Socially-Transmitted Functionality

Jared Spool

October 12th, 2011

Pull-to-Refresh is all the rage in mobile apps. Take something like the Twitter client. In the timeline, if you want to see if any new messages have been posted, you pull down on the list with your thumb, then release. The gesture signals the app to check with Twitter’s servers to see if anything new has been posted.

I asked (on the Twitters, of course) what was the first application to use the pull-to-refresh gesture. My world of followers suggested it was the original Tweetie app, which was then acquired by the Twitter overlords. Since Tweetie, it’s shown up in a bunch of apps on my iPhone. I’m told it’s also on apps all over those Android phones that everyone talks about.

What’s interesting about the pull-to-refresh gesture is how natural it feels. Need more stuff, pull down on the list. Very simple. Very intuitive.

Well, it’s only intuitive if you know about it. You see, the problem is the gesture has no affordance (a hint or clue that the function exists). There’s no way to know where pull-to-refresh is implemented. Anyone who has learned the gesture has probably experienced the pull-to-do-nothing function in all the apps where it’s not implemented. Suddenly, something that’s novel has become a basic expectation, just like Kano taught us it would.

If you didn’t know about pull-to-refresh, how would you learn it’s in your app? For the most point, it requires you learn it from someone else.

Someone who leans over and says, “Hey, did you know you can update your list by just pulling down on your thumb?”

“No Way!” is the usual response, followed by the now-common thumb maneuver. “Cool!” is what comes next.

And it happens. Just like that. We’ve just transmitted the functionality, socially.

Pull-to-refresh isn’t the only socially-transmitted functionality. In years past, it’s how I’ve seen people learn about drag-and-drop in applications. It’s how they learn about special keys, like F5 for refresh or F1 for help. A lot of functionality has been transmitted from one person to the next, socially.

There’s nothing wrong with socially-transmitted functionality, as long as it’s not something the user needs (they can use the design just fine without it) and you have users that talk with each other. The problem comes from when you, as a designer, know about an functionality that only transmits socially, it’s hard to realize that people around you haven’t caught on yet. Just because it’s in your pattern library doesn’t mean your users will know about it.

[A note about accessibility: socially-transmitted functionality is rarely accessible in itself, as it usually has no way for a screen reader to work. For accessibility reasons, you probably want alternative access.]

In a recent site visit, I watched users struggle with navigating around a web app because the return-to-main-menu function was a not-obvious icon that looked like decoration to the untrained eye. All the developers observing the visit knew about it, but this collection of users hadn’t been infected with the knowledge of the functionality, and therefore didn’t use it. Their alternative: sign out of the app and back in again, which returned them to the top-level menu. (Boy, did that ever elicit a sigh of wonderment from the observation party!)

Do you have socially-transmitted functionality in your design? Are they things that users can live without and will be delighted when they hear about it from a friend?

6 Responses to “Socially-Transmitted Functionality”

  1. Jeff Chausse Says:

    The iPhone has no scroll bars or other indication that content lies below the fold – how is basic scrolling capability any less discoverable?

    The iPhone’s “bouncy” scrolling behavior makes it almost impossible to not accidentally discover “pull to refresh” – which is part of its genius. Makes the Mail app feel completely broken for lacking it.

  2. Walt Buchan Says:

    Really? iOS has a little bounce/stretch when you scroll up or down to far to fast. That’s how I found the refresh functionality. The bounce stretch was so novel I used to play with it. The fact it did something useful was a bonus. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Thanks for the thought provoking post. Walt

  3. Simon Says:

    The imitators might not have any affordance, but Tweetie/Twitter on iOS have had from the outset.

    They present an instruction box at the end of the list being scrolled inviting you to keep pulling down which gets quickly replaced when you so do.

  4. Jared Spool Says:

    Even thought it feels like pull-to-refresh is something people should easily discover, we’ve seen in our research that many people don’t.

    Most that know about it learned about it somewhere else.

  5. Hugues Says:

    For a lot of user, this kind of functionalities can also be learned “by mistake”. For example the “Pull to Refresh” gesture really is close to the scrolling gesture. Thus some end users can learn it just by seeing how the system reacts to an occasional excessive scrolling.

  6. Ed Staub Says:

    In late 1990, we shipped our new Windows 3.0 product document management product (Keyfile), which used a lot of drag-and-drop, the hotness du jour, if you’d never seen a Mac during the previous six years. At the product launch, during the pitch, I overheard a woman behind me whisper to her companion,

    What does he mean by dragon droppings?

    Some folks won’t get the message for a long time.

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