Why the World Will Beat a Path to Path

12/20/12Follow @wroush

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keyboard- and mouse-mediated interactions. “If you look at the personal computer revolution, eight to 10 years in, we were still using DOS,” he says. “So I think we fundamentally believe that we are still in the era of social DOS right now.”

Smartphones, with their touchscreens and sensors and the new modes of interaction those allow, offer a way past “social DOS,” in Morin’s view. Path’s radial menu is one example of the way his team has tried to apply design thinking to the new medium. The menu resides in the lower left corner of the Path home screen, where it can be activated with a tap of the thumb. Five smaller circles pop out, allowing users to take a photo; record a location; post a song, movie, or book title; write a text “thought;” or indicate that they’re going to bed. (Sleep and waking notices are the third most popular type of content on Path, Morin says. Photos and thoughts are the top two.)

The radial menu is the product of a painstaking effort to figure out the best way to squeeze all five options into one button. “We knew we wanted to provide very simple interfaces for these key things that people were doing all the time,” Morin says. “If I were to say to you, let’s make a new app that has the ability for you to capture five different types of posts and post them to a feed, your initial thought would be, let’s put them in a grid. Let’s have a menu on the top that slides down and let’s have an icon for each one and let’s put a title next to each one of them, so that people understand what they are.

Path's radial menu

Path's radial menu

“And we did all that. We actually did like 20 different versions of that interface. And it just felt like we were getting in the user’s way. We kept going after, how do we reduce this down to something that’s more simple, more ergonomic, more sensible from a touch perspective”?

The solution was the radial menu, which also includes some nifty animations that lend what Morin calls a more “human” feeling. When you close the menu, the five icons bounce a bit and start to spin before they retract. “You see this used in animation and cartoons all the way back to Disney and the Road Runner,” Morin says. “We actually got some cues from people we know at Pixar on how to do this.”

But while the animations are cute, the main idea behind the radial menu is just to “get out of the user’s way,” Morin says. “We found that giving users multiple buttons just doesn’t work. I think it’s probably kind of the same reason Apple does a single button for going back Home on the iPhone.” (There’s another fascinating design story behind the floating Swiss clock that shows the time stamp for each post on Path. For that, see the full transcript of my interview with Morin.)

Path Is Mobile-First

I’m not one of those people, like former Wired editor Chris Anderson, who think the Web is dead. (It better not be, since I’m writing for it right now.) But I still have a lot of respect for companies that decide to go mobile-first or mobile-only, if only because of the courage required. The up side of mobile is that you can build cool touch-driven interfaces like the radial menu; Morin says that was a big part of the reason he was drawn to smartphones after leaving Facebook. But the down side is that product development is way more difficult on mobile platforms—so you need to really believe in what you’re doing.

Learning to develop for mobile has been “an excruciatingly painful process,” Morin says. A lot of the pain relates to the slow pace of iteration when you’re writing software for distribution through the Apple or Google app stores. “Most of us came from the Web world,” Morin says. “On the Web you were able to move things forward really quickly. If there was a problem you could fix it overnight. At Facebook we would ship every day.”

But in the mobile world, he says, app makers can ship new code every two weeks at the most, which raises the stakes enormously. If there’s a flaw in the code, “you risk two weeks of your users having a buggy experience, which can reduce your app-store rating, which reduces your distribution.”

Other seemingly small things, like introducing new users to an app for the first time, also turn into big challenges in the mobile world. Morin calls this the “new user experience,” or NUX. It’s “immensely hard on mobile, for a very simple reason [that] everyone comes into the app in a totally new state. When you first open up the application we have no idea … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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