The history of swipe from the iPhone to Windows 8

Here is a small article about UI that use swipe. We will see how swipe evolved from a simple navigation usage to a central feature : task management.

Let’s start with the first device, the iPhone.

iPhone swipe, physics over navigation

The iPhone was the first touch screen device that bring “intuitive” gestures. Instead of saying intuitive, I may say physics based. While the world was still Nokia based, phones UI were designed as navigation based : while the user want to go left, he or she had to press the left key. The iPhone changed that by introducing physics. While navigating in the list, in order to see the items below, we have to scroll the list up, as if the list was a giant wheel. This was, indeed, an intuitive change.

The human brain have assimilated a lot of physics concepts. Even if we don’t know the Newtonian laws, we can still predict how an item will fall, and where. Introducing physics in the iPhone user interface is interesting since it recalls all these physics. That made it intuitive.

Swipe is one of these physics based gestures. In order to go from a picture to another in the gallery, the user have to swipe it, ie push it to the left to see the next picture. And even in iOS6, this gesture only have this role.

WebOS swipe, the beginning of task management

WebOS brought some fresh ideas in 2009, but the most important one was the multitask ability that was one of the central features, although it was already integrated in the Nokia N900 before. But the ability to minimize and switch applications was, without contest, the best ever created. While Maemo, Android or iOS demands some clicks on either a physical button or a virtual one, on the Palm Pre, only a swipe is needed. The user push the task from the full screen state to the minimized cards stack. Closing apps is also quite intuitive, since pushing them in the list of minimized apps is enough.

Multitasking cards on a Palm Pre

One downside of this swipe is actually how it is implemented for minimizing applications. When you push it from the bottom, the minimization animation do not follow your gesture. Instead, it run the same animation, independently on the power of your swipe. This is a break in the physics based paradigm previously introduced. It can be a shock while used for the first time (actually it was for me when I saw hands-on on the first time), but it is not a big deal.

Blackberry Playbook, too complex ?

Blackberry wanted to challenge the tablet markets by introducing the Playbook. Interestingly, the Playbook interface was very clean, and put the content in the center, while removing all the toolbars, status bars, that may annoy the user.

The Blackberry Playbook displaying an application.

Switching apps, and closing them are performed through gestures. This website list them all. As far as I can see, there are 5 different gestures for displaying different elements of the Playbook such as notifications and status bar, or doing task management.

Since I did not see any hands-on, and I did not test the Playbook, I may not judge on how the efficiency of these gestures. I can only say that having that much different actions that are tired to the same kind of gesture will, for sure confuse the user, and lead to an adaptation time. Maybe some unification like swiping from top to bottom to see notifications & status bar, and swiping from other edges to minimize should be better.

Swiping in Mac OS X, where mobile and desktop meet

The iPhone kinetic scrolling was actually first in Mac OS before being in iOS. While developing iOS, Apple engineers and designers created a lot of paradigms, like the icon grid, or the notification center (although not an Apple creation), that are being backported to Mac OS. This include the launchpad, or the address book. Even if merging desktop and mobile is a controversial decision that Apple have made. Since Mac OS X Lion (10.7), we have to reckon that some of them are quite efficient.

Swiping, among other gestures, is one of these. The swipe with three fingers on the trackpad is used to change space. This change was introduced fairly recently (before Lion, but I can’t remember when), and is perfectly integrated in OS X. While swiping, there is an immediate feedback on the screen : the fingers on the trackpad are moving the space, as if it was swiped on a touch screen. The swipe also uses physics. To summary, this gesture is a nice example of nice gesture on mobile well ported on desktop.

Others gestures like swipe up to trigger “show desktop” are not implemented that well. As on WebOS, they do not behave with physics.

Windows Phone swipe, a good intention

My feelings about windows phone are quite mixed, because WP has indeed great qualities, but also quite a lot of strange decisions. And swipe summaries all my feelings on WP.

Everything started with a good idea : “Instead of having tabs, what about switching from a category to another by swiping left and right ?”. Indeed it was a good idea, that can save space and remove the dual use of the tab-bar that is also the toolbar in most mobile OS. And it works ! … Well, it works partially.

First, something totally failed. Swiping did not saved any space, because, instead of a tab-bar, in WP there is a huge header, that is actually taking a lot of space. But this is only a minor problem.

Let’s start with an example of good use, the contacts app.

WP people hub

As you can see, you are invited to swipe right since there is a bit of the next page that is visible. This presentation is very intuitive, and many WP applications have done that. But some of them are less clear. Let’s now take the calendar.

WP calendar

Just to see why the design is just wrong, I’m going to tell you a little personal story. When I launched it for the first time, it is displayed as a calendar. This was not very useful to see a schedule and task list. And since I was not very interested in WP, I gave my Lumia 800 to my GF.

Something like one month after, my GF came back to me and asked : “can I have a display by day because it is not very convenient to have the display by month”. Before asking me, she actually tried everything, but neither her, nor me remarked the top header. Maybe because top headers are usually used to display the title of the window / app, and are not meant to be clicked. Maybe because of the font, that do not tell us that this header is something to interact with. And suddenly I remembered about swipe in WP. And I tried to swipe, and it indeed brought me to this day overview.

Nothing, exactly nothing was here to tell me that there were some pages hidden in the right, ready to be displayed. It is because of this header that is not well designed, and do not look like some kind of tabs that indicates on which page the user is. It is also because of the absence of this small preview, like in the contacts app.

And you know what ? I thought that I learnt how to use WP, that I have to swipe everywhere, that this header was indeed some kind of tab-bar, but I recently installed Twitter on the Lumia, and it took me again two days to figure it out that in order to see the mentions, I had to swipe …

All people that have read my previous article know that I tell about distinctive graphical components for different roles, here is another blatant example. A tab-bar must have a design of a tab-bar, and must not be confused with some sort of text.

Nokia N9 swipe, back to basis

Nokia N9 was praised by both bloggers and users to be the first phone with that intuitive swipe interface to manage tasks. That is quite unfair for palm WebOS since it first introduced this feature. But, well, I have to acknowledge that what Nokia folks have done is indeed great.

Minimizing an app on Nokia Meego is done by simply swiping, from either left, bottom or right. Swiping from top to bottom close the app. While an app is being swiped, it’s edge follow the finger, that is quite nice since it give the impression that the user is moving it. There is also some zoom-in effect of the background, that is purely decorative, but still provide some feedback in the process of minimization.

Simplifying the gesture and only bring two of them (minimizing and closing) was definitely a good choice from Nokia. Users do not need to bother about from which edge or corner the swipe started. Unlike the Playbook that gives all these options, the motto of Nokia Meego’s swipe seems to be “swipe = task management = only basic stuff”. And it works pretty well.

Of cause, for the first time, it is quite confusing for the user to swipe to minimize, but when the gesture is learnt, users tend to match the swipe gesture with minimizing and closing. This leads to some awkward moments when a N9 user tries to swipe an iPhone or an Android device …

About multitasking, the grid is not as good as what WebOS brought, and the lack of the “push to close” gesture is quite frustrating. Closing by long-pressing + pressing the red cross is a bit of a waste of time.

Windows 8, overdone again ?

One of the last OS to use swipe is the forthcoming Windows 8. The new OS from Microsoft is designed to run on both desktops and tablets, and then, brings a nice touch interface called metro, as well as the traditional desktop. The touch interface comes together with some touch gestures (described in this website for example).

Basically, all the edges of the screen have a different swipe action. From the right to the left displays a lateral bar with options, from the top to the bottom close the current app, or display the charms bar, from the left to the right displays the previous app, and the gesture I hate the post (personnaly), from the left to the right + hold brings all the opened applications.

I have tested Windows 8 on a tablet, and I can say that it is not very intuitive at the beginning. But I cannot conclude now, since Windows 8 is still in development. What I expect is that a lot of people will search for many features that are brought by gestures (like the lateral bar with options), and that they will take quite a long time to learn all of them.


For the past three years, we have seen a lot of usage of swipe. Some of them are good, some of them questionable. What I believe is that swipe is very nice and intuitive, but it does not suit a lot of usages. Swiping for managing tasks is nice, as on the N9 and WebOS, but if it is assigned to do this, it should not do others, unlike on the Playbook and Windows 8. Because the human brain have an associative memory, it will learn easily a gesture that is associated to one task, but will struggle a bit if this gesture is used for many tasks.

And well … I think that you understood that you should never believe me when I say “small article” because it won’t be small …


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