Most social-media clients for smartphones are pretty well-designed, or at least adequate, for what you want to do when you fire up Twitter on the go: scan and manipulate a bunch of updates quickly. But for those of us who use Twitter mainly as an RSS-like newsreader, that user experience all too quickly breaks down whenever we tap a socially shared link that we actually want to read, and get pushed to a site whose readability on a small screen often sucks. Float, a new iPhone app, tries to solve this UX problem by integrating your social-media feeds with Readability-esque features that let you display the article text in a variety of customizable ways.
Float’s main screen looks basically identical to a Twitter client — you see a list of blurbs and links. Tap them and Float processes the text, a la Instapaper or Readability, into a clean, text-only display. But wait, there’s more! On the lower left is an icon shaped like Kanye West’s sunglasses (nice touch), which launches a set of reading “themes” that let you fine-tune Float’s easy-on-the-eyes display for subtly different use cases. For example, a “Battery Saver” displays the text as light gray on a black background, which won’t drain your dwindling juice; “Sunlight Reading” puts black text on a white background with the display brightness maxed out. Other settings range from the utilitarian (“Easy On The Eyes” is just that, with dark gray sans serif text on a muted beige background) to the whimsical (“DOS” sets the article in lime-green monospace type on a black background, as if you were programming in BASIC in 1982).
This feature is so humanely designed that, after using it, you wonder why it’s not standard-issue in every mobile content app. But Float has even more up its sleeve to make your in-app reading experience as frictionlessly comfy as possible. Depending on the content (or the context), sometimes you may want to scroll the article without page breaks, and other times you may want it to be “paginated,” or cleanly split into cards that you swipe from one to the next. Apps like Instapaper include a button that toggles between these two control gestures, but Float lets you have both at the same time: In any article, vertical swiping scrolls, and horizontal swiping paginates. You can invoke either one at any time without changing any settings.
Why would you want to maneuver through an article in two different ways at once? Who knows, but I love the idea that I can. Maybe one day I’ll be trying to hold onto a subway pole and adjust my backpack and flick through an article on my phone all at the same time, and for some reason my thumb will feel more comfortable scrolling one instant and paginating the next. The point is that the reading experience on a mobile device should conform exactly to what I want at any given moment — and Float’s subtle but ingenious interface comes the closest I’ve seen to doing just that.