestural icons.

These gesture icons act as roadsigns to an app for interaction way-finding. As expected, there has been a significant collection of gesture icon sets that have been made available to fill this need. The current crop of icons succeed in clarity, but they lack the iconic qualities necessary to act as a standard representation of gestures. My goal is to help create a foundational set of icons that are flexible, clear and distilled to a point where they could become a standard visual system to build from – ultimately to be used within apps for when explicit communication is needed.

The Proposed System

Since all touch gestures start with the application of finger(s) to screen, the system makes that action it’s foundation. Instead of representing the entire hand for a gesture, the icons focus on the point of action. The tap icon is an encapsulation of the fingertip.

The principles that drove the icon design were the following:

Create a core visual language that all gestures could build from.
Gestures will come, go and change over time. The system should be able to support that.
Distill each gesture to its core action.
The illustrative nature of most gesture icons reduce focus from the fundmental interaction being performed.
Represent each gesture in a non-literal, yet clear way.
Not everyone is right handed, nor do they perform gestures uniformly which makes literal expression less than optimal.
Design forms that would be legible at small sizes.
Mobile devices are already space-constrained. My goal was to create icons that could take up little space in a mobile interface if needed.

The whole system builds from the tap and press icons above. Below lays out the standard gesture interactions found on most modern mobile devices.


Icon Comparisons

Gesture icons, while visually clear, represent gestures very literally. This can be problematic because it insinuates that it is how the gesture should be performed. The icons also quickly lose legibility at small sizes. Luke Wroblewski took a different route with his icons, showing the the start/finish states of a gesture, which is quite helpful, but makes the icon more elaborate. Below are comparisons between the different gesture icon sets (my concept, Gesture Icons, LukeW’s icons and GestureWorks respectively).

Tap

There are a few things to notice between the icons. In the tap gesture, look at the percentage of space in each icon that is dedicated to the actual tap. By displaying the entire hand, the fingertip responsible for the tap takes a small portion of the actual icon – which is a very inefficient use of space. Showing the hand for a gesture certainly provides useful context, but the hand dominates each icon, diminishing the point of focus.

Swipe Right

The inclusion of the entire hand is all the more problematic the more complex the gesture becomes. Even with the simple swipe gesture, icons become very difficult to confidently read at small sizes.

Spread

The illustrative style also becomes problematic with gestures that can be performed in many different ways. For instance, the spread can be done with one hand or with two hands. It can be done with the thumb and index finger, thumb and middle finger, index and middle fingers, etc. It can be done with the right or left hand. Two of the icons assume the gesture is be performed with thumb and index from the right hand. Another uses two hands. My opinion is that gestures need to be abstracted beyond any specific form of execution to be successful.

Next Steps

Nearing the completion of this icon system, I ran across the work of Ron George who had come to the same conclusion as I had in the belief that standardization would require abstraction. This gives me confidence that there is something to this idea. I do not think the icons are perfect, but I truly think there is something to this idea. I am planning on releasing it as a finished set when it is at a more refined state. I am hoping to get feedback from readers to get a sense if the sentiment is shared and how it can be improved for greater clarity and aesthetics. Once I feel confident that the system is at an appropriate level of completion, I will release it for free under the Creative Commons share-a-like license.