Mixing new & familiar

Innovations face many types of obstacles. A common problem is that people can be reluctant to try out new solutions when they involve too much novelty. This means that designers often need to spend a lot of time looking for the right balance between new improvements and something that users are familiar with.

Back in 2010, we were struggling with the idea of 3D graphics for mobile devices. Most users were familiar with 2D UIs, however there seemed to be a lot of interesting design possibilities when using more game-like 3D graphics. We tried out a lot of experimental UIs in 3D, however they seemed too far a leap from the status quo (and sometimes they were just bad). Finally, we found a way to combine traditional 2D visuals with novel 3D graphics into a seamless experience. It was a moment of epiphany, even though the idea of switching between 2D and 3D course wasn’t entirely new. We had admired video trailers for the beautiful game Fez and we were also inspired by Berg’s cool Here & There maps.

We tried this “best of two worlds” solution in two demos: Horizon Maps and List. The map demo had the most obvious value since people already were familiar with both 2D and 3D maps and use them in different ways. Maps in 2D provide an overview over an area and they are great for planning the best route between two places. “Street view” 3D maps are better for understanding one’s current location or when looking for a particular landmark. However, when switching between these different map views, people risk losing their visual points of reference. A 2D-3D transition is a great solution to this. Apparently, Google had been thinking along the same lines since they released their impressive Maps 5 for Android later in 2010.

In the Horizon List demo, a standard contact list in 2D transforms into a more complex 3D list. A familiar 2D list can be used when looking for a specific person and then one can switch to more information-rich 3D list to find out if someone has shared any news. The tilt gesture is not really necessary for this, it just looks great on video.