Tap Vs Swipe: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

There are many trends in mobile interactions and at User Insight we’ve seen all of them in one way or another. Part of what we do is look for trends, what’s common, where are people struggling and what’s successful. Many of the interactions and designs boil down to a single decision, such as: tap a button or swipe an area? There are benefits and drawbacks to both.

I want to break down some of the trends and features we’re seeing with both interactions so you can make an informed decision when you need to.

The Good
The biggest benefit to taping a button is the affordance provided by a button. Not only does the inclusion of a button provide the visual representation of the ability to tap, but it also provides you, as the designer, an opportunity to convey what the functionality is through iconography, text, or both.

The Bad
A button has a single interaction and therefore typically a single function per button. Any additional uses of a button like double tap or tap and hold, could easily be hidden from the user. Therefore, unlike swiping, where directions can have meaning, buttons don’t have as many options.

The Ugly
Buttons. Buttons everywhere. Sure buttons and icons provide affordances and information, but in a mobile design there is limited space. A page can quickly become cluttered which can limit the Users’ ability to take in any of the information being provided simply because they are distracted and unable to focus. This dilemma often causes designers to compartmentalize functionality onto views, menus, tabs, or other tricks of the trade, which amount to modes and can be a step in the wrong direction if the functionality groupings are not properly researched for proper grouping and naming.

The Good
Swiping is a natural interaction in particular for moving items around. It allows for direct manipulation of the on screen objects. Swiping doesn’t have to clutter the interface like buttons do. This frees up space and allows a good designer to focus the Users’ attention by leaving the interface clean and readable. Swiping has become a very popular convention. As such, many users expect the ability to do so and anticipate the places where it will be available to them. Swiping is also directional, and could theoretically house as many functions as there are directions, although the four basic directions (up, down, left, and right) are the most prevalent.

The Bad
Many times designers do not provide enough affordance for swiping. Our research has shown that often the only thing that causes people to swipe is the knowledge of the convention of swiping itself. Interfaces rely on indicators of more items available, but this is no different from the indicators that would be used during automatic scrolling, which leaves something to be desired. Users who are unfamiliar with the convention of swiping may completely overlook the interaction and miss features and functionality because of it. Because of the lack of affordance, Users guess and develop expectations in the void of evidence. When their expectation is not met, they can be disappointed and even become frustrated when they believe there is a mistake in the system.

The Ugly
Overuse. When lots of elements on the page are “swipeable” users can easily make the mistake of swiping when they meant to scroll or scrolling when they meant to swipe. Some companies have chosen to have a broad swipe coming from the edge of the screen be used to switch tabs while a more narrow swipe changes items within the current tab. Users often mistakenly do one instead of the other.

Consider your Users and build for them and test throughout your build process! Pay attention not just to what your Users say, but what they do and how they do it. Interaction design, especially mobile interaction design, is all about balance. If your User base is less familiar with the convention of swiping, then use it sparingly and pay extra attention to the affordances you’re providing. If your system provides complex functionality through buttons, then you may want to consider ways to properly compartmentalize the options and take opportunities to offload select features to swiping interactions in order to keep the core functionality clean and clear.

Are you faced with this type of decision and not sure where to start? Stuck somewhere in the middle of a build? Our focus is bringing the voice of your users to the forefront. We know what people want and more importantly we know how to design and build to meet those needs. Do you want to be good, or better yet, great – call us; we can help you get it right.