Productivity Musings on App Navigation, Information Density and Work Environment

This morning I set out to explore the most recent ramblings on app navigation. I expected to come across a bunch of designers talking about their sliding, popping, whirling interface. How they are going to radicalize the way we interact with mobile applications. The first thing I was struck with was that I needed to get out of my own mobile-centric thought process. I immediately extended my investigation to include desktop, tablet and of course web. After coming across various sites about different navigation constructs, my thought process wandered off. I soon found myself reflecting on some of the design decisions that we live and work with daily. This lead me to some productivity musings that I think generate more questions than answers.

Mobile is Not Desktop

The launch point for my productivity musings was that a couple of the sites reminded me of the panorama and pivot controls from Windows Phone. I think some credit should go to Microsoft’s Metro Modern Fluent (whatever it’s now called) design system. The Panorama and Pivot controls, when done well provided an immersive experience that let users rapidly dig into information.

Fast forward to Windows 8 and Microsoft decides to expand the Windows Phone design system to big-Windows….. #FAIL. We tried. We really did try. And in some cases we produced some amazing applications. However, fundamentally the design system wasn’t designed to scale. The Panorama didn’t have the right information density for a desktop application. One of the reasons that the Mail and Calendar apps for Windows were never able to take on Outlook, is that the information density is just too low.

Stupid Apps

I feel we would be remiss for not chastising Apple for a generation of “stupid apps”. When the iPhone came out, it set about revolutionizing what the world meant when it said smartphone. It was like all the devices prior to it weren’t smart. This simply isn’t true – there were plenty of devices in market that from a functionality perspective were smart. What Apple did was to bring smartphones to the masses. They did that by dumbing it down. Apps did one thing. You could run one App at a time. You can only get Apps from the App Store. There was only one devices that had Apps, the iPhone.

This lead the way for a new breed of developers, “App Developers”. These were developers who were able to string a couple of screens together and call it an app. These developers were in a league of their own. Web and desktop developers looked over and saw “App Developers” making money from apps that did one thing. Ina lot of cases the apps didn’t even do that one thing well, in other words, stupid apps.

Over time the mobile ecosystem has evolved. App Developers have matured and today most app developers build apps for both iOS and Android. Apps themselves have evolved and increased in complexity and sophistication. AI and Machine Learning is being integrated to allow mobile applications to solve a range of tasks. However, despite all this innovation, the majority of mobile apps still do only a small number of functions.

Information Density

As my productivity musings continue, if we look at apps designed for desktop, we can see that they have more functions and much higher information density. Apps such as Word, Excel, VS Code and Photoshop are heavily optimised for mouse and keyboard. As such there is a much high information density, allowing more data to be presented and manipulated on any given screen.

Of course, there’s a trade off between ease of use and information density. Actually, let me correct that somewhat. It’s not necessarily ease of use that decreases with increase information. Rather, it’s the ability for new users to learn an application. Take Excel for example. There are plenty of spreadsheet alternatives out there. I’m continually amazed by the number of people that use Google Sheets. This is because they’ve only ever learnt the first 10% of spreadsheet capabilities. Those that you pick up when you first start using a spreadsheet. Most users barely get past using a spreadsheet as a glorified list making tool. If you look at how spreadsheets are used in finance or engineering, it’s staggering how much data can be calculated, displayed and interpreted on a single screen.

What struck me about the links that I read regarding navigation, is that very few of them deal with high information density. All the designs seem to be focused on building slick interfaces that work well with a single hand, or respond well when the browser is resized. There’s almost no mention of how to deal with complex data sets, or multiple windows, or the learning process for complex applications.

Multiple Windows

At this point, my productivity musings turned towards a pet annoyance, which is the lack of support for multiple windows. Since around the time of Windows 8, it seems that most developers have forgotten that both PC and Mac support applications with multiple windows. Both Apple and Microsoft realise the significance of the window metaphor. Whilst it was Microsoft that adopted the name Windows for the OS, both companies continue to support and evolve the window metaphor.

It should be noted that in Windows 8, Microsoft made a daft move by trying to push apps full screen. How did it make sense to have an operating system called Windows that doesn’t support applications running in a windows? Unfortunately I think the lasting impact of this, coupled with the birth of app developers who knew how to build “stupid apps,” has meant that we’ve had to put up with a host of single-windowed apps.

Take for example this comment from Derik about wanting to pop out an editor window to drag to another screen:

Desktop apps, for both PC and Mac, need to start by thinking in multiple windows. Don’t just make it an after thought.

Window Management

We’re approaching the end of my productivity musings. At this point I went on a slight tangent along the idea of multiple windows and thinking about the way that they’re managed. Both Windows and MacOS have mechanisms for closing, opening, restoring, minimising, splitting windows. However, the one thing I routinely notice among Mac users is that they struggle with basic window management. Perhaps they’ve never bother to spend the time to work out how to manage windows; perhaps it’s harder to do on a Mac. Personally I stick with Windows as that’s where I’m comfortable. If you can’t manage your application windows effectively, that’s on you to learn how to do it.

Multi-Monitor

Moving on from multiple windows we get to multiple monitors. This one is a criticism of companies that choose to invest in finding the right staff but then fail to equip them to do their job. If your staff do work that’s heavily computational, make sure they have a desktop PC or Mac to work on. Regardless of whether you equip them with a desktop or a laptop, when your staff are working at a desk, they need to have at least two external monitors to work on and ideally external mouse and keyboard. You’ll spend a little more up front setting up their work station but you’ll get that back in productivity within the first month, if not the first week!

That’s Not a Mouse!

If you decide that you’re going to supply MacBook or iMac or some other Apple product to your staff, please make sure you do the right thing and buy them a real mouse and keyboard set.

A mouse has more than just a single function. Go get a mouse that will really get the job done.

A keyboard isn’t a work of art. Go get a keyboard that will really make you productive. It doesn’t have to be split like in the following image but it is worth considering split keyboards as they are supposed to be more ergonomic.

Productivity Musings in Summary

This post is a bit of a ramble about the hits and misses of app development. However, it’s worth consider where we are in the software development industry. Are we so focused on the latest technology; the latest hot trend; the latest design metaphor, that we’ve lost the ability to build productivity software?


App Navigation Links

The following are a selection of links that I browsed when investigating some of the latest trends when it comes to navigation within applications. Whilst they’re not strictly a productivity musing, they did form the genesis for this post and I’d recommend taking a read as they may influence how you design the experience of your next application.