It’s time to drop the dropdown

Corey McMahon

Perhaps it’s just me, but a lot of the user interfaces in my most commonly used phone and tablet apps are a little stale. Mostly, I think many developers feel stuck using the tools of old machines – desktops and laptops – that don’t fit the strengths and weaknesses of these newer, modern devices.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the case of menus, and like all topics in technology, the explanation of this problem requires a bit of history. For the greater part of the PC era, the standard operating procedure for user interface in applications was a set of buttons and menus running along the top of a window. Open up a popular application like Microsoft Word and you’ll see your standard buttons and menus up top.

But there’s nothing worse for your productivity than having to click away from what you’re doing to change a setting and then come back. The development community decided shortcuts were the best fix, so instead of having to click away to make your text bold (and again when you wanted it back to normal), users now only have to hit “Command+B.”

But now we look at the post-PC era, and we have to refresh our thinking. Most of these devices don’t have a permanent keyboard, so our PC fix is no longer possible. What are we to do? Most developers have, for some reason, gone back to square one. We decided that a host of drop-down menus wasn’t good enough on the PC, so why do we subject ourselves to the same thing on our phones and tablets?

This approach especially doesn’t make sense on a device like the iPad. Anyone who has used one knows the tablet’s strength is the feeling of proximity to whatever you’re doing. While you once manipulated a mouse to do things, on a tablet, your hand skips the middleman and just draws, scrolls, taps or clicks. This more direct hands-on interaction makes the feeling of abandoning your current task to open a menu even worse than on a PC.

The solution, at least for Apple’s devices, have been “gestures,” and a number of apps have used these gestures that Apple supports in innovative ways. For example, a new drawing app called Paper excellently utilizes these capabilities. Paper is an electronic sketchbook of sorts recently out for the iPad. Most drawing apps will have a menu with undo and redo buttons in case you make a mistake, but Paper doesn’t want you to have to leave your drawing. With Paper, you rotate two fingers in a counter-clockwise direction to “rewind” your drawing. This approach, which doesn’t take you away from your content, gives a far more rewarding experience.

Gestures are obviously a very different fix than shortcuts on the PC. For one, there aren’t as many gestures as shortcuts, which can be a weakness. But a significant strength is that gestures mimic our real-world interactions. “Rewinding” to go back in our work makes sense in the physical world, while “Command+Z” does not.

The best apps are usually the most simple and intuitive ones, and interfaces with complicated menus are the exact opposite of both.