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Clear(ly), it’s time to say bye-bye to buttons

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With its new iOS app, Clear, Realmac Software has taken the “less is more” axiom to its ultimate conclusion. The Clear app puts a new spin on the common to-do list by enriching it with a playful perception of depth, dynamic transitions and crisp audio feedback, all wrapped under a minimalistic visual language and shallow navigation.

Is this “less is more” approach revolutionary? Nope. Evolutionary? Absolutely.

As designers, we admire Clear’s UI, and we think it ties into some trends we’re watching here at Fjord (a digital service design agency). We’re betting that we will see more of this stripped down approach in the near future thanks to three big industry trends:

1.   A “mobile first” approach to features

The small-screen real estate of mobile devices has forced companies to scale down the bells and whistles and extraneous content afforded by the web, prioritizing features and services that make the most impact for the business and customer experience.

This also means that, in order to be successful, these types of applications are focused on a very narrow subset of features. In the case of Clear, not only did the company select the most rudimentary functions in a to-do list, it also followed through with a minimalistic form in the interface.

A simple interface requires paring down interactivity to its barest essence. It requires prioritizing features and focusing on the essentials needed for the desired outcome. The challenge is to know how much you need to create a viable and desirable product, how much can be stripped away, and how to prepare for scaling up the product and service. It will be interesting to see how these applications evolve and scale (or choose not to).

2. Thinking in 4-D and making the user a magician

User interface designers are beginning to realize there is no longer a need to hang on to representations of real life objects and drag them into the digital space. Digital is something else. It gives the user magical powers. It is no longer the user, a mouse and a complicated ballet of hand eye coordination. It is the user directly manipulating a screen or an object to access a magical, four-dimensional world (time, space, people, information) that exists invisibly almost anywhere the user goes. 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.

3. Getting Agile with it

Both designers and mobile platforms are pushing toward cinematic user interface designs. While motion is nothing new in every day life, appropriately and meaningfully adopting it into consumer-facing applications poses a new set of challenges for designers who are more accustomed to formulating designs using static wireframes. A new prototyping and blended-discipline approach to software and product development such as the Agile method and the new Lean UX movement are making it easier and more acceptable than ever before to create and communicate dynamic, looks-like, feels-like prototypes. This has allowed for a cinematic approach to design that employs more dynamic movement. And much like a good movie, the most crucial bits are often found between those still frames.

It’s exciting to see Clear’s bold interface and the new capabilities it presents. But the Clear app is just a hint of the exponentially more thrilling interfaces we are likely to see in a coming wave of more complex products and services that will go far beyond the to-do list.

Alfred Lui and Aynne Valencia are service design leads at Fjord, a digital service design consultancy. Fjord has provided strategic direction and design for such brands as Nokia, Citibank, Foursquare and Yahoo. You can follow them on Twitter at @fjord.
Image courtesy of Realmac Software.

31 Responses to “Clear(ly), it’s time to say bye-bye to buttons”

  1. Alfred Lui

    Thanks for the comments. While we agree that the Clear app may not be fully comprehensive, its user interface does align with some of the emerging trends in gestural UI that we’re beginning to see here at Fjord.

    First of all, Clear is one of the first non-game apps we have seen to boldly include gestures and audio in the UI. Secondly, we think removing functions and controls is where mobile apps are heading. Users are much more prone to feature fatigue on mobile. Thanks to analytics, designers and product managers are getting better at identifying which features are mobile-appropriate. Lastly, tapping a button to control an object has been around ever since people first interacted with machines. Today, most of us automatically associate buttons with information. However, we don’t tap anything to manipulate objects in reality. Instead, we grab and move. Clear has made an interesting move towards what can be done with direct manipulation of information. It’s not perfect, but it is a step closer to a better UI.

  2. Billy Andika

    I’m very, very disappointed with this app. It’s the first beautiful-looking app I deleted just after one day of usage. I tried to switch from Reminders to this but I ended up forgetting things because setting alarms for reminders is very handy. Also, it gets really troublesome to get into lists because the UI is not that intuitive. It really needs practice to know what swiping quickly downwards will lead you to. Simply put, this app is really for those who care about UI and nothing else. When function is concerned, this app completely lacks it. So much for being overhyped, seriously.

  3. Well…hmmm…firstly, I like your article much better than the app! I think there’s a lot of truth in the trends you describe and the piece is very well written. I’m not catching on to the gestures in Clear as they are not intuitive motions. IMHO the app borders on form over substance and that wears thin pretty quickly.

    To end on a positive note though, I really like the use of sound underscoring task complete. Sure does make me feel like a super hero ea. time i hear the cue.

    Other apps that I feel are well designed in a 4D way are TapBots. I enjoy using Tweetbot every day and just incorporated it in my own app, 2Scoops-allowing users to tweet about delicious gelato they find in London, Paris, Rome, and NYC.

    • Nicole Solis

      Fjord wasn’t involved in the design of the app. Rather, this post was written to show how the design of Clear, though perhaps not perfect, shows some really progressive ideas in UI.

      • Nikolay Klimchuk

        All such ideas is for one time success. It’s not flexible and can’t grow to something functional due to limitations of visually clueless interfaces i.e. when you need to know what to do and how just by magic.

  4. Jeff Schader

    Once you get past the methodology buzzwords these “experts” are throwing out like “Lean UX movement” and “Agile Method”, all your left with is an app where touch gestures can only take you so far and that is severely reduced in functionality.

    The approach of Clear is fine for a simple, scaled down app that lacks comprehensive functionality. You may see more apps mimic this, but it will hardly be the “evolution” you guys are touting.

    Case and point: Who here wants to use a full-featured Office app that has no buttons on their phone? Anyone? So someone explain to me how removing buttons which in turn removes functionality is “evolutionary”?

  5. Istace Emmanuel

    Metro approach (remove the chrome from app’s) from phone7, actually mainly implemented by microsoft, is finally on iphone… perhaps one day Apple will re-focus their products on the productivity and the “clean design”.

  6. Anthony Lambert

    The trick to a brilliant application interface is the same as ever. To give the user the most power you can in the easiest way. Few apps ever achieve this. I think shows genius but it doesn’t have the functionality to make it much more than a novelity. If the aim is to sell alot I think they will. If the aim is to get user to use it I’m not so sure…

  7. Anonymous Guest

    I think the author is overly optimistic on the “mobile platform only means essentials are there” theme. It really does come down to who is paying for the app or site’s development.

    If marketing wants the capability to email PDFs around, it will happen, even if data analysis says 4% of users open PDFs on the desktop site. That’s because marketing is spending the money to develop the mobile version and meeting user’s needs are just a bonus.

  8. E. Mikulic

    I have been using the app for a few days and I think it hits its target pretty well. I completely get the approach they have taken and for mobile devices it’s very good. While I have not used it for long yet, the only interstice I could find was the iPhone’s touch doesn’t seem subtle enough to really a user fly around this kind of app.

  9. Jaq Avetisyan

    I don’t understand why everyone’s complaining about the app being so simple. That’s the point. It is a simple reminder app. That’s it. It’s so simple that you actually want to use it not the mention the interface navigation is pretty cool! I got the app today and immediately put it to use. Apps don’t help you get thing done, you have to get it done.

  10. Fedor van Herpen

    Also tried the app immediately since it was so hyped :-) But clearly the app is overhyped. The app is too simple: I cannot assign tasks to specific dates and times, nor set any alarms. This means that the app will never be top of mind…

  11. Shaun Dubuque

    Meh, I think this works because it is a super simple task and is more novelty than utility. Check out & for reasons why you might want to think twice before stuffing your app with gestures for every action. UX isn’t just about flashiness, some people want the app to get out of the way so they can just get their task done as efficiently as possible.

  12. Sometimes boiling down to simple essentials isn’t enough. Clear’s simplicity and interesting gestures don’t add enough functionality and makes some hard compromises, like how much text can be entered (no line wrapping) and no details like notes or due dates. VERY simple.