Searching for a better home screen

It is very rare indeed when designers eagerly anticipate a release from Microsoft. This October’s Windows 8 release will see a new Windows Phone, the second version of the Metro UI for mobile devices. But more significantly, Windows 8 will bring the Metro interface to the desktop.

'Metro' style on phone and desktop
Metro on mobile and on desktop.

Metro, which won over designers, developers, and users with its colorful, transit-inspired, and minimally geometric interface, was first bundled with the Windows Phone 7 package. It was a risky – but undeniably insightful – move. Rather than simply playing catch-up to Android and iOS, the gridded interface stakes a dramatic new claim on how an OS should function on a mobile device. Rather than presenting a “home screen” where a user launches applications – an idea borrowed directly from the desktop – Metro uses the blocky launch icons to directly display the latest information and updates from within the apps themselves.

In other words, rather than launching your news app to check for the latest headline, Metro would feature those headlines right on the home screen. You’ll click on an app once you already know something of interest lies beneath. But Metro’s most striking implication is that you might not even open those apps as often anymore.

However, Microsoft’s approach to the home screen was not the first attempt at a radical departure from established mobile home screen norms. In 2010, an Android app called SlideScreen was on a similar mission, and its untimely demise shows the complications of innovating on the home screen in an environment where the handset makers and the creators of operating systems make the rules.

The SlideScreen app on Android.

SlideScreen, developed by Larva Labs, cleverly replaced the Android home screen with snippets of content you depend on the most. Get the gist of your inbox, absorb the latest headlines in your feeds, and check in on the churn of tweets and Facebook updates every time you idly flash on your phone. It was space-efficient without looking cramped – austere, but with personality.

Many early Android users (this author included) grew dependent on the immediacy: there was no need to navigate to an app or pull down a pane. The phone stopped being another media channel and became a tool again.

But in August of 2011 it was over. An ill-timed security update prevented the app from reading data from Gmail. SlideScreen could no longer “hot-wire” you straight to your messages. Developer Matt Hall begrudgingly admitted: “As of right now there appears to be no workaround as this is an intentional change to restrict access to the data. [..] As of this morning we’ve removed the app from the market.” SlideScreen was dead.

It’s a shame. SlideScreen was an important counterpoint to the prevailing norm on phone operating systems: the home screen as a list of apps you can launch. It’s a limiting norm that makes phones less useful. The “app-launcher-approach” to home screens essentially traps information and functionality in digital “lockboxes” that can’t be accessed without starting an app.

SlideScreen’s story highlights how apps themselves can’t innovate without the alignment of vision with the creators of the operating systems, consumer services, and information providers. Apps also depend on digital lockboxes that are stable and supply open data. But these conditions weren’t present in 2011, and they are even less so today. And when software ecosystems become more closed, apps like SlideScreen can’t flourish. That is likely why the Apple iOS home screen paradigm has been remained largely unchallenged.

Five years ago, the launch of Apple’s first iPhone in 2007 popularized this paradigm of precious, “gemstone” app icons. Instrumental in the phone’s success, the icons simplified access to functionality and made it obvious to novice users what a smartphone could actually do. But simplicity comes at the cost of information density and efficiency. Apart from the occasional push notification, there are precious few hints at what relevant information might be behind each icon.

iOS home screen. Image via Scrappble.

Yet, despite these shortcomings, and in spite of the efforts of the Larva Labs and the Windows phone team, there’s a real possibility that the gemstone paradigm becomes this decade’s default mobile navigation system. Why is this worrisome? Interface paradigms tend to die slow deaths.

On stationary computers and laptops, the same antiquated metaphor has guided interface development since the early 1970s. The “desktop metaphor”, as it is called, treated the computer screen as an imaginary desk, where objects like “files” and “folders” could be put. Despite some valiant efforts (at Cooper we took our stab with the Litl netbook, and Google attempted to bring the beast down with their Chrome OS), this concept has displayed a frightening resistance to technological progress and user needs.

The same thing can happen on our phones. We are facing the risk that inarticulate gemstones could become the primary way you operate your phone, even when new technology begins allowing for far superior ways to interact with smartphones. A smartphone’s ability to predict and automate actions has massively improved alongside the evolution of its impressive stack of sensors, cameras, microphones, and touch screens. Based on this knowledge, there are many ways a phone can tailor a home screen to the needs of the situation or time of day. The phone can begin to guess what I might need to know. Wouldn’t that be nice – a home screen with information I care about, rather than a list of the apps I have downloaded?

As Metro seeks to demonstrate, the main purpose of smartphones should not be to launch apps. Smartphones have a lot of impressive functionality, but not all functions are equally important. Not all functions need an icon. Home screens should facilitate important functions, and hide trivial ones. It should make it easy to communicate, help me be aware of time and place, and anticipate common information needs. The standard home screen as we know it today is not up to the task, so let us look for better ways. Let us leave the familiar behind. A better home screen is out there.

Andreas Braendhaugen

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