The need for speed: responsive scrolling

One of the things I try to do in my modern technological life is to be platform agnostic and try lots of different brands of hardware and software. My hope is that this keeps me sharp and aware of the greatest possible number of design trends and innovations per time spent. Practically speaking, this means that every once in a while I pick up an Android device, since most of my personal technology use has been Apple-made for the past few years (I use Windows full-time at work and for gaming at home). There are some cool things about Android, and the wide-open control and open-source feel appeal to me on a few different levels. I like widgets, customizability, and the breadth of options that are free development ecosystem provides.

Every time I force myself to do this though, there’s one thing that nags at me constantly. It seems like it should be such a simple thing and yet it’s an aspect of the user experience in which there’s a strange gulf between Apple and everybody else. Most writers would at this point reveal that they’re talking about design and quantity of 3rd-party apps, but I won’t go there. Instead, I want to talk about one very simple thing responsive scrolling. Scrolling a text region, a web page, or a list on an iOS device is a beautiful experience, where the distance between you and the machine melts away and it feels like you’re actually manipulating the data itself with your finger. The granularity and speed of the scrolling are such that it feels like sliding a physical object with no friction. You don’t have to spend brain cycles thinking about what scrolling action you need to take to get the result you want.

Inexplicably, I have never seen scrolling behavior like this on any other device. Even a fast new (at the time) Nexus 7 was very clearly doing a lot of chugging to keep up with scrolls on a complex page. There’s always a delay of at least a few seconds between finger movement and scrolling of the view. I don’t know whether this is a symptom of a patent of Apple’s that nobody wants to license, an inability of app developers to keep data processing off the main thread, or even some kind of architecture limitation of the OS. Everyone once in a while I pick up a Nook in Barnes & Noble or a Galaxy phone in the AT&T store, pull up a website, and scroll. So far no Android device has passed the same test that my iPhone 3G did in 2009, despite processors at least five times as powerful. This is hard to really see in a video, but the closest I could find was here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=ETIayifu7Bw#t=56s.

I believe this difference is a representative microcosm of the type of reasons that people choose Apple devices. It doesn’t seem like there’s that much difference in hardware specs, in application functionality, or in many cases even beauty of the UI itself (I’m a big fan of 4.0+ Android), but there’s a certain level of user interaction quality that other manufacturers just seem unable to match. This is definitely disappointing to me as somebody who supports open source software and worries about the close nature of Apple’s system. It seems like such a shame to let this difference in polish tilt the balance. Then again, maybe it’s a lost cause and the same designers and engineers who could fix this in Android have already given up and gone over to the other side.

Takeaway for me in my own design and development: speed and responsiveness matters a lot more than we often think. I believe this type UI performance is one of the most unappreciated critical factors that customers consider when choosing hardware and software, maybe because it’s hard to quantify in ways that aren’t very misleading (mHz and processor cores have little real relationship to responsiveness). Time to go optimize some software – and hopefully not have to change platforms to get it done!

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