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Swipe ambiguity

Stacey Former UX Consultant 20th Nov, 2013

I recently updated my iPad to iOS7. While I think iOS7 has some plus points (the lock screen is prettier) there is one aspect of the interface that I find myself questioning the usability of. Ever since upgrading to iOS7, I have been experiencing frustrating moments when swiping. As it turns out, when browsing the internet on my iPad, I tend to scroll down the page by swiping up from the bottom of the screen (something I hadn’t taken any notice of until recently). I cannot count the number of times in the past month I have been in the middle of reading a web page only to have the shiny new control centre unexpectedly pop up on screen when I have tried to scroll down.

Which leads me to the focus of this blog post: swipe ambiguity. Swipe ambiguity refers to situations where swiping different areas of the screen produces different results. Jakob Nielsen first identified this as a usability issue for iPad apps back in 2011. Unfortunately it still seems to be an issue for the iPad (and iPhone) today, particularly with the introduction of iOS7.

For a clear example of swipe ambiguity, I’ll focus on the home screen in iOS7. There are actually 4 different swiping actions that can be performed by users on this screen (please view image below for visual reference):

  1. Users are able to swipe from right to left, to move to the next screen (this is one action that all iPad and iPhone users would be very familiar with)
  2. In order to bring up the notification menu, users are able to swipe down from the notification area of the screen (we have observed during testing that less experienced iPhone and iPad users are often unaware of this feature)
  3. If users wish to search their iPhone or iPad, the new action for this feature is to also swipe down on the screen, but users need to begin their swipe below the notification area (otherwise the notification menu will be displayed, see point 2)
  4. Finally, to access the control centre, users can swipe up from the bottom of the screen (this is the action that has been the source of my frustration)

Swiping interactions indicated on an iPad homescreen

Whilst having access to so many settings and features from one screen is convenient, from a usability perspective there is no visual prompt for users which communicates that all of these options actually exist. Further, accidentally triggering any of the features I listed above could potentially be a source of confusion for users.

Another example of swipe ambiguity in iOS7 is in Safari. The introduction of swiping on the left side of the screen to go back to the previous page is intuitive, however on webpages that feature a carousel users may accidentally trigger the ‘back’ feature when attempting to scroll through the carousel itself; another source of frustration for users. Also, as I mentioned earlier, accidentally triggering the control centre when attempting to scroll down in Safari can be a frustrating experience.

With touch screen devices enjoying such popularity, it is important to consider swipe ambiguity when designing apps. It is not just the swipe actions within the app itself which need to be considered, but also how these will complement the actions that are native to the operating system of the device.

Note: After deciding to write a blog on this topic, I did some research online and found that (to my delight) that there is a solution to my control centre issue. You can alter the settings in iOS7 so that the control centre cannot be triggered while in an app (view instructions on how to do this here).

About The Author

Stacey Former UX Consultant

Formerly an integral part of the U1 team, Stacey would analyse how human behaviour and technology influenced the way organisations operate, and how UX fitted into a company’s overall marketing strategy. Combined with a huge interest in the evolution of technology and multimedia, her mission was to help businesses and customers connect in a more intuitive way.


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