2011 and cross platform consistency

The enthusiastic response to this month’s iPad 2 launch made me reflect on how far technology has come in recent years: First smart phone computing went mainstream with 2007’s iPhone, followed by tablet computing’s exponential growth years later in 2010 with the iPad. The emergence of these new markets caused many web sites and apps last year to cater to three distinct platforms: desktops, smart phones, and tablets.

I’d argue in recent months we’ve reached another turning point: With advances in technology like cloud syncing and fast mobile processors the wall of separation between each aforementioned platform is breaking down. Whether in the office with my 30 inch display, at home on the couch with the iPad or on the subway with my iPhone, I’m not just doing work (writing, code editing, news consumption), I’m doing the same work. That’s a big paradigm shift from 2009 or 2010. Put another way, in 2011, cross platform coverage isn’t enough; consistency between those platforms emerges as a more critical factor.

Note carbon copying interfaces between platforms isn’t the answer; good design factors in each platform’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, feature sets should be pared down to match what’s best for the device and keyboard actions on the desktop should translate into intuitive gestures on the tablet and smart phone. Nevertheless, platform consistency means more than a proper translation of the right features, gestures and data; it’s interacting with those features in a consistent way.

Two excellent examples of platform consistency are found in Echofon and Reeder, my apps of choice for Twitter and RSS, respectively. The apps are in highly competitive and crowded markets where visual polish runs high, feature sets are similar and public attention focuses mostly on “official” options (twitter.com, Google Reader’s web site.) Yet both apps have a loyal fan base with solid revenues and downloads; I’d argue platform consistency is a significant factor behind each app’s success.

Reeder has its core UI built on a familiar three pane interface, the left most pane containing Google Reader RSS folders or feeds, the middle containing articles and the right reserved for any one article’s content. It?s a consistent interface across all three platforms: If I’m on my iPhone, because of limited screen size I only see one of the three panes at a time, but visual cues and animations make it very clear which pane I’m at. For the iPad and desktop versions I see all three panes at once. In addition, within one article a click or tap on the same side icon on the reveals the same set of export and share options (e.g. email, Twitter, Instapaper) regardless of platform.

Consistency factors heavily into Echofon’s design as well. The Twitter app keeps functionality divided into five core areas: home, mentions, direct messages, lists, and search. Each area is represented by an icon, the placement and visual treatment identical across all platforms. Individual tweets within a view are presented with the exact same information on the iPad and desktop versions (tweet content, user icon, inline images, time, client), with only the client information hidden from the iPhone because of limited space.

In short, I move between platforms on Echofon and Reeder and remain confident in what to expect; it’s a significant productivity booster. Expect many more apps to factor platform consistency more heavily in future revisions, especially with the much anticipated (and, while on the subject of consistency, more iOS-like) Mac OS X Lion release this summer.