To-do list apps are lame. Why? Because managing the system–learning how to input items, strike them out, sync them, tag them–is often more complicated than low-tech methods like writing something on a Post-it. But people still keep inventing them. The latest, an iPhone app called Clear, is at least interesting for what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t sync. It doesn’t tag. It doesn’t “intelligently” sort anything. It also doesn’t have any obvious clues in its gestural interface for how to actually use the thing. Is this bad design, or the future of UIs?
As you can see from the demo video, Clear boils basic to-do list functionality down to something like a pure sensory experience. To-do items are displayed in thick blocks of bright color like vertical xylophone keys, with no beveled buttons or menus in sight. Instead, the UI is primarily gestural. To add a new to-do item, swipe the list downward to spawn a new colored tile. To delete it, swipe it to the left. To check it off as completed, swipe it to the right (and get rewarded with a charming little dinging noise). To move an item up or down in a list to reprioritize it, just tap and drag it. And to move up and down in the list hierarchy (for example, moving between a grocery list and a list of things to accomplish at work), pinch in or out. Anything else is probably too complicated to be worth including, so Clear doesn’t.
Interaction-design greybeards like Donald Norman and Jakob Nielsen would say Clear’s gestural UI breaks two fundamental rules: “Visibility (also called perceived affordances or signifiers)” and “Discoverability: All operations can be discovered by systematic exploration of menus.” (It may actually break more than that, but these two are the most obvious “sins.”) Clear’s flat tiles offer no visual signals about what to do with them. Are they buttons? Sliders? Text boxes? All three? And as for menus, Clear doesn’t have any. So systematically exploring them to discover all of Clear’s functionality is a non-starter.
But designer Francisco Inchauste disagrees. Clear does have affordances and discoverability, he argues–it’s just ahead of its time, relying on gestural conventions that are still somewhat in flux now, but will seem to the people of 2025 as intuitively obvious as pointing and double-clicking on icons seem to us now. Those interactions (known as the WIMP paradigm, for “window, icon, menu, pointer”), after all, are no more objectively “intuitive” than pinching or swiping on a touch screen. We’re just so used to them after three decades that nobody needs to explain them anymore. We all simply expect WIMP-style graphical user interfaces to follow those rules, just like we expect a doorknob to twist and unlock a door.
Inchauste believes that, in time, users will come to just expect the conventions of Clear-like interfaces, too. What looks like an affordance-less cipher now, Inchauste says, will simply be so obvious to future users as to be automatic. I’m inclined to agree with him, to a point. It’s true that without seeing Clear’s demo video first, I’d probably be perplexed by its UI. But the truth is that the gestures Clear takes for granted are the same ones we’re all starting to take for granted with touch-screen interfaces. The “swipe down to make new stuff appear” gesture started with Tweetie and is now basically standard in most apps. Pinching to move “in/down” or “out/up” is also a near-universal convention thanks to Google Maps and iPhoto. Clear’s other gestures are subtler, but none of them jump out as completely alien; they all feel familiar enough to “stick,” cognitively, after seeing them demoed just once.
If Inchauste is right, these “invisible” gestural affordances will allow our apps and digital tools to be cleaner, quieter, more ambient and incidental–in other words, more like the other “plain ol’ stuff” that we take for granted in our built environments. Sure, an ancient Greek might be momentarily perplexed by a modern doorknob if he were to be teleported into the 21st century. But that doesn’t mean no one should have ever invented doorknobs.