What App Designers Can Learn from a Few Stellar Apps

Many iPhone apps take their design cues from the status quo; Apple began the iPhone’s life with a light blue, left-to-right application style and many apps still follow a similar pattern. Even if they’re crafted of the finest skeuomorphic Corinthian leather, they’re still just another take on the same old design paradigm.

Then there are the apps that do something special. The applications that throw their hands up and say, “I’m going to be different!” Here are a few of them, and what app designers can learn from each one.

Clear

Yes, it’s that to-do/list keeping app that you keep hearing about. If you don’t know about Clear you’re either new to the iPhone, new to this site or doing your best to avoid any application with a checkmark in its icon (not that I can blame you there). As much as we’re all sick of writing about it and you’re sick of reading about it, Clear is here to stay because of one thing: its excellent interface design. Each action in Clear is accomplished via a gesture. See something? Tap on it, drag it, slide your finger across it, pinch it; the list goes on and on.

Clear's vertical navigation makes more sense than the left-to-right navigation in most apps.

Clear's vertical navigation makes more sense than the left-to-right navigation in most apps.

There are no buttons in Clear, and the app takes a novel approach to the primary navigation. Where most apps take the common left-to-right approach, Clear pivots and relies on vertical navigation. Why is this important? Because it removes the need for a Back button, the bane of every iPhone app out there. With this one change in thinking Clear has cemented itself as a revolutionary design — which is not without merit, as this approach actually works really well and should soon become the standard.

Path

The first thing that developers should learn from Path is that the Web is a cruel, harsh mistress. One moment everyone loves you and the next you’re being deleted and poked fun at en masse. Don’t pull a Path, ask for permission, kids. For the intents of this article though, let’s look at Path as the awesome app that it is, not the public punching bag that it has become.

Mmm, with those animations and details, everything is forgiven. Almost.

Mmm, with those animations and details, everything is forgiven. Almost.

Path does quite a few things right, from the little clock along the right that shows you when an item was posted to the clean designs of every screen. What they really pioneered, though, is the radial menu. Once that little plus sign in the bottom-left corner is tapped, all kinds of awesome animations happen. Now you’re presented with the ability to perform any action that’s possible with Path, all located around your thumb or other preferred tapping digit. Not only does the radial menu put everything in reach, it also helps make everything visible–two important functions in one.

Facebook

Yeah, I know. Facebook. Crashes for you all the time, worked better before, Mark Zuckerberg is the Devil. I get it, I really do. But, Facebook actually managed to something right this time with the latest version of its iPhone app.

Facebook's slide-out panel is admittedly nice, and I'd like to see it implemented more often.

Facebook's slide-out panel is admittedly nice, and I'd like to see it implemented more often.

Where before users were presented with a grid of icons that needed to be navigated to every time a new action needed to be performed there is now a simple slide-out panel that rests behind the screen you’re currently viewing. By moving this to the side Facebook has made all of these options easier to reach without tacking on a bunch of clutter and requiring a lot of tapping.

Seriously, Anything Tapbots Makes

You can either love or hate the Tapbots style, but you can’t ignore it. From the beginning they’ve been crafting apps that utilize just the right amount of visual weight, tongue-in-cheek styling and functionality to create a wonderful — and wonderfully useful — experience. Whether it’s Weightbot’s shifting perspectives (flip the app from portrait to landscape and you’ll see what I mean) or Tweetbot’s powerful gesture controls, the Tapbots are a force to be reckoned with and proof that you can take an existing category–even something as mundane as a converting tool or a calculator–and make an app that exceeds user’s expectations.

Click, click, click...I love you, Tweetbot.

Click, click, click...I love you, Tweetbot.

If you learn nothing else from Tapbots, learn this: creating joy for your customers will create a loyal customer. I know many people that purchase a new application from Tapbots without even stopping to think about it; the brand is that good.

The Last Rocket

The Last Rocket holds a special place in my heart. Whether it’s the classic 8-bit stylings, the anthropomorphic rocket or having the chance to talk to developer Shaun Inman, I haven’t even tried to hide the fact that I’m a fan. I suspect that the real reason for this is the excellent gameplay. While there are other games that utilize the iPhone’s touch screen better than, say Angry Birds or any game that requires virtual buttons, The Last Rocket is a truly comprehensive game that performs well with a variety of taps and swipes. Besides feeling right for the platform this also feels completely natural, and I’m surprised that there haven’t been more games to capitalize on the iPhone’s touch screen in the same way.

Flip, Flip, Rocket.

Flip, Flip, Rocket.

So, What Have We Learned?

From Clear and The Last Rocket we have learned that gestures are important. This seems obvious given the fact that iOS is completely touchscreen, but too many developers are failing to capitalize on all of the different gestures that one can perform on a large pane of glass. Clear also shows us how we can get there with everyday apps with one simple shift from horizontal navigation to vertical navigation.

Path and Facebook taught us that giving the user options is important, but presenting those options in a clean, well-designed manner is also important. Whether it’s the radial menu from Path that took the Web by storm or the semi-hidden persistent pane in the new Facebook app, these two social applications show us how options can be presented in a clear way without requiring a lot of back-and-forth movement.

Finally, we learned from Tapbots that reaching your audience and taking advantage of everything that the iPhone has to offer is key. The stylings of the apps may be heavy for some, but it’s hard to deny that there’s a certain pleasure you get from hearing the clicks and pops in Tweetbot, or when you flip Weightbot on its side for the first time.

Each of these applications has something to offer, and they’re just ready to be imitated. Stop following the old design paradigms simply because that’s the way that it’s always been done, and look to see how you can flip interaction design on its head. We’re all over here, ready and waiting.


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  • SuperChicky

    I recently bought an app with a very cool interface, TuneBot. I love getting notified about new album releases!

  • http://www.bestapps.com.br Tony Celestino

    Like the Master said: “Stay hungry, stay foolish”!

  • http://www.bigpaua.com Matt

    Nice post. Will say though that Path have only really pioneered the radial menu in the sense that it’s not been heavily used in iOS apps outside of games. Radial menus have been around for decades.

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