April 23, 2014

We need better mobile multitasking

The dominant trend in mobile design is to make apps completely immersive and tactile. Almost every new app I see has the same design philosophy: big text and photos, usually one per screen, that you can page through with the flick of a finger.

These next generation apps are beautiful, but they don’t address my biggest mobile usability concern: multitasking. In many ways, current design trends are moving in the opposite direction — every app experience is full screen, completely taking over my device and ignoring the app I was using previously.

Whenever I need to do research or genuinely use two apps simultaneously, I still have to go back to my laptop (despite being a poster child for embracing mobile). I think the mobile OS that figures out a multitasking interface that is as efficient as PCs will gain much wider adoption on tablets. It may even reinvigorate tablet sales by expanding the use cases for post-PC devices.

I personally want a tabbed interface for apps on my tablet like I have for sites in my web browser. I am in the minority based on current mobile design trends, but I care more about the utility of transitioning between apps quickly than I do about the size of my photos.

As an engineer, it is interesting to observe the nuanced differences between desktop browsers and mobile apps as it relates to user interface. I am not talking about HTML vs. native code, but which parts of the interface are in the developer’s control vs. the end user’s control.

Web browsers are distinctly about user control. As the end user, I control the size of the window. I can right click on a link and control whether it opens in the same tab or a new tab. I can install plugins that directly manipulate apps written by other people. I can highlight anything I see and copy it to the clipboard. As a developer, you have to try really hard to disable these behaviors, and in most cases, it is impossible to do so.

Mobile apps have taken the opposite approach for a combination of technical and product design reasons. Everything is in the developer’s control. Text isn’t selectable unless the developer decides it is. When a user clicks on a link or a button, the developer gets to choose what happens. Whenever I click on an address on my iPad, it automatically opens in Apple Maps even though I use Google Maps exclusively (I am admittedly biased). As the end user, I have absolutely no control over any these behaviors.

I think multitasking is a natural side effect of operating systems that offer greater end user control. PC-like windowed interfaces are clearly not the right choice for tablets, but we need something better than we have now (and no, Android intents aren’t even close to enough).

I think it will require a philosophical shift from where we are now, taking some control out of the hands of app developers and putting it back in the hands of the end user so she can control what apps are on her screen at the same time. I think doing so would put the final nail in the coffin for PCs and make my tablet a true replacement for my laptop.