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iPhone and the Dog Ears User Experience Model


I was at the Steve Jobs keynote. And like everyone else in that room, I was thrilled by the iPhone demo. The UI is spectacular, but for reasons you can't see in a photograph, or get from the online keynote video. The best part of the iPhone is simply this: the UI is alive. By implementing one of the key principles of animation, the designers have shown us the stunning power of using Dog Ears as a user experience model.

In the real world, we have physics. We have inertia. Things bounce and stretch and squash. We have follow through. Imagine a dog with long floppy ears sprinting for a frisbee. Now picture the dog coming to a screeching halt in front of the disc. What happens to the ears? They keep going. Then they "bounce" back. And it's a big part of what separates a good animator from an amateur.


Even if you don't notice it consciously, an animation (even of just words) feels more appealing and alive when things move in the virtual world more like things do in the real world (or even more exaggerated). It feels more lyrical, fluid... less abrupt. And that is what the iPhone UI does.

Yes the touch-screen is cool. And the multi-touch gestures are so very minority-reportish. But it wasn't the scrolling that made my jaw drop... it was what happened when the scrolling stopped: it bounced! The thing actually bounced if you flicked it hard and fast enough to send it flying up to the very (or bottom) of the list before it had a chance to slow down and stop. It actually bounced. And until you've seen it slow down and bounce, you haven't felt that visceral, life-like, fluidity.

Someone was quoted as saying, "You had me at scrolling." Well, for me it was, "You had me at what happened when the scrolling stopped."

And bouncing wasn't the only nod to a fluid user-experience... it also uses audio fades when you're listening to music (iPod mode) and a call comes in. Think about it. I attended a talk by Marc Canter in the mid-90's, and it changed the way I think about sound and users forever. In that talk, he railed against us--the interactive CD-ROM developers--for committing one of the worst sound sins--chopping the sound off when a user navigated from one place to another. He demonstrated it by making a huge verbal ruckus and then--dead silence--then back to a huge verbal ruckus. It was annoying. It was stressful. It was what we were doing to our users.

And all it took to fix it was a fade! An f'n fade. Not a long, elaborate, complicated cross-fade. Just a very short fade-out of the audio as you left an area where the sound was not going to continue.

From that moment on, I became hyper sensitive to how stressful it is when sound--especially loud sound--just cuts off. And now, if I'm listening to anything--music, a DVD movie, whatever--if I have to stop the sound for some reason, I attenuate. I grab the knob and rotate it to the left. It's one of those tiny gestures that my companions might not even notice, but on some level they appreciate it.

Life is abrupt enough as it is.

Why not reduce some of that for our users? If we can make a user experience where things don't come to a slamming, smashing, halt but instead move and fade as lyrically as a dancer, we've just added something to their life.

Try it. Turn the music up in your car or home stereo to a pretty strong (but good) volume. Ask a friend to join you. At one point, when they're in the flow, cut the sound completely. Kill the power. Notice their response. Now do it again, but this time fade the volume.

This is not a trivial thing.

And although Apple and the iPhone certainly aren't the first to use this kind of "absence-of-abruptness" to the user experience, they've done it in an elegant, subtle, flow-supporting, enchanting way.

Consider it UI research to sit in a dog park and watch some ears. Big, floppy, ears.

[FIY: after leaving San Francisco, I was home for less than 12 hours before getting on a plane for Australia, where I am now for the wonderful linux.au conference. So, my apologies for being off-line for the last week. It looks like I have a decent connection here in my hotel, so I should be checking in regularly again while I'm here. And oh GOD how I love summer. It was below zero F as I left Denver.]

Posted by Kathy on January 14, 2007 | Permalink


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Awesome post. It's a pleasure to read your writing.

Posted by: John Windsor | Jan 14, 2007 7:45:29 PM

Hey everyone, I just noticed this 37 signals post:
iPhone not touchy feely, that talks about an area where the iPhone does NOT act "alive" -- you touch it, but it doesn't touch back. Jason (and a zillion good commenters) discuss the implications of an interface with no tactile feedback. Of course, there are plenty of people who don't want their phone to "touch them back" (we've all had our phones 'butt-dial' accidentally). But it's an interesting discussion, and a trade-off.

I focused on visuals and audio, but those are only two of our senses. (I wonder what it smells like?)

Thanks John... and I hope you're holding up in all that snow I left behind in Colorado. ; )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 14, 2007 8:08:38 PM

In computer UI, I would hate such a thing. If I stop something, I want it stopped NOW. I cannot wait for the half-a-second cross fade to do the job for me. But after reading this article, I am not so sure. Time to get a friend and do some usability testing.

Posted by: Binny V A | Jan 14, 2007 8:39:25 PM

Just go to YouTube and watch any of the ads for Newton.

A demo by Apple always looks good. In practice things might not be as good as people wish them to be.

Not only the touch screen does not give 'feedback' on key pressed as normal keys, but I wonder how easy it actually is to press the buttons on the QWERTY keyboard?!?

I was disturbed by the readyness of most people to take what Jobs says as pure truth instead of marketing talk which it is.

'Of course, it runs OS X' says Steve. Of course it does not, is the truth. The code is based on OS X, alright, but unless it is the real deal, it does not matter at all to consumers - they can't run their OS X apps.

And what's with the uber-innovative design? LG KE850 looks just like the iPhone and the UMPCs are just like the iPhone but with intentionally larger sizes (though running a Windows - the very real deal).

Posted by: Boris Yankov | Jan 14, 2007 8:51:37 PM

I've noticed that Pandora does the little fade when you change songs or channels.

Such a good considerate thing to do for users, and so encouraging that a dev team deliberately implemented it!

Same - IMHO - with panels sliding in and out, rather than just instantly appearing.

Great, great post and an excellent blog Kathy. Have a great time here in Australia!


Posted by: Tim | Jan 14, 2007 9:01:20 PM

what happened to you?

Posted by: apoc | Jan 14, 2007 9:14:18 PM

When I worked at Apple in the 80s/90s, the UI designers were certainly aware of the relevance of animation techniques to computer interfaces. "The Illusion of Life: Disney Animation" made the rounds, and people had impassioned discussions about how to apply things like squash-and-stretch, anticipation, and follow-through to action in the Finder. You can see evidence of this in the modern Mac UI in dock poofs, the genie effect and coverflow. Though unfortunately many of the ideas I heard that would have made the Mac more lively and engaging seem to have been set aside. It's good to hear that the iPhone UI makes greater use of animation and cartoony techniques. I look forward to seeing it in action!

Posted by: josh | Jan 14, 2007 11:04:04 PM

YES! You said Minority Report! Exactly what I've been telling everyone for the last week. :D

Posted by: Devon Shaw | Jan 14, 2007 11:40:25 PM

If you'd like to see UI even more similar to "Minority Report" than the iPhone, check out this video clip.

Posted by: Anthony | Jan 14, 2007 11:59:32 PM

In my own experience silence can be deafening. I think it comes down to people not liking change. The contrast between a loud noise and silence is just that - too much change in too little time.

Posted by: Martin | Jan 15, 2007 2:21:53 AM

Great post - interesting points about design. Makes me thing of Donald Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things. Interestingly, George Siemens is also talking about design today, albeit from a different slant. Either way, design has to be looked at from the user perspective, and it's all too easy for us to forget that things are not always as obvious to the user as they are to us.

Posted by: Karyn Romeis | Jan 15, 2007 3:25:01 AM

Two points - you were reacting to someone else using the phone and if you were using the phone, you'd be more likely moving on to your next finger movements rather than registering a bouncing scroll. There are direct parallels with the apple machine with which I'm writing this - I have noticed the fluidity of certain visual transitions for sure, but the feature that I really notice every time is the tactility of the keyboard.

Posted by: John Dodds | Jan 15, 2007 4:18:33 AM

I really hope there's an uninterrupted music listening mode, for those times when you just want to retreat to a private place and not be disturbed by those frickin retards trying to call you.

Posted by: Mike Peter Reed | Jan 15, 2007 4:27:52 AM

Nice post as always Kathy. I think your analogy can be carried through to other media too. When I edit articles I try and prevent authors from suddenly switching information delivery from one section to the next simply by starting a new section heading. It's the same thing as the audio. What I prefer is a fade - a sentence or two summarizing what's just been talked about and easing into the next one by summarizing what's to come. "Dog ears as literary flow" in this case - absence of abruptness. This got me thinking - what would be an analogy for an informational web site. Perhaps that's why one should have well written hyperlink text - it's the "fade" that comes before the abruptness (sans Ajax) of a new page.

Posted by: Jon Mountjoy | Jan 15, 2007 4:51:06 AM

Kathy, as a somewhat-longtime lurker, I couldn't help notice how everyone is saying "it does this" "it does that" and not "I can to this" and "I can do that" -- including yourself in this post. In which terms would Apple rather you blog? Once you have the phone in hand all you'll really be able to say is "I can make phone calls." Well -- you can do that with your current phone. Why does this phone ROCK if it only does what your current phone does already?

Posted by: Carl | Jan 15, 2007 5:39:45 AM

Boris, design is not how it looks, it's how it works ;)
I think these are Steve's words.

Posted by: Rimantas | Jan 15, 2007 6:00:06 AM

Spot on! If this kind of UI candy turns you on, as it does me, you should look at what Compiz/Beryl are doing on the Linux desktop. Very nice indeed!

Posted by: Robert Jones | Jan 15, 2007 6:35:31 AM

I have to agree with an earlier poster, the first thing I do on a new Mac (or indeed a PC) is to turn off any trace of animation, bounciness, fading, whatever. Yes it's entertaining and cool for about five minutes but then it just gets in my way and I want it gone. Perhaps its a flow thing : animations certainly distract me from what I am doing. So, yes, it looks great to an observer but maybe is not so relevant to the direct user.

Posted by: L. | Jan 15, 2007 7:25:10 AM

I'm not sure why users can't have it both ways. It's probably the case that *some* (most?) users will be comfortable with the fluid, dog ears approach to UI; on the other hand, some (most?) users will be more comfortable with a quick, abrubt response from the UI.

Ultimately, it seems to me that the choice should be left up to the user, whenever possible.

It always amazes me in the line of work I'm in (education) how often we try to guess what people want or what they're thinking, instead of asking. . .

Obviously, you can't build a UI with infinite choices (yet), but whenever possible it seems to make sense to empower users to make the choice about how they want to interact with technology.

Posted by: Martha | Jan 15, 2007 7:54:12 AM

In a UI, I'd think you'd want the "dog ears" to be almost inperceptable. Things like dock magnification in OSX is exagerated to look flashy, I have mine turned down to almost minimum, but not off completely. That small bit of magnification is extremely helpful in efficiently clicking an icon. The way dialog boxes slide down from the top of a window is also well done; it basically takes the same amount of *perceived* time for the dialog to slide as it would for it to just suddenly appear, but the motion helps you notice it instead of accidentally missing its appearance; this makes it more efficient to use.


Posted by: Reed | Jan 15, 2007 8:50:43 AM

Man, do you "get it"! Great post.

Posted by: Tom B | Jan 15, 2007 9:08:34 AM

This might explain why Vitalic's Poney video is so interesting to watch. :P

Posted by: Emily Y. | Jan 15, 2007 12:47:04 PM

Kathy after reading your blog for many months, this is your best post yet. Fantastic insights; thanks so much for sharing them with us.

Posted by: Todd Sieling | Jan 15, 2007 1:58:57 PM

Excellent discussion, folks, thank-you.

One overall comment: I believe Reed brought up the key point I failed to make -- that this "animation" effect is not meant to be something you *notice* (that takes you OUT of flow) but rather something that is natural. So, you have to watch the demo to recognize that "animation does not equal slower" (just as "fade does not equal slower").

I worked as an animator, and a (really bad) sound designer, so I LOOK for those things and consciously notice them. But to an end-user, the scroll-to-the-end bounce is simply a natural way to let you know you DID hit the top or bottom, and I think it probably will be imperceptible to most people... it's not even something I've heard people talking about who've seen the demo, and certainly not something people have called out as being noticeable or annoying. It's just part of the natural cues that help orient you in the interface.

Carl: excellent point, but I don't think there's any way to hear "I can" for certain until we (the faithful) can hold it in our koolaid-stained hands. This was more like evaluating a motion picture or something, for me -- something you *watch*, and experience as an observer, which you're right -- is very different from a user.

Only real-life experience with the thing will tell us whether it works or not, and given that this is first-generation, I'm sure it will evolve... Apple's done a great job in the past with this... for the most part.


Boris: "'Of course, it runs OS X' says Steve. Of course it does not, is the truth. The code is based on OS X, alright, but unless it is the real deal, it does not matter at all to consumers - they can't run their OS X apps."

No argument from me on that one. And you're right -- end-users won't appreciate what that must mean, although every developer in the room (and who has seen the announcements) was of course speculating on the subset of APIs, what tools could we use to develop on it, followed by the horrible thought that perhaps we will NOT be able to develop for it!!!

I am hoping * hoping *hoping that the Apple dev community will put up a huge battle for at least creating iPhone-specific apps. I have a very hard time wondering why they wouldn't, but that depends on whether the iPhone is framed as a tiny computer (and the "OSX" comments are encouraging) -- in which case Apple will not only allow but *evangelize* developers as they've done on the Mac OR if it's framed as an iPod-on-steroids, in which case the third-party developers might be screwed. And in my opinion, if the developers are screwed, it's the users who suffer.

Merlin on
43 folders has already begun to lead the fight for this, and we should all support that!

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Jan 15, 2007 4:05:55 PM

I'm noticing support for similar things starting to show up in web toolkits like Dojo. They have a widget called "Accordion" that acts like several windows stacked vertically, and only one can be open at a time; the others are all collapsed to titlebars. If you click on the titlebar of one of the collapsed panes, it _slides_ open while the currently open one _slides_ closed (so the whole thing maintains a constant size). Compared to the more traditional version of simply toggling the display attribute of the elements' styles, so the one closes and the next opens (nearly) instantaneously, the overall effect of the sliding much less jarring and much more intuitive. I think we will see things like this (and similar UI principles) becoming more and more widespread on the Web as DHTML and Ajax become increasingly popular (and increasingly supported by browsers; I'm still naive enough to hope that someday they'll all--or at least _one_ of them will--provide full support for things like W3C compliant CSS and DOM ;)

Posted by: Joel J. | Jan 15, 2007 4:14:26 PM

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