To write on analyzing an interaction, I picked up the iPhone app Clear. When Jingya told me that Kai is also doing the same, I thought real hard to come up with something else, but there are couple of reasons why I could not have chosen anything else for writing. With this post, I’m trying to articulate all the ideas based on research I did till now. Am still weak on applying theories from our class to the ideas discussed. Any help with that is really needed and appreciated.

My Motivations

First, the most striking feature of this app is that it has no buttons. In that sense, Clear defies the regular conventions and still it has been very well received by users worldwide. The reason is it literally emulates the metaphor of pen & paper, although in abstract ways due to its minimalist design, I’ll talk in detail later about this. And this whole thing is really very close to my capstone project. So writing and thinking about this interaction helps me get clarity about my capstone as well.

Second reason for choosing clear has to do with the reason for which people might be using this app in the first place – Procrastination. My final project for Rapid Design For Slow Change was on procrastination and after a lot of research, brainstorming sessions the design boiled down to a to-do list and some of our ideas about how to interact came very close to this app’s design, but our design was way too complex. So in that sense, I can see myself being able to write more holistically on analyzing Clear than any other interaction.

Design Introduction (Mixes artifact and designer perspectives)

Clear is a simple tool that allows quick creation of lists, to-do lists. The app is designed for the medium (touch) in the sense that the interface relies on direct manipulation of objects using gestures like taps, drags, slides, and pinches instead of traditional buttons and tabs. Drag down to create new item. Tap, hold and slide to reorder. Pinch-to-zoom to navigate a level above or pinch apart to add a new item. Swipe items to right to check them off or swipe left to delete them.

In this way, the app turns the content itself into an interface. And then the design uses affordances of a touch paradigm to cut down on everything that is not necessary. That said, it is interesting to note things that the app doesn’t do. It allows only creating basic lists and items within those lists. It does not allow for setting any reminders, neither does it allow syncing with your calendar nor does it help you figure out how old the item is. Well, there seems to be reasons for this – first has to do with its metaphor and second one has to do with procrastination.

Real World Metaphor – Paper and Pen

I’ve played with the app for few days and realized that the invisible gestures made a lot of sense and were very intuitive. The learning curve was really very small. This interesting fact both excited me and intrigued me at the same time. I was excited because how easy it is to learn and also puzzled at why is it so. So I closely examined the behaviors and various transition states, and realized that all the transitions, gestures have a relationship that essentially ties them together and that relationship is – paper. Yes, the design mimics a virtual paper and virtual pen (keyboard). This design is the closest digital manifestation I’ve seen of pen and paper. All the design decisions, the gestures support the metaphor and I believe that is the reason it is so easy to learn. The design mimics a folded paper with infinite length. One can expand to see the parts of the paper specific to a context, or compress again to just get a broad view of the swamp. The way those transitions while navigating across levels take place clearly mimic the paper metaphor. As one pinches, the items blocks squeeze and come closer to the finger towards the center of the screen and finally merges into a thin border of the macro item they belong to, as if folded and pushed behind. And immediately after the item is collapsed the whole screen slides up and the top item snaps to the top of the screen. My claim is supported by a link on ‘Using Origami To Mock-Up Ingenious Gestural Interfaces‘ that Leo shared about an article on FastCompany which takes the exact same screen from application Clear and shows a paper mockup.

So, reasons for a lot of things that the application does not do stem from its heavy reliance on the metaphor. There is one more interesting idea here. In case of Clear, the metaphor governs the behavior of application and not the visual design which is very unlike apple’s designs. Apple and many other designers puts a lot of emphasis visually clarifying the metaphor like the recently launched iPad app ‘Paper’ that combines the look and feel of paper with novel gestures to move around. Instead Clear uses thick colorful blocks with varied hot or cool color themes. Even the size of blocks does not resemble a ruled paper, instead the thickness does not multiply to screen size so it tell you if you need to scroll more. To me the reason for following a metaphor so closely in behavior but being visually completely apart can be linked to the context for which it is designed. It is designed to minimize any sort of distractions and allow people to really focus on things they want to get done. Also, since the application does not sync and offers no reminders or other frills, in long run I believe the design will not be used for getting grocery shopping done, but to get through the rut of you are stuck in. So, in a way visually moving away from the metaphor helps people retain focus without thinking too much about design and the known behavior of real world helps them learn the invisible language in ways that can be used without even thinking about it.


We all procrastinate. That is the reason deadlines exist. Procrastinators are different from lazy people, in the sense that a lazy person will not do anything as he knows even if he did anything, it won’t be interesting. On the other hand a procrastinator will be busy doing things, but will delay the most crucial thing. Mostly it is because they have not figured out how exactly to get it done and having an infinite timeline helps push it back and focus on trivial issues first. Only when pressured (externally) by others around us or via deadline can we find motivation enough to sift through that confusion. Interestingly, the most effective external motivation to convince yourself  under such circumstances can be as simple as hearing from friends and family – “just get your act together and get it done” or “i know you can do it”.

So how this explanation ties into clear’s design?

The way human brain cycle works to achieve complex tasks is to think of doing it or being asked to do it, to plan and assess situation & resources, to act, to analyze and to take further decisions if necessary. We quickly skip a lot of these steps for routine or mundane stuff, but we follow a lot of these and in order to get through things we have not done before or if we are not confident about them. So in such situations, being able to look over them repeatedly and reassessing the situation is key (this might explain why designers usually create moodboards, or fill up walls with always visible post-it notes). So, instead of syncing the tasks with your calendar or reminding you automatically, the application forces you to come back and look again, to enforce reassessment. And hence they have a feature that allows one to reorder things as quickly as possible and also quick editing. The application uses thick blocks of bright colors for showing items in a list, the visuals gives the  list an effect of a heatmap that inherently reminds one of prioritization and so do they react. So in a way for the design to be effective, it is essential no to have reminders or sync capabilities. (This needs lot of work and research to backup claims.)

Also, there are two ways to clear off items. Left swipe strikes off an item, displays a check mark and fades away the item, but the item is still slightly visible. The idea is based on the principle of positive reinforcement, and having a sense of achievement. Checking things off gives a sense of accomplishment, and it stays with you till it becomes a distraction and you want to get rid of it. This transition state can be particularly useful when trying to accomplish something for the first time. The checked items in a way say that this much is already accomplished akin to a friend saying, you have already come so far the next step is also doable.

When you create an item, it’s a vague thought about an activity that you thought you might do. Over time your thoughts refine and you want to change something, hence it is designed so that it is really quick to pick up and item and edit it. There is also a limitation of 30 characters per item, and that limitation aids the purposeful intention as that forces one to be thoughtful, and that helps a lot when dealing with vague.

Another thing that often make people to overcome procrastination is inspiration. And we know that creativity inspires. I relate this to Murch’s reading where he talks about blink and how that relates to transitions. The app designers worked heavily on the transitions not just to support the metaphor, but also to be true to the purpose. The transitions between various states are not typical right to left screen slides or popup screens, instead they are playful and novel. They contain you within the same space unless you intentionally want to leave. I assume this has been intentionally done to inspire positivity in people who use it. This inspiration thus provides room for them to be creative in their thought process, and hence be productive. (again, this needs lot more grounding)

When watching films in theater, the ambiance is dark (black) as it helps in getting immersed into the experience and forget everything else that might distract. The design exploits this principle to allow immersion into one’s own thought process by serving a black background with all of its colorful themes. This immersion also allows for a quick reflection, self assessment.

Socio-Cultural: Why we need an app to get our tasks done in the first place?

A simple answer to the above question could be that today technology mediates everything and has increased pace of life. So to keep up with things around, we need to externally offload so many things that we might need to remember otherwise. And also, over decades our notion of time has changed significantly. Stephen R. Covey, author of ‘First Things First’ categorized post World War II modern-day evolution of time management into four generations:

1. First generation is the traditional and rudimentary approach based on clock based reminders and alerts

2. Second generation focuses on planning and preparation of work schedules and events, setting time-based goals.

3. Third generation aims at prioritizing various tasks and events.

4. Fourth generation is similar to third, but aims at prioritization based on importance of task rather than the urgency.

It will not be wrong to say that everyone reading this post will related to third or fourth generation. So to put simply, an effective time management is a complex task and a tools that allows for effective external cognition is not a luxury, but a necessity. My argument is supported by research published in the book ‘Time for Life: The Surprising Ways Americans Use Their Time’ by John P. Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey which talks about how the notion of time for Americans has changed over decades. The results from comparison of diary studies across three decades, shows the phenomenon to be true across social class, gender, age. And the researchers have found it convenient to classify time as having four types of meaning for individuals: 1. paid work (contracted time); 2. household/family care (committed time); 3. personal time; and 4. free time. These are strongly related to the role distinctions of worker, spouse, and parent and can further complicate the ways in which paid work time and free-time activities can interact.

Further in the study they show a diagram depicting Interrelations across the four types of time. In the diagram they relate Contracted work and Committed time to the notion of ‘productivity’, Personal time to the notion of ‘maintenance’ and Free time as ‘expressive’. And they also mention a floating fifth time category as ‘travel’ as that affects how other notions interact with each other.

So, how is this discussion important? We as humans as ambitious and want to be productive and also be seen as being productive. So we often prioritize things that don’t allow for expression, but our desires to express and enjoy ourselves always bear significant space in our decision making process. Probably this demonstrates the rut that we constantly go through in our minds. And this is a lot. So any tool that we use should not allow for any distraction away from this rut. Pen and paper used to be the best pals, but with changing times the tools also need to advance and support the ecosystem. There are just too many things one has to handle that reduces the impact pen and paper used to have.

The application Clear has a razor sharp focus the cues that can allow for immediate immersion into our own thought process and be effective at the end of the day.


Other ideas:

Detailed design elements of the artifact itself

Designer’s background and how that has influenced the design

Creativity | Focus on thinking process – new ideas | Novel tools enhance creativity – Adobe

Principles of Aesthetics as a lens to look at the design