Clear Minded

Thoughts on the iOS app Clear

GTD (Getting things Done) applications serve a particular niche, and have found a thriving home on mobile devices. A cursory glance at the ‘Productivity’ section of the iOS, Android, or Windows Phone 7 marketplaces is likely to unearth a plethora of applications, ranging from simple to-do lists to full-blown project management tools.

Developed by Realmac Software, Clear stands firmly in the to-do camp, serving as a task and list management application. Products such as the ever-popular OmniFocus or Things lie towards the opposite end of the spectrum, catering to a different audience though depth and customisation. Clear trades on it’s navigation model, simplicity, and visual aesthetic.

1. Quick Tips: Splash screen. 2. Quick Tips: A demonstration of Clear’s 3 level menu system.

First glance

Clear opens with an introductory tutorial detailing the application’s structure and navigation. Akin to a manual, this is something that would usually bare skipping, but in this case it’s worth swiping though, as the tutorial provides clear pictures of the application accompanied by short explanations. Relying on such a set of instructions to inform a new user would usually be inadvisable, as the large majority will wish to skip past any form of manual. This particular case is somewhat different though, as most will not be aware of the selling features.

After exiting the quick tutorial, the application presents the user with a pre-made list consisting of tips which can be used for practice. This safety-net effectively deals with a problem that many applications face: users skipping the initial explanation, only to miss out on features or become lost. This solution solves that problem in a natural and unobtrusive way, even allowing users to play and practice the various interaction methods. Assuming both safety nets are bypassed by eager users, the simpler interactions such as pulling down on a list to add a new item, and pulling even further to jump up a navigation tier have precedent in other applications (e.g. Twitter: pull-to-refresh), and are easy enough to stumble upon with no prior knowledge. The pinch gestures are somewhat harder to stumble upon however.

Any session with Clear that involves completing more than a few items will likely necessitate a trip to the settings to turn off the frequent vibrations the app emits. Vibrations are usually reserved for core functionality such as calls and messages, or very important application events. Given the frequency with which items can be completed, and the ample visual cues applied to ticked items, this option would be less obtrusive if it were off by default.

1. Navigation: half-pull and release to create new item, 2. Navigation: full-pull to rise a navigation level

Clear’s navigation model is one of the key selling points, and does not disappoint in it’s usability or simplicity. Animations are smooth and respond well to some of the finer-grain interactions such as a half-pull for new lists and list items. The half-pull gesture is a great alternative for fast or one-handed execution, and also does a great job of allowing users to stumble upon alternate navigation methods. The only noticeable inconsistency is the method in which settings are switched on and off compared to list items completed (tapping vs. swiping).

The iPhone’s dimensions allow for effective one-handed operation, and Clear takes advantage of this. The headline pinch-to-go-up and reverse-pinch gestures require two hands, but thankfully Clear provides alternatives. Much of its usage will be one-handed, and in the shopping-list context, the drag and swipe navigation model makes eminent sense. At the bottom level, a half-pull-and-release will create a new item. Similarly, at the list level, lists will be created with the same gesture. Pulling slightly further on both will shift up a level.

List items can be swiped to the right to be completed and when pulled in the opposite direction will result in deletion. Tapping and holding an item will allow it to be re-sorted, and tapping the name will allow it to be edited. These features all apply at both the list and item level, making for a consistent experience. All the above actions have precedent in other applications, and the resulting experience is intuitive enough not to leave the average iPhone user alienated.

1. List items: mark as completed, 2. List items: pinch appart to create

Visual Design

Realmac Software seems to have taken some influence from the Windows Metro UI and made good use of it’s aesthetic for iOS. An application that has no chrome or discernible buttons (in the usual sense) is an oddity among it’s peers, if not the entire app-store. Using the flat-colours of Metro and the Typography of Apple effects a unique aesthetic. To further drive home the point, the extra step of removing the usually-present black status bar is taken. This makes for a truly alien experience.

In place of interface chrome, Clear makes sure to provide clear visual indications as to the users interactions. Completed items are first coloured green and ticked, then are dulled and crossed out. Lists display the number of items contained within, and the home-screen the total number of lists in much the same manner.

Helvetica Bold is used exclusively, achieving a level of consistency and beauty, but also results in a missed opportunity for an extra level of hierarchy. Likewise, the font-size is uniform throughout, and could otherwise have been used convey position within the application.

This becomes a particular problem in lists that haven only one item which is completed (dulled and crossed-out). The application is left with what can easily pass for a blank screen due to the reflective nature of the iPhone’s glass screen. A user can easily mistake this for the phone being inactive, or having frozen in some manner. Clear provides a remedy in all but this particular situation by displaying a quote until items are added.

Themes play a significant role in the applications visuals, controlling the colour palate (but nothing else). These are worth experimenting with, as the default can be somewhat hard to read compared to the monochrome options. If Tapbots is installed, the application awards a bonus Tapbots theme, and further rewards are given for following Clear’s associated Twitter accounts. Doubtless there are other such goodies to be had.

Audio Design

Application specific sounds have always taken a back seat to visuals in software development, as the presence of sound can be considered a bonus rather than a certainty. Phones either spend much of their time on silent, or are rendered effectively mute by low volume output in a noisy area. The presence of well-considered audio in an application is an interesting metric for a developers attention to detail and commitment. Clear keeps it’s audio cues to a minimum, uttering chimes in the settings menu, seemingly random harp-strings for changes in item status, and 8-bit congratulations for following a member of the team. These indications are an extra piece of feedback for the user that can hear them, and are less intrusive than a vibration.

Final thoughts

Let it be understood: Clear’s core functionality is nothing new. There are many applications that offer the same (or greater) functionality for a lower price point. This is not to say Clear is without merit, far from it. Clear will be remembered not for it’s feature set, but it’s visual design and use of drag and pinch gestures. This will not herald a new paradigm in iPhone aesthetics and navigation, but will be serve as an influence. Much in the same way that Twitter for Mac introduced the grey side-bar, and Tweetie the pull-to-refresh gesture, Clear will show the way for chrome-less applications employing gestures as a primary navigation method.