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Multitasking on iPad should borrow from the Mac

Multitasking on iPad should borrow from the Mac


There was an interesting concept last week, exploring possible improvements to multitasking on iPad.

The argument made by Ryan Christoffel was that the multitasking capabilities of an iPad lack discoverability, and are unnecessarily hard to use even once you know how they work.

I think he’s absolutely right, and I like his context menu idea. However, I also think we shouldn’t necessarily be reinventing the wheel when it comes to a multitasking user interface…

Christoffel said this:

I love the functionality enabled by iPad multitasking, but the current system is unnecessarily complex […]

The current multitasking system involves dragging app icons away from their location in the dock, on the Home screen, or in Search, and dropping them different places on-screen to enter Split View or Slide Over modes. This system can be effective once you’ve mastered it, but the vast majority of iPad users will never do that.

I think that’s absolutely correct. I doubt that the average non-geek iPad owner even knows that Split View and Slide Over exist. Or, if they do, they probably discovered them by accident and struggled to exit the modes.

I do like the context menu idea, but disagree with two aspects of the concept. First, I would have context menus be an extra option, not a replacement for the existing gestures.

Apple should abandon the iPad’s drag and drop-centric multitasking system and go all-in on context menus for controlling multitasking. Drag and drop of content inside apps should remain as-is, but dragging and dropping app icons to engage multitasking should be retired.

Gestures are faster, and while entirely unintuitive, they are easy to remember once you’re used to them, so I wouldn’t take them away. They can effectively be the power user option: the iPad equivalent of keyboard shortcuts.

Second, while recognizing that an iPad is not a Mac, I can’t see any reason to reinvent the wheel when it comes to how you close or expand a window. Why not have the same Close, Minimize, and Full-Screen buttons we have on Mac apps?

Sure, they would be tiny touch targets for a finger, but they could initially be a single touch target that expands into a larger version when tapped, and we then tap the specific button we want. That would still be faster than a context menu, and more intuitive than a whole new set of buttons in a different place.

  • Close: Closes that app, making the remaining one full-screen
  • Minimize: Exits that app, but tapping it again in the dock puts it back where it was (Slide Over or Split Screen, as applicable)
  • Full-screen: Makes that app full-screen, while tapping it again returns to the previous arrangement

So, let’s imagine I have Safari on the left and Notes on the right in Split View. I’m done with Notes. Tap the buttons, then tap Close.

Now I’m temporarily done making notes, but want to continue later. Tap the buttons, tap Minimize. When I want to make another note, tap Notes in the dock and it goes right back where it was. Or I can tap Fullscreen on Safari and then do so again to return to my Split Screen mode.

The one thing the Mac buttons don’t support is to go from Slide Over to Split Screen, so we would need a context menu for that. But Mac buttons would have two benefits:

  • They would already be familiar to anyone who uses both Mac and iPad
  • They would also be pretty intuitive to a Windows user, offering the same three functions

Sure, a Windows user needs to understand what the colors mean, but once you have, they are memorable.

I’m not looking to merge iPadOS and macOS here: I agree with Apple that the devices are most commonly used in different ways, and it makes sense to have different UIs for touch and pointer. But given that multitasking on an iPad is already a hot mess, and needs rethinking, why reinvent the wheel when it comes to buttons?

That’s my view, what’s yours? Please let us know in the comments.

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