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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 20, 2012 @ 9:35 am

    Clearing the way to the future

    Davin O'Dwyer

    Clear app, by Realmac Software, Impending Studios and Milen Dzhumerov

    The tech blogosphere has been buzzing all week about Clear, an innovative iPhone to-do app from  Realmac Software, Impending Studios and London-based developer Milen Dzhumerov that was released last week to great acclaim (available here for a limited-time introduction price of 79c ). It’s not an exaggeration to suggest it is the most-hyped app of the year, as far as these things go, with some great reflections on Clear’s gesture-laden user interface floating around.
    The headline on Matthew Panzarino’s piece on The Next Web, How a simple list app called Clear may change how we use our devices forever, captured the mood – Clear is being widely hailed as a landmark in user-interface design, marking a comprehensive break from the conventions of decades of computer use in favour of something far more, well, touchy-feely.
    Instead of relying on the usual array of buttons, arrows and calendars that characterise the competition, Clear only offers simple lists, navigated by touchscreen gestures such as swipes and pinches, with varying colours and sounds offering feedback. It does need to be used, or at least seen, to be appreciated, and this video captures some of Clear’s magic.
    The interface is minimal in the extreme – the user is faced with nothing but the items to do. The interaction comes not through buttons and menus and visible clues, but purely through touching and manipulating the items. Slide to the side to mark as done or delete, pinch to move up a layer, slide down to create a new item, and so on. The colour-coded prioritisation is a visually intuitive touch, and the sounds are nicely game-like.
    But as John Pavlus points out on FastCo Design, Clear tramples all over established usability principles.
    “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.’”
    Of course, as designer Francisco Inchauste points out, the usability conventions we’re just getting used to and settling on – pinching and swiping and sliding and the like – will be as natural to someone who grows up using touchscreen devices as pointing and clicking with a mouse feels to us. Already, there’s plenty of amusing evidence that children used to playing with iPads think that magazines are broken, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve tried to select words on my laptop screen by tapping them.
    In the words of Aynne Valencia and Alfred Lui of international design consultancy Fjord:
    “User interface designers are beginning to realize that there is no longer the need to hang on to representations of real life objects and drag them into the digital space. Digital is something else. It’s magical. It affords the user magical powers. It is no longer the user, a mouse, and a complicated ballet of hand eye coordination…Clear’s focus on gestural UI bestows this sense of magic by escaping the traditional paradigm of check boxes and text inputs that normally exist with digital to-do lists.”
    Up to now, my to-do app of choice was a pretty feature-rich app called 2Do, which syncs across all my devices and has no end of customisation and endless settings and reminders and location awareness and what have you. But there was always an uncomfortable friction while entering stuff that needed to get done – whereas Clear is akin to writing down a shopping list, 2Do sometimes veered too close to filling out a health insurance form. Where Clear is lithe and responsive, 2Do often felt cumbersome, and 2Do is by no means the most convoluted to-do app around – the task manager of choice in geek circles is the fearsome Omnifocus, the Adobe Photoshop of “Getting Things Done”, with nearly as many tools and settings.
    Obviously, Clear does a lot less than 2Do – it doesn’t populate my calendar with deadlines, alert me with reminders or sync with my MacBook. But despite that reduced feature set, I’m already using Clear far more than 2Do, because it’s far more delightful and efficient. Its focus and design, and its focus on design, ultimately makes it a more useful app.
    It’s not without flaws, and I’m not sure how such fluid, intuitive user interface paradigms can scale to more complex apps, but every time I open it to add to a list or mark another item as done, it certainly feels like the future.

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