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Where next for Mobile navigation?

With Apple’s WWDC conference keynote starting just an hour or so after I write this - and big changes promised across all its operating systems - I’m particularly interested in what could potentially be the unveiling of iOS10; what alterations they introduce to their mobile UI and how apps are navigated.

Folklore dictates that Steve Jobs insisted the iPhone screen size always allows the user to reach anywhere on the screen with their thumb, while holding the device in a natural way. Tim Cook’s Apple has since seen the release of the ‘Plus’ devices, meaning larger screens and often out-of-reach navigational elements. Apple introduced a workaround of double-tapping the ‘home’ button to slide content down so the top is easily reachable, but to designers like me this feels like a sticking-plaster rather than an elegant solution. It leaves an ugly blank space at the top of the screen and has no sense of integration with the rest of the OS.

This relic of placing the navigational elements at the top of the screen has bled through to mobile web design, working in conjunction with the slightly confusing 3-line ‘hamburger’ navigation to befuddle mobile users. It seems the penny is starting to drop among the UX community that this is an illogical choice for the user-interface, and that it can simply be reworked in a much more user-centric way to be within thumbing-distance.

It also provides us with an opportunity to sidestep the ‘hamburger’ menu icon and present the users with a reworked version of the desktop nav — spelling menu items out in a clear manner, rather than hiding them away under ambiguous icons. When we begin any project, we hold a client-agency workshop to structure the site in a logical, lean way that will work for both the client and their end-user: this allows us to consider mobile-first as a design choice and ensure the structure can work with fewer top-level menu items, as seen here on a site we’re currently developing…

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I would argue that app designers have a more difficult task. Many apps already feature a toolbar across the bottom, while navigational elements such as ‘search’ or ‘back’ reside at the top; having both these things at the bottom in their current format would require some kind of double-decker toolbar (pretty ugly!), or a full re-think of the standard screen configuration to incorporate all into a single, contextual toolbar.

Time will tell whether Apple’s next iOS update will make this leap, but if not, surely it won’t be long until someone finds the optimal solution, which will surely provide a huge competitive advantage in mobile UI design.

Update 14/06/2016: No change from Apple in the iOS10 updates, which suggests at least another year before this is addressed. Android could potentially get the jump on iOS, however their ‘navigation bar’ already limits options without an even more radical redesign than their Apple counterpart. It looks for now as though no solution is imminent.


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