When your family gathered for the holidays this year, did you take note of the technology everyone was using? There’s a decent chance you could’ve observed someone from every generation present ably navigating some sort of touchscreen.
That’s kinda crazy! But it’s the new norm. With the rise of touchscreens, computers have become less confounding. But that doesn’t mean taps, swipes, and pinches-to-zoom are the final frontier. In 2014, we saw our mobile software try to balance simplicity and power. We saw efforts to make these devices work more harmoniously with the other machines around us. And, at the periphery, we saw an emerging understanding that touchscreens aren’t always the answer.
Here, big and small, are some of the best UI ideas of 2014.
Lollipop’s Lock Screen Notifications
Material Design is Google’s ambitious bid to write a new rulebook for interactivity. One of the first major products shaped by the new system is the latest version of Android itself: Lollipop. And one of the best things about Lollipop is its lock screen notifications.
The new software makes the lock screen more functional. You can swipe notifications away to dismiss them, or pinch them open, say in the case of an email, to read more without jumping into your inbox itself. Plus, Lollipop makes it easy to allow certain subsets of notifications to come through while blocking others, so you can easily turn off just work your email, for instance, without going deep into settings.The takeaway: Google’s trying to let you skim the surface of your phone where possible without diving all the way in. Gotta like that.
Texting From Everywhere
It’s not especially glamorous, but there probably isn’t any single new bit of functionality from the last year or two has made my life easier than the ability to send text messages from my computer. Apple’s steadily been consolidating messaging in the last few versions of OS X, but with Yosemite, it took the last step: letting you send not just iMessages but SMS messages from your desktop.
I love this. I use it all the time. Text messaging (and I’m using that term to include iMessage and SMS—whatever) is still my most-used channel for communication. But my most-used device on a day to day basis is still my laptop. Being able to manage the former from the latter is a tremendous time-saver. It’s not 100 percent perfect—occasionally I’ll hear my phone buzz across the room and it will take a few minutes for anything to show up on my Mac—but it works pretty damn well, especially compared to the early days of cross-platform iMessage, when messages got stuck in limbo more often than not.Admittedly, there are some social quirks to text message omnipotence. At my computer, I rifle off messages in rapid succession, like I would on IM. I sometimes imagine my interlocutor fumbling with their phone’s touchscreen keyboard as my queries pile up. Conversations can get a bit lop-sided. Whatever! They’ll catch up.
A Smart Touchscreen for Cars
When you offload control of a car’s radio or AC to a bunch of touchscreen buttons, you force drivers to take their eyes off the road. This is such an obviously dumb thing—and yet car makers are still doing it. Well, if they’re going to insist on using touchscreens, they should at least think about ways to let people use them without looking at them.
This thoughtful concept by designer Matthaeus Krenn does just that. Instead of relying on tiny virtual buttons, it maps functionality to broad gestures. A two-finger swipe anywhere adjusts volume, for example, a four finger swipe controls temperature. Sure, there’s some learning curve involved, but the point is that you can eventually learn it—the prevailing button-based touchscreen UIs will always demand a glance.
Tommy Dykes, a PhD student at Northumbria University, is developing interfaces for people with dementia. For one project, he built a handsome physical map that people in care homes can use to stroll through Google Street View. For another, he hacked a set of Scrabble tiles to summon up Flickr-powered slideshows.
Both are brilliant. They serve as inviting, tactile entry points to two powerful digital resources. Just as important, they encourage open-ended group engagement. “Small devices and interactions tend to suck us into our own little worlds,” Dykes says. These, by contrast, are designed to get the whole room involved. And they do so without imposing rules or guidelines; instead they embrace ambiguity, exploration and play.
Dykes hopes these qualities will make his interfaces more accessible to elderly users. But tactility, ambiguity, and group engagement are all worthwhile areas of exploration for more mainstream pursuits—areas, unfortunately, that often go ignored in today’s products and services.
The Death of “Shake to Send Feedback” in Google Maps
No, Google, I don’t want to dispute your cartographic record of this intersection, I’m just walking around with my phone in my hand. Thankfully, the latest version of the iOS app kills this feature and its pesky fake-out vibrations.Inbox Makes Email Saner
First with the newsletter-sorting tabs of “priority inbox,” and now with the elegant new app Inbox, Google continues to dedicate resources to making email more sane. We should be grateful.
The new app (another product of Material Design) is designed around a fundamental truth: All emails are not created equal. It bundles spammy crap together, extracts salient info out of flight reminders and other confirmation notes, and leaves normal messages as-is, with helpful previews for attachments. The app also acknowledges that most people treat their inbox like a to-do list and offers simple controls for marking things as complete or pinning them prominently up top. It’s still email, just… not so bad.
Instant Hotspot, the Unsung Hero of Continuity
One major aspect of Apple’s new OS, Yosemite, is a suite of features dubbed “Continuity.” The idea is that you’ll be able to move from your Mac to your iPhone (or whatever other permutation of Apple gear) and the devices will hand off whatever you’re working on seamlessly. This is a very cool idea, but in reality, it only works if you exclusively use Apple software. Wanna hand off Chrome? Too bad!
One small Continuity feature that is immediately useful, though, is Instant Hotspot. Before, if you wanted to use your phone’s connection to fire off some emails from your computer, you had to go into your phone settings, type in a pass code to link the two, yada yada yada. In Yosemite, you can start a hot spot from your Mac without pulling your phone out of your pocket. This is a tiny thing, and it’s useful maybe four times a year. But as we settle into our multi-device lives, it’s a good example of a company taking care with controls need to be where.
A Key Rack That Bugs You Into Doing Good
The arc of the design universe bends toward convenience. We like things to be easy and efficient. Unfortunately, if we keep on making things easier and more efficient, we’ll likely end up somewhere in the vicinity of Wall-E, with our obese great-grandchildren tumbling around a BuzzFeed-branded space colony as planet Earth is left to smolder.
This key rack aims to avert that future with a little bit of friction. Designed by Matthias Laschke, a PhD student at Folkwang University of the Arts, in Germany, it has two hooks: one for the key to your car, one for the key to your bike. If you grab the car key, the bike key falls to the ground—a subtle but cheeky way of asking, “you sure about that, buddy?”
The key rack is part of a series dubbed “pleasurable troublemakers.” With it, Laschke hopes to explore how friction can help spur healthy decision making.
“We thought that picking up the key from the floor is literally like picking up and revising your options,” Laschke says. “With both keys in your hands, you have to choose, you have to do something. This choice is deliberately created by disturbing a routine. It creates a moment of choice after a routine choice has already been made. It’s a bit as if turning back time.”
The Rise of TouchID
When Touch ID was first introduced, savvy tech observers saw that it would someday be useful for far more than just unlocking your phone. Indeed, this year we got Apple Pay, arguably the first mainstream mobile wallet. With less fanfare, however, iOS8 also opened Touch ID up to third party apps, letting Amazon or Dropbox, say, accept thumbprint sign-ins. It’s much easier than pecking in a password on a mobile keyboard—and, hopefully, the first taste of a future where authentication and identity are both simpler and more secure.