KISS – The Design Philosophy Behind iPIM™

The Chocolate Adventure

A friend came to me a few months ago and said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, right? So please try to add Chocolate to this grocery shopping list App I just purchased”.

He handed me his iPhone and there it was, bright and shining, with a nice looking yellow notebook in the middle of the screen. I created a new page and touched the Plus button, expecting to be able to add Chocolate the easy way.

Well, it turned out not to be that easy after all. The application had a list of some 20 categories, things like “Milk, Eggs and Salads” or “Pets and Household”. Where for Pete’s sake did they bury Chocolate? I had to browse several times through the list, scrolling up and down, until I decided to check under “Snacks and Cereal”. So I touched, and a new list of over 50 items appeared. Luckily enough, Chocolate was indeed there. Not just chocolate: Almond Chocolate, Bittersweet Chocolate, Milk Chocolate, White Chocolate, and – for some bizarre reason - a single brand name which I won’t repeat here. And I didn’t even have to scroll too much down the list, s ince Chocolate happens to start with a C. Lucky me.

So I touched Bittersweet Chocolate, and lo and behold – another screen popped up, this time with a scroll wheel saying (in this order): Item, Kg, Gram, Bottle, Package, Unit, Liter, Slice and millilitre (I kid you not), and with two other wheels - the left one with numbers between 0 and 1000 (well, after 30 they started to increment by 5 and then by 10), and the right one with decimal parts between .1 and .9 and also with some fractions like 1/4 and 2/3. I didn’t realize that you could by a 2/3 of a bottle of Bittersweet Chocolate. Oh well, what do you know.

I was fortunate to have Bittersweet Chocolate on the list. But suppose I wanted to purchase something which isn’t, say Organic Onions (they may already be there, life is too short for me to find out). Adding a new item involves filling up a rather complex form, in the correct category of course, and only then can I add it to my shopping list.

“Do you think”, my friend asked, “that it makes sense to spend more time preparing the shopping list than actually shopping? All I wanted was to not forget Chocolate when I go shopping!”

The iPIM™ Way

This shopping list is a typical programmer-oriented application. Programmer-oriented as opposed to user-oriented. Let’s write down all the features we can think of, and then let’s think some more and add some more features, and then let’s organize everything in a neat database, and then let’s create multilevel lists for the user to select from, and finally let’s wrap it all up around a nice-looking yellow notebook.

That’s exactly what we tried to avoid in iPIM™.

What we tried to create is a Personal Information Manager that you’ll spend as little time with as possible. We believe that our main information manager is still our brain. All we need our mobile devices to do is help us remember. If I want to buy some chocolate, all I need and want to do is write down “chocolate” (or “choc”) and make sure that it pops up at the right time. I know what kind of chocolate I want, I know how much I want (and if I don’t – I can write down “3 Choc”). All I need is a hint. The PIM should serve as my assistant, not as my master or replacement.

There are quite a few thins we did in iPIM™ to meet this goal. And we believe that the result – even if it may not have all the features that the very many programmer-oriented applications out there have – is just what you, me and most people need: a good combination of power and simplicity.

Here are just some of the things that make iPIM™ unique.

Grid Layout. Most applications show multiple data items in simple lists that can be scrolled up and down. On the iPhone, all you can place in such a list is 5-6 entries per screen (or considerably less in landscape mode) with quite a lot of wasted space.

In iPIM™ we decided to use a grid layout. This lets us place 10-12 items on one iPhone screen, and many more on the iPad.

Grid layout has been around since day one. This is how application icons are arranged on the device. We took it a step forward and eliminated the space between items, making the most out of the limited screen size.

Item Thumbnails. iPIM™ uses the same grid layout to display thumbnails of data items. In many cases, when the item doesn’t have too much information, looking at the thumbnail may be enough, without even having to view the item details.

Wide Choice of Forms and Data Types. Sometimes the best way to express your idea is by typing it down. Sometimes it’s easier to take a photo, or to record a voice memo, or to just draw a word or a simple image with your finger. iPIM™ lets you select from a useful set of built-in forms suitable for everyday needs, or create your own using a rich collection of over 20 data types.

Streamlined, Intuitive Data Forms. When we designed our forms and data types, we tried to strip out all the nonessentials so that entering and viewing data will be as fast and clear as possible. This involved not just screen design, there’s a lot going on behind the scene to simplify things from the user’s point of view.

Careful use of colors and fonts. We studied a lot of color combination researches, and conducted some of our own, to make sure that text and images are clear and easy to read. We also noticed that the built-in system font is not ideal, so we introduced a special font that is much easier to read on small screens.

Keep It Simple, Sir

(Sorry for the apparent gender innuendo, it still beats the alternative…)

The very first sentence in the Human Interface Principles chapter of Apple’s iOS Human Interface Guidelines says:

A great user interface follows human interface design principles that are based on the way people – users – think and work.

This was our major consideration when we designed iPIM™: make you, our users, as productive as possible with as less effort as possible. Not everything needs to be bells and whistles, sometimes Simple is the right way to go.