Monday, August 2, 2010

Time Moves On…

Justin from CarpeAqua has an interesting rant this morning about pull-to-refresh. I don't expect everybody to like every new mode of interaction that gets introduced (I certainly don't), and I've been known to rant myself at times, but I must admit I don't quite get the fervor with which some people, like Justin, hate experimentation with new methods of interaction.

In his post, Justin sums up his feelings by quoting a tweet by Marco Arment that reads:
The problem, like gradients, reflections, animations, and PHP, is not that it's a bad idea but that many won't use it properly.
This argument reminds me of the arguments I've heard against dot notation in Objective-C. It amounts to "somebody might use it poorly, therefore it's bad".

I've got news for you: There's almost nothing in life you can't say that about. If you're holding up the potential abuse of something as a reason not to use it, then you're making excuses for your own desire for things to stay as they always were. In the history of human innovation, there's almost nothing that couldn't be abused or put to an inappropriate use.

Sure, you can do this with Objective-C 2.0+:
That's a perfectly legal way to release an object. Most, including me, would argue that it's not a good way; it's likely to cause confusion and makes the intention of your code harder to read. But, just because you can do this doesn't mean dot notation is inherently flawed (though a vocal minority of Objective-C developers argue exactly that). The same thing goes for gradients, reflections, PHP, animations and, yes, pull-to-refresh. Actually, scratch that… PHP really is bad¹. But the rest of them aren't.

Even the greatest interaction ideas can be mis-used and over-used and, in fact, they usually are. I'd almost argue that they have to be. All ideas get refined as they are used more. It's natural behavior to explore, expand, and find the limits of any new idea. Thought experiments are all well and good, but until you get a new mode of interaction in front of a lot of people to try it, all you've got is your best guess based on your own opinion. In other words, overuse of the novel isn't, in the scheme of things, a bad thing. Over time, the overuse ends and we're left with something we understand much, much better and that works really, really well.

Basically, we don't know how to use new concepts "properly" until they've been used a lot, in a lot of different ways, by a lot of different people. There's nothing to guide the use of the novel. There's no way to find what works and what doesn't except by trying. And sometimes the things we try won't work, or won't work for all people. Sometimes they'll be downright bad.

A lot of our current desktop interaction model, things that we think of as universal and standard, weren't always standard or universal. I can remember when ⌘C, ⌘X, ⌘V, and ⌘P did not automatically mean cut, copy, paste, and print on the Mac. It took several years for key commands to truly become standard and universal on the Mac. Heck, many early versions of Mac applications didn't make much use of key shortcuts at all, and when they did, they weren't at all consistent in which keys they used to do what. You can't dictate what works in user interaction. You have to put it out there, observe and listen, and be willing to change based on what you see and hear.

Personally, I like pull-to-refresh as it's used in Tweetie Twitter. I find myself doing it in, even though it doesn't work there. To me, it's the perfect gesture for the iPhone in apps where you're primarily consuming small chunks of content in a table, like your inbox or twitter apps. When I'm using apps of this nature, I'm often in one-handed mode, using my thumb to scroll. My thumb can't comfortably reach the entire screen (e.g. a refresh button in the navigation bar), and I don't want to bring my other hand over every time I want new tweets. When I'm in editing mode, I'm naturally using my other hand, and that's great, but if I'm standing in line at the grocery store or waiting to board a plane and I'm just reading my timeline, I like that I can just flick my thumb to get more tweets. It's a benefit to me to be able to work one handed. It's a nearly ideal form of interaction for the way I use the application most of the time. Obviously, I'm not the only one who feels this way. You don't see lots of people rushing to copy features that don't work or aren't liked.

In other apps, or especially on the iPad, pull-to-refresh doesn't seem like it would be a natural form of interaction, but I've never tried pull-to-refresh in other contexts, so I don't know. But developers will try it (and are trying it), and many uses of pull-to-refresh that don't work well will die. Either the application will fail to sell, or the author will decide to change it to something that works better for his or her users. But we might just discover new and wonderful uses for the concept in the process.

That's how this whole messy process works. That's how we get progress in user interaction. We try things. Sometimes they work, often they don't. If, as developers, we only use things that are tried and true, nothing will ever change.

Progress in user interaction, like anything else where hard-to-predict humans play a major role, is messy and slow and imperfect and no amount of ranting about it will change that fact. If we want progress... if we want to keep moving forward, that's the price we pay. You can get angry about it, but you can't change it. You'd have about as much luck arguing with the weather.

1 No, not really. That was a joke.


Marco Arment said...

To clarify, I agree: pull-to-refresh, and other new things, should absolutely exist and be experimented with, and they're not inherently bad.

But, like everything new, it's going to take a while before people develop sensible usage habits, and in the interim, it's likely to be overused or used inappropriately.

My intent with that tweet was not to discount everything new, but to set expectations that we're likely to see many bad uses (among the good uses) of pull-to-refresh for a while.

ScottMcDaniel said...

Absolutely and totally agree. It's a fantastic feature that, when used in the same sort of context, will become a standard. And I too always try it in Mail - knowing full well I will be disappointed. :-(

Chris Miles said...

The feature works well in Twitter, but is open to misuse like anything else. Just because Apple provides an animated flip transition, doesn't mean all your navigation transitions should flip over!

I encourage more creativity in touch interactions, but obviously only when they improve the experience.

michel said...

jeff, it is refreshing to hear reasonable comments that argue for erring on the side of experimentation and exploration, in the interest of learning. it feels like such principles are increasingly rare.

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