“Words that were in such abundance that they lost all value” — Hector, 1.9

UX Without Words

One month ago, my roommates and I launched our first app. Our elevator pitch: a location-based story app. Users must physically go to locations dictated by the app to hear the next chapter.

The main narrative of The Exchange follows a transplant through a world where words have become currency. Payments are not brokered with cash; they occur through “Exchanges” — one-to-one conversations that participants exit with unchanged word counts.

We wanted the story to be totally immersive. We had the real-life component — visiting the scenes — and we needed an interface to match that. The main plot describes the printing press as a revolutionary machine. If we had words in the app, the world would be broken.

With the challenge apparent, we focused on our core goal first — explain the story. The constraint put experience before glitz, and in my opinion, for the better. Hamburger button be damned.

Step 1: Minimize interaction.

The well-worn rule of no screen is further than three clicks was gospel. If an explanation was required, we nixed the idea. There are always other trees to bark up.

In our message center (the audio narrative was supplemented by texts/location pins), we didn’t want to create a false impression of interaction. So we removed the text input and keyboard to ensure a read-only experience.

When interaction was required, we didn’t reinvent the wheel. Onboarding? Dot pagination with intuitive swipe. Audio controls? Hidden drawer denoted by Apple’s control center bar. By relying on a user’s past experiences, we saved their energy (and thinking power) for the story.

Step 2: Utilize efficient iconography.

Icons by North Bryan

Icons have saturated the modern UI landscape, and for good reason. They occupy much less real estate than text, they’re universally understood, and they add a playfulness words can’t quickly achieve. In a strange way, icons make technology more approachable than familiar, natural language.

The icons became our primary (read: only) method of direct communication with the user. We were careful to use them sparingly, and again, to not reinvent the wheel.

Step 3: Don’t go overboard.

Of course, this post must conclude on an admission of defeat. The usability made sense to us (classic), but not to the first friends we showed it to. After rounds of “OK, how about now?”, we conceded to adding a tutorial that explained what the app was and what to expect from it.

Onboarding screens designed by John Kellyn Resman

So, no. The app is not completely word-free. But it’s understandable, and it drives the story. Which is exactly what it needs to do.