Gestures as a New Dimension in Mobile Design

Gestures as a New Dimension in Mobile Design

Dec 05, 2012 Opinions

Something clicked in my head while writing my most recent article. While looking at the various paradigms that have grown from Twitter’s UI, I noticed an aspect of design that is oft overlooked. That aspect is gestures.

Gestures are something we use on a daily basis, but despite this, few people look at them as an element of an applications UI. I’m going to cover just a few basic gestures as well as a bit of insight as to how they may be used more efficiently in the future.

Since the creation of touch screens, gestures have reigned in an entirely new aspect as to how we interact with our devices. As designers, we often only focus on the visual aspects of design, but hidden beneath (or above?) the visuals of what we create, there is an otherwise invisible concept.

Gestures allow users to perform specific tasks in an extremely efficient and more dynamic manner. Some of the gestures we’re most used to are swipe to unlock, pinch to zoom, and pull to refresh. While those are relatively basic by most means, gestures have evolved greatly. Third party developers have began to truly utilize the potential that multi-touch displays hold, all within their apps.

Three applications that I have used and stick out to me most are Clear, Pair, and Paper.


Clear is unique in the fact that essentially every piece of the app is based around gestures. Besides a few settings, everything is created and deleted with the use of simple, yet efficient motions. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but before Clear, I don’t think there was an application that was designed specifically for a gesture based UX.

From creating a new todo, to deleting one, all it takes is a swipe. While it seems somewhat unnatural, compared to all of the buttons we’re used to seeing, it quickly becomes as natural as flipping a light switch on and off.


Pair doesn’t use gestures in the sense that Clear does. Pair is an app meant for couples; something along the lines of a relationship timeline. You can message back and forth, send photos – be them SFW or not – to each other, draw pictures with each other, and also “Thumb Kiss.” Thumb Kisses are what I’m going to be focusing on here. As silly as it may sound, it’s actually an extremely cool feature to use.

To Thumb Kiss, both you and your partner have to have the app open. When one partner initiates a thumb kiss, it notifies the other. When you enter the Thumb Kiss, you put your thumb on the specified selection of the screen and move your thumb around, searching for where your partner’s thumb is. Once you and your partners thumb coordinates match up for more than a second, the phone vibrates – the kiss. It’s a bit difficult to explain in words, but it’s something you definitely have to try just to see the awesome idea at work.

While that’s not necessarily a gesture as I’ve referred to above, it uses the touchscreen in extremely innovative manner. It’s a cute way to add a touch of human physiology to an otherwise inhuman approach to communication.


Paper is an extremely well done sketching, doodling, and note taking app. While it isn’t completely gestures, there is one that really sticks out to me; the rewind.

The rewind button is a much more dynamic version of the undo and/or history buttons. In Photoshop and other applications as such, we’re used to seeing the history of our changes in a chronological format, stacked on top of each other. While that does make sense in some respects, Paper decides to take it even further by turning the otherwise unproductive method into an extremely efficient – and fun – action.

To rewind your actions in drawing, you use two fingers and rotate them counter-clockwise in a circular motion, getting rid of your most recent actions. It allows for easy edits after a mess-up without messing up your workflow. And to be honest, that’s the beauty of it. No unsightly lists, no buttons to press, just a simple motion and you can continue your work. Of, and you can fast forward, too. A wonderful implementation of a gesture to say the least.

The opportunities

Gestures are limited to how creative humans want to be combined with the restrictions of display technology. Luckily for users, there is no shortage of creativity in iOS app development and display technology is improving year over year.

I would really like to see developers use gestures for three main things: to add a more human touch, to make better use of screen real estate, and to make things more productive.

Mobile Tuxedo’s Touch Gesture Icons

Safari is just one example I can think of, where adding gestures could truly separate the experience from other browsers. Why can’t we use the two-finger swipe to go back and forth as we can with the Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad on OSX? Why couldn’t a three finder swipe from left to right take you from tab to tab? More and more, iOS and OSX are merging and these are things that would make the transition from one to another much more fluid.

While there are dozens more examples I could elaborate on, that’s not necessarily my job. It’s up to developers now to create applications that reach the potential that gestures hold. Think outside of your visual space. Think about the physiological aspect of using gestures as Pair has done; think of a creating a new paradigm. The tip of the iceberg is just barely peaking above the surface. Envision new ideas; implement them and reign in this new opportunity that technology has provided us with.

  • Andre Assalino

    Nice post. Just thought I’d add that Google Chrome for iOS surpasses Mobile Safari in many ways. Gestures, being one of them ;)

    • Reagan

      Subjective. Thanks for your comment though. I find Safari to be more streamlined and faster than chrome.

      • Herding_sheep

        The user interface is also better designed. Not in terms of aesthetics, but usability and operation. Bookmarks are one tap away in Safari, which anyone who uses an iPad knows is the way to browse. Maybe Google changed this since I last used it, but the fact that they launched with a very “desktop-y” paradigm for bookmarks access is just very poorly thought and designed.

      • Sub

        Of course it’s subjective, and subjective isn’t a bad word.

        In fact your review of mobile safari is equally as subjective (streamlined relating to nothing but a subjective feeling).

  • Frank

    I think gestures have quite a lot of potential but I wonder if standardizing them across applications (which seems as inevitable as the standardized behavior of desktop UI controls) will serve to nullify that sense of “human touch” you mention as part of their appeal. Touch screen technology is still in its “gee-whiz” phase that reminds me of when Java applets first appeared (“look ma, marquee lights!”). The novelty doesn’t last (however appealing and even profitable it may initially be) and if ultimately there’s nothing there but yet another note-taking app (yanta?) I this it will sink or swim based on that rather than the use of gestures, per se.

  • Felix

    Gestures have next to zero affrodance.

    • Gannon Burgett

      I will assume you mean affordance. You’re correct, they don’t. That’s why a well designed on-boarding process is significant. As more apps begin to use gestures, but will become standard and known.

      I had this conversation with someone else; think how long it took to get everyone used to using a mouse to click buttons on a screen. A mouse is unnatural to humans, whereas using your hands and fingers is essentially known from birth. It’s much easier to pick on on actions such as gestures when it involves muscle memory and not visual cues. That’s why I stated in the article, that sometimes as designers, we have to look past the visual and think more on the conceptual and/or physiological level.

  • David Bird

    There’s more gestures potentially available, like rubbing, drawing shapes etc. It’s just the problem of having to explain to a user how they work and trying to remember different gestures for different apps.
    It’s also worth considering that flat, glass interfaces may become a thing of the past soon.

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