Death by Interface

This post was originally posted on the Seabright blog.

Writing on the iPad has inherent challenges. In portrait mode, the keyboard is far too cramped to perform any significant typing. It is clear that landscape was the intended mode of typing due to the more realistic dimensions of the keyboard in addition to the iPad cover’s feature to place the device at a suitable typing angle. However, landscape mode has the problem of vertical space limitations with the keyboard active. With these challenges, I am always interested to see how app designers try to provide more functionality with such significant restrictions. A recent app that has gotten some attention is Writing Kit, which provides advanced writing features as well as in-app researching tools. Unfortunately, it has also followed a design cue I first observed on iA Writer for iPad. Writing Kit adds a formatting bar on top of the iOS keyboard, offering useful features at the cost of exaggerating the problem of writing space. One has to ask themselves how worthy an interface element is if it erodes the experience around the subject it is supporting.

Let’s get into the nitty-gritty of Writing Kit’s interface. Below is a screenshot of the app in landscape mode with a breakdown of writing space and content space.

The app’s content area accounts for only 36.6% of the screen. Due to this small amount of space, only 10 lines of text can be displayed. iA Writer’s typographic choices hinder that further by displaying only 5 lines of text in the default mode and 6 lines of text in focused mode. This effectively places “blinders” on the writer—where they can no longer have a broad view of what they have written. Some may prefer this side-effect, but myself and others undoubtedly do not.

When the elements that are not directly necessary for the function of writing are removed, the ratio of content to interface begins to even out.

If all regions colored red are replaced by additional content area, the content takes up 51.5% of the screen, providing significantly more visible content space. The features provided in the top bar and keyboard are good features, but they detract from the app’s core purpose. With such a space-restricted medium, there need to be new approaches to accessing functionality without persistently taking up significant space.

One approach is to rely more heavily on gestures. Daedalus Touch allows you to move the cursor space-by-space by tapping on the left and right edges of the content area. However, we run into the age-old discoverability issues when relying too heavily on gestures. Therefore I am skeptical of their long-term efficacy. I think that new interface patterns are needed to address these sorts of issues. I do not come bearing solutions yet, but I think it’s something we all need to be working on.

Keeping content as the focus has traditionally been less of an issue with the large screens found in desktops/laptops. Now that phones and tablets are becoming established and app makers are working to inject more functionality into apps, there is a risk of drowning content in interface. We have a lot of work ahead of us to avoid just that.

4 thoughts on “Death by Interface”

  1. Nice post. I read/saw Luke W discussing this same issue a month or so ago. It’s a real problem not just with iPads but all mobile devices. With limited screen real estate today, we as designers have to do a better job of rethinking the chrome used in our apps/websites.

    For instance… Some designers started putting dedicated navigation strips into the top of their screens. Why do this when a device already has either a hard or soft navigation (or both)? Peep, the Twitter app I have on my Evo, is basically unusable in horizontal mode. Thanks to a huge text box, I can only see two tweets from my feed at a time. But even native apps like Gmail have big problems where the keyboard and other system chrome cover the entire screen. You’re right… We have to figure out better ways of handling both content and interaction.

  2. Yeah, I think we’re addressing new challenges with old solutions. Many of the UI elements found in iOS and Android have strong ties to desktop GUIs. We definitely need to new options.

  3. I can see an adaptation of the Path menu ( that many have been raving about – it’s got a bit too much personality for these utilitarian needs in writing, but the idea of tapping a key expands to show, say, 5 or 10 keys in a standardized order that one could tap and then it retracts might have value. Or perhaps it functions like the shift key does with the number keys on a physical keyboard, enabling an alternate set of inputs that are hinted at the top of the other keys?

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