No UI is a good thing

Pocket Pond is an iPad and iPhone game that is exactly what it’s name implies: a pond — with fish and lily pads — that lives on your Apple device.

I came across this app recently while waiting for a doctor to insert an IV into my 22 month old daughter. Lucy is fine, a little scare and a long day, but ultimately all better. The nurses loaned us an iPad to entertain her and Pocket Pond was loaded on it.

The game involves users “touching” the water surface. It disturbs the fish and they scatter. There’s a pleasant sound of water splashing as users interact with the app. Lucy loved it. It occupied and entertained her while we waited hours.

It is a very simple game. But what I found interesting about it was the app had almost no UI. The entire screen was filled up by the pond and that’s what you interacted with.

I’m a UX designer. I’ve designed a number of apps, websites, large-screen displays. We are always focused on creating the UI. How do people interact with it, control it, understand what’s possible. To our detriment as designers, the UI is immediately what we focus on. Pocket Pond has none of that. It just is. It’s skeuomorphic design is exactly the point.

Wherever you touch the app, the water is appropriately disturbed. That is the interface. And it supports multi-touch so touching with just a finger produces a different result than touching with all five or your palm. It “feels” real.

Important to the experience is the sound. The sound is both what one would expect, and soothing. The sound helps create the immersive experience. Playing the game without sound provides a lesser, duller experience.

So what’s the point?

The game is certainly simple in what it wants of users (see the part where my young daughter was highly entertained). But that simplicity allows for something interesting to occur.

My daughter experienced real joy with the app, and unlike every other app on my phone, she could play it without unintentionally ending the experience or going down a path that locks out the game (e.g. opening a menu, selecting an alternative option screen, etc.).

And I actually found the game refreshing and oddly entertaining. Immersion can be a powerful experience. There is real opportunity in building apps in this way, or at least incorporating this experience into a larger platform.

I think three things overlap and work together to create this experience:

No UI

The lack of UI is a benefit. I don’t need to understand how to use the app because the experience as presented is it’s whole purpose. Just interact with it. You can’t create an error. How do you create an error with a pond?

And this leads to…

Immersive

Without the UI to get in the way, the user is that much closer to the “pond” experience. Sound, as noted above, is also extremely important. They work together to bring the user into that world. It is surprisingly powerful.

Fun for it’s own sake

The app has little to no purpose other than to replicate a pond. Users find joy in that (or don’t). There’s no effort to make the user do something, to progress by completing tasks.

Conclusion

There is a notion that mobile users are task-oriented. They want to open an app, complete a goal, and move on. At the same time all of us are spending increasingly more time on our phones. Might there be an opportunity to build more engaging apps that eschew UI and focus on immersion? Pocket Pond aspires to be little more than the simple game of splashing water and scattering fish. But this approach seems to be rich with experiences that could be more rewarding. And experience in and of itself is a worthwhile end goal.

I would certainly enjoy more apps like this.


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