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Navigation by elevator

The seventh edition of the operating system for my mobile phone of choice was just released. I’m noting, subjectively, that the most new-ish thing is not the aesthetic scheme, not the new features nor the new easy-to-access functions — it’s the three dimensional navigation. Nope, not the parallax effect or the semitranslucent panels, but the way the interface takes you back an forth when you click on a folder, you go into it and clicking on an app therein takes you further down into the app. Tapping a “folder” zooms in on the collection of apps a level down from the home screen. And vice versa, you navigate up, or out when going back again. Structurally it is still quite the same as any hierarchically organised system, but it is using much more explicit visual cues than before. The “folders” are not opened, they are increased or decreased in size. It’s like riding an elevator inside a small screen.

Navigating in iOS 7 is movement along three axis: Sideways, horizontally, in the same plane when navigating between the home screens, or within a “folder” with several “pages” (or “room” or “box” or whatever we should call those things), you move forward/backward, in depth, when going into a “folder”, and you scroll up/down, vertically, when inside apps with long lists. The multitasking mode, the preview screens of the apps you have open which appears when you press the home button twice, is a kind of fourth dimension; a time-space warp plane that transports between the otherwise spatially separated silos of apps and “folders”. Well. Sort of.

Anyway. I’m sure many users will have polarized opinions. Some will feel dizzy. But whether it’s good or bad I guess this stood out to me in particular since we explored a very similar navigation principle a few years back, not on a mobile phone but in a prototype television system. The challenge was to come up with a navigation principle which made it easy to orientate in a mix of linear broadcast TV channels and portals containing web/on-demand video streams. In stead of apps we had tv broadcasts and streams, and in stead of “folders” there were portals for the web content, which were under each channel, then episodes, seasons of shows as well as portfolios of different channels offered by the same media house.

This is one of those things which can be confusing to just watch but that makes sense when actually interacting with it. Our idea with this zoom-navigation was that the users’ preception of and ability to orientate in space would help create a kind of “cognitive muscle memory”, based on the sense of location in 3d space. (There is probably a word for that?) It was a way of trying to mimic the motor learning that occurs when physically interacting with for example app icons on a screen with a thumb; the thumb learn the apps’ positions through repetition.

This muscle memory is what makes me struggle for days to reprogram my thumb when I occasionally move or replace an app or a folder on my mobile. So now I’m curious to see if the combined effect of my muscle-memorising thumb on the screen and my sense of location in 3d space/place created by the elevator navigation, will make it even more impossible to find something I’ve replaced in iOS 7.

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Top photo from inside the elevator at Apple’s Retail Store, 5th Av, New York, by Thomas Hawk, found on flickr.

Written by Joakim Formo

Joakim leads future-oriented strategic design projects that intermingle human behaviour, sustainable futures and emerging technologies.

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