A divergence is occurring in user interface canvases. I’ll try to illustrate with a couple of very rough digital sketches.
On the one hand, Apple’s iOS offers panels of icons, where everything is kept within the pixel dimensions of a single screen. The user simply scrolls left or right to find more icons and every panel looks broadly the same.
It is a classic example of an interface which relies on consistency to achieve speed of task completion. However, very little information is surfaced from within applications and onto the home screen: there are just small badges to show the number of messages waiting beneath an icon or simple push notifications.
In contrast, Windows Phone is built around a canvas which can be explored left and right, but also up and down. It surfaces information from applications and uses it to represent them on the home screen, e.g. the photo icon is actually derived from the last image you looked at.
This approach allows more information to be observed within a single canvas, but places a heavier cognitive load on the user when they start to explore: instead of the simple ‘left and right’ of iOS, users must think about ‘left, right, up and down’.
Currently there isn’t much net user benefit in the Windows Phone approach. The additional information surfaced doesn’t quite compensate for the extra thinking required to navigate it.
However, Ocean Observations has been working in partnership with fellow Swedish company Ikivo to design an Android UI where the expanded canvas gives a tangible improvement to the way information is explored and the amount of information brought to the surface.
In the Ocean example, the main panel is scrolled up and down to browse personalised excerpts from feeds, maps and contacts. Whenever the user swipes one of these widgets to the left, it adds another level of detail. For instance, a Twitter widget might show a brief summary on the main screen, but a swipe to the left would show more tweets on the same subject.
Crucially, it is only the main panel which scrolls up and down. The detailed panel revealed by a left swipe does not scroll vertically. A swipe to the right brings up application tiles comprised of large screenshots from within the application. Again, there is no vertical scrolling.
Both the Ocean and Windows Phone UIs also take advantage of increasing pixel density to make heavy use of typography in place of iconography.
I’m uncertain whether this approach, where some parts of the UI scroll and others don’t will succeed in balancing additional cognitive load with additional information depth.