Illustration of Derek Powazek by Adam Ellis

Thoughts on Designing for iPad

MagCloud iPad AppI’ve been designing for websites for 15 years now, and designing for print for even longer. For the last few months, I led the design of MagCloud’s iPad app (now available in iTunes) with an incredibly talented group of people, and it was unlike any other experience I’ve had as a designer. Here are a few things I learned.

  • It’s intimate.

    The iPad is an intimate experience for a user. The direct touch input removes a layer of abstraction, and that’s a really big deal. In this way, it was like going back to design for print – when you push it with your finger, it moves! – but it’s utterly unlike print in every other way imaginable. Point is, the direct interface really does mean reevaluating every assumption when it comes to interactive design.

  • All the terms changed.

    I never realized how much web terminology had crept into my vocabulary. An iPad app doesn’t have pages, it has screens or views. You don’t click, you tap. You don’t scroll, you swipe. I spent much of our early meetings stumbling over my own words just to communicate the basics.

  • Goodbye, sweet hover.

    I’ve always loved hover states. When a web page changes under your mouse pointer, it shows you that it’s paying attention to you. But remove the mouse and you remove the hover. Apple’s solution in Safari on iPad has been to make one tap show the hover, and another to commit the click. This is utterly confusing for every real user I’ve seen try it. So hover states are on the way out. I’ll miss them.

  • Hello, awesome gestures.

    MagCloud iPad AppGestures go beyond creating an intimate connection. They turn a computing device into an instrument. After all, you don’t use a guitar, you play it. And what’s playing a guitar besides learning a series of gestures?

    Don’t believe me? Check out Uzu app. All it does is make pretty pictures, but with very complicated gestures, accommodating up to 10 fingers on the device at once!

    Our humble MagCloud app doesn’t do anything this fancy, but I was able to make use of the pinch in/out gesture in a couple cool places in the reading experience (pinch in to see all pages, pinch out to zoom into a page). There’s much more work to be done here.

  • It takes time.

    I drastically underestimated how much time it’d take to do the design phase of the app. Over the years, I’ve gotten pretty quick with the web design, which made me overconfident. Apps have a lot of hidden corners that can disrupt a user experience. Getting them right takes time.

  • Design language still emerging.

    We’ve had 15 years to figure out a visual language for the web, and it’s still evolving. The iPad has a few conventions, but they’ll look as silly in a year or two as the candy-colored iMacs look now. Personally, I love working in areas that still have a lot of undiscovered country, but it can be challenging, too. Sometimes, the only way to solve a new problem is with a new solution. That’s fun.

  • Apple has FUDed itself.

    MagCloud iPad AppApple’s App Store was a constant source of stress in the development process. Every time another story of Apple randomly booting an app from the store came out, the whole team quaked. The idea that we could do all this work and then Apple could deny the app, or even keep it in limbo forever, made us second- or third-guess every design decision. “Will this pixel hurt our chances of getting accepted?”

    Apple is killing the creativity of their developers with the uncertainty of their App store policies. We made it through okay, thankfully, but I can only wonder about how much more interesting the store would be if Apple had given developers a clear list of rules, and promised to stick to it. The Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt people have about the App Store was entirely optional – Apple brought it on itself, and it’s not going away.

But all that aside, I have to say it’s thrilling to be doing design for a device that, even just a few years ago, would have been a crazy sci-fi pipe dream. There’s no question in my mind that iPads and the oncoming wave of similar devices are going to be around for a good long time. I can’t wait to see how they evolve.


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Hi, I’m Derek. I live in San Francisco and make awesome community-centric web stuff. I sometimes post things to Flickr and Twitter. I’m mostly harmless. More.





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