Inside reMarkable 2 — chapter 2: the user experience
This is the second chapter in our Inside reMarkable 2 series, documenting the creation of reMarkable 2, the world’s thinnest tablet. Chapter 1 can be found here, and chapter 3 here.
How do you take something really simple, and make it better not by adding more, but by stripping it down?
It’s a question reMarkable’s VP of user experience, Brynjar Barkarson, and VP of visual design, Didrik Rasmussen, often need to consider. For them, improving the user experience (UX) is about finding the right balance between modern functionality, and simplicity.
Paper is so simple, and doesn’t distract, so it’s perfect for thinking — which is perhaps why it’s their strongest UX design influence. But that simplicity needs to be balanced with modern functionality, to unlock paper’s full potential as a tool in today’s workflow.
According to Barkarson, this blend of the simple and the modern places the paper tablet squarely in its own category. As he explains, “reMarkable doesn’t distract you, and in that sense it’s a unique tech device. So we need to develop our own paradigm when it comes to our user experience.”
“There’s something very interesting about paper and its tactile feel that we want to maintain,” he says. “But we want to incorporate it into the digital world.”
The blank page
In keeping with the two Oslo natives’ paper-inspired approach, recent user interface (UI) updates introduced an even cleaner and simpler UI. Among other changes, menus and toolbars were simplified, and large preview thumbnails for user content were introduced.
“We’re always trying to look at our user interface with new eyes, think about how we can focus more on the user content, and how we can streamline the design rather than expand,” says Barkarson.
“That’s what we did with the UI, we kind of shifted the balance between the content and the user interface to make sure that people’s content is front and center.”
Maintaining a heavy focus on user content, means they have to carefully consider what they add to the user experience, and what they leave out. Some people might wonder why reMarkable paper tablets don’t have email, a video player, or a browser. The answer is the team has a very clear vision and some things just don’t fit.
“It’s tempting to constantly add new features,” says Rasmussen. “But the interesting question is how do those things fit into the reMarkable experience?”
“We want to keep the device a distraction-free zone, where you can focus and do deep thinking. So we introduced Read on reMarkable, for example, which lets you ship your articles from Google Chrome to your paper tablet, and read them in a more focused way,” says Barkarson.
The reMarkable 2 hardware design threw up some interesting questions. Coming from reMarkable 1, which has buttons, the crew had to change their mindset and focus on designing an all gesture interface for reMarkable 2.
“How does the device distinguish when you’re putting your palm on the screen to write, and when you’re swiping?” asks Rasmussen.
“Or what’s the difference between when you’re using the Marker, and when you’re using your hands, for example? Those are completely different tasks, and the software needs to accommodate perfectly for both scenarios.”
The technology Rasmussen is talking about works by analyzing the position, velocity, and area data generated by the Marker or your hand, and based on that, it determines how you want to interact with your paper tablet.
Getting this type of thing right requires close collaboration with developers, along with rigorous internal and external user testing. During these tests, Barkarson, Rasmussen, and their team get to watch closely, as testers try out the latest software and comment on their experience and expectations.
After testing, the team goes back to the lab to refine parameters and fine-tune their work. During the development of gestures, for example, lots of time was spent adjusting the acceptable angles and distances for finger swipes, to find the right threshold for triggering actions. When they were done fine-tuning, they tested the changes with another round of user feedback.
“We have had so many rounds of testing on gestures,” says Barkarson. “We think it’s really important to see how people react, so we keep learning and enhancing those experiences. Seeing what people think when the software goes live is really inspiring, but it’s also another source of data we can use to keep getting better.”
While Barkarson, Rasmussen, and the team think reMarkable’s spartan user interface strikes a nice balance between simplicity and functionality, they’re adamant they’re far from finished. There is always something to improve, and they’re hard at work planning for what’s coming next.
“We’re so excited about the future,” says Rasmussen. “I think reMarkable users have a lot to look forward to.”
“We get so many ideas and feature requests from the reMarkable community, and we have so many ourselves. It’s going to be so interesting seeing people’s reactions as the user experience continues to evolve. I can’t wait,” says Barkarson.