Better Multitasking on the iPad

Federico Viticci recently noted that people often criticize the iOS keyboard for the wrong thing:

Personally, I believe the iOS keyboard is great for writing, because it’s just a normal keyboard, but iOS text selection is in serious need of an update, because it feels outdated.

This struck a chord with me, and it got me thinking about how people confuse the problem with multitasking on the iPad.

Criticism about the iPad’s multitasking often focuses on having only one app on screen at a time or the inability to run apps in the background.[1] I think the real problem is that switching apps is cumbersome. Solve this, and most practical complaints about multitasking would disappear.

It’s easy to find examples of tasks which are more arduous on an iPad than on a traditional desktop computer. Consider booking a flight. It often involves coordination and research across email, calendar, a web browser, and a travel app like Kayak or Hipmunk.

Is this easier on a traditional computer because you can have multiple windows open? On an average sized screen there’s not enough space to show even 2 complete windows at once, so it’s not that you can use multiple apps at the same time particularly well.[2] And yet using a laptop can enable a fluidity that you can’t replicate on an iPad.

The problem becomes clearer when you think about switching between apps. Currently the iPad has four methods of doing so:

  1. Go to home screen and tap on app
  2. Double tap home button to reveal app switcher and tap on app
  3. Swipe up to reveal app switcher and tap on app
  4. Swipe sideways to move back/forwards through app history

#1–3 involve at least two actions every time you switch apps. #4 is great for moving back to your last used app,[3] but doesn’t scale if you are using 3 or more apps, like in the flight booking example. You have to move through your app history one at a time, and the order of your apps changes with each switch.

In contrast, look at how easy it is to switch apps using a traditional GUI:

  1. Click on an app in the OS X dock/Windows taskbar
  2. Click any exposed part of a background window
  3. Cmd+tab/alt+tab to an app

#1–2 have a huge speed advantage over the iPad equivalents as they involve one click and the targets are always visible on screen. Also, Fitt’s Law is in play with the dock/taskbar. #3 is somewhat like swiping sideways on the iPad, except you can see the order of all apps in an overlay instead of blindly moving from one to the next. As a result of these methods, working among multiple apps can be very efficient.

Based on the above, I think improving multi-app tasks on the iPad hinges on finding a solution to app switching that solves for two criteria:

  1. You must be able to switch to a specific app immediately (i.e. navigating through your app history one at a time is not an acceptable solution).
  2. Switching to an app must involve only one tap or gesture.

I have a couple potential solutions. The first is to allow you to lock the app switcher on screen (the one that appears when you double-tap the home button). When locked, it would move to the top of the screen so as not to get in the way of the keyboard, and apps would shrink to accommodate it. This way hit targets for recent apps would be available on screen at all times in order to switch quickly. The problem with this approach is that it requires you to predict when you’re going to frequently move between apps so that you can preemptively lock the app switcher on screen.

The second possibility is to use a continuous gesture to bring up an app switcher and select an app. For example, a two finger swipe from the side of the screen would display a temporary overlay, and you would select a different app by continuing to swipe across. Lifting your fingers off the screen would switch to the app you had selected in the overlay.[4] Using two fingers would be less awkward than the four finger gestures that are currently used, and using one continuous motion would provide a speed advantage. The disadvantage to this approach is that, as with most gestures, it isn’t discoverable.

The above proposals aren’t ideal, but as with finding the solution to any problem, half the challenge is making sure you’ve identified the correct issue. I think it would be interesting to shift the discussion on multitasking to how to make multi-app tasks better.

  1. Of course, in most cases this isn’t a valid complaint as iOS allows a variety of processes to run in the background. Hopefully periodic data syncing will be added to this list of processes in the near future.  ↩

  2. Snap Multitasking in Windows 8 is an interesting approach. It allows you to pull up a second app in minimized mode next to your main app. The problem is that only some apps can scale to a tall and narrow sidebar dimension and remain useful. In addition, this feature is disabled for screens smaller than 1366x768 because there isn’t enough space for it, so the iPad’s small dimensions makes this concept a nonstarter. But it does solve for some things which the iPad is particularly bad at, like instant messaging.  ↩

  3. With the caveat that the swipe direction is confusing.  ↩

  4. Ideally this behavior would replace either the swipe up or side swipe app switcher. There is no need to add yet another app-switching interface to iOS.  ↩