When I looked at my Mac’s dock last month, I realized none of the pinned apps were from Big Tech companies. Most of them hadn’t even existed a couple of years ago. It was instead dominated by apps either from freshly-funded ventures, such as Arc, a new browser that bills itself as the “internet computer,” and established startups like Notion, the bold note-taking software, which has already made Google and Microsoft rethink documents.
I am not alone either. My revamped workspace is emblematic of the broader UI and UX design reckoning that’s taking place in the ecosystem of apps.
Since 2020, as people’s workspaces evolved to accommodate remote work and their lives grew more dependent on the web, app design has experienced an increased pace of innovation. In the years before it, nearly everyone was equipped with the same set of programs for work and play, like Google Docs and Evernote, and it appeared as if apps had hit a saturation point. But I’ve since switched to new, everyday alternatives. They not only offer novel, better-designed solutions to problems I believed had no end, but also highlight simply how archaic the design of existing, traditional platforms are.
Take mainstream browsers, for instance. Be it Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, their tabbed interfaces fundamentally still look and function the same way they did decades ago. Despite the mounting evidence of how tab overload impedes productivity, incumbent browser makers have done little to overcome it. “There appears to be a disconnect between the increasing scope and complexity of users’ online activities, and the design of tabbed browsing,” as one report from Carnegie Mellon University puts it. Today’s web designers need to recognize that users aren’t surfing the web at all in the same way they did in 2008 or 2002, when Chrome and Firefox launched, respectively.
The Arc browser treats most-frequented websites as docked icons in a spacious sidebar, so that you don’t have to look for them up in a pile of other tabs. Image courtesy Arc.
The browser I've been surfing the web with for close to a year, Arc (now in public beta), swaps out this outdated setup for one more suited for the modern knowledge worker, for whom apps and documents are just tabs, instead of disparate desktop programs. It treats the browser as an operating system of its own. You can build separate workspaces for various projects, search in an instant with a Spotlight-like tool, hover over tabs like Gmail to see how many unread emails you’ve got, and treat your most frequented websites as docked icons in a spacious sidebar so that you don’t have to look for them up in a pile of other tabs. Once I was past the learning curve, Arc’s bold choices felt obvious. No longer was I struggling to navigate tabs from a cramped space at the top or working in a sprawling mess as Arc made organization effortless.
Nate Parrott, the first designer at Arc, says the team didn’t want to make users feel bad for having a lot of tabs. It’s very stressful, he told FWD, when tabs are crammed into a tiny space. “We designed Arc’s tabs to embrace people who have a lot going on,” says Parrott. Arc’s evolution is also a design acknowledgement of the macro ways user behavior online is shifting. Consider its new sidebar: “it affords us the space to give you tools to organize your online life: Spaces, folders and renaming tabs,” says Parrott. “We think that tabs are the new files, and they deserve room to breathe.”
Similarly, Shortwave, a Gmail client from ex-Googlers launched in early 2022, offers a clean and intuitive inbox to enable a calmer emailing experience. Its clever bundling tool automatically spots what’s important and what’s not and sorts my inbox before I even jump in. Instead of getting inundated with an avalanche of emails throughout the day, it also lets me pause my inbox, and schedule them to arrive in batches. With my most contacted people, I can easily browse my exchanges with them in IM-style threads as opposed to the messy chains on the Gmail website.
The interface for Shortwave, founded in 2022 by ex-Googlers. Image courtesy Shortwave.
Andrew Lee, Shortwave’s founder and CEO and former engineering director at Google, says Gmail’s basic UX hasn’t changed in a while, in spite of advancements in modern productivity tools, because they’ve to serve a very broad range of users and offer a "lowest common denominator" product. “As a result, there is a lot of opportunity to provide a fresh, differentiated experience, and startups are taking advantage of that,” Lee told FWD.
The list is endless. I’ve left a handful of services I’ve used for years recently in favor of their latest counterparts. Upnext, a read-later service that helps me actually get to the bottom of my reading list, has replaced Pocket; Notion has toppled Google Docs and Evernote; Google Calendar has made way for Cron; Texts, which lets me manage conversations from all my IM accounts like WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter, from one place, takes over from pretty much every messaging app I had installed.
Dr. Elizabeth Gerber, a computer science professor, and co-director of the Center for Human-Computer Interaction + Design at Northwestern University, believes much of the shift to such new platforms can be credited to “worker empowerment.” In the work-from-home era, “workers are doing what works for them rather than just what works for the company.”
The Texts app offers an all-in-one value prop to users by managing conversations from all major messaging platforms, like WhatsApp, Instagram, and Twitter, in one place. Image courtesy Texts.
“What that has ultimately done is kill the file format. Users are more willing to try new tools because they don’t have to worry about whether their colleagues’ or friends’ software would support it,” says Jeremy Olson, a product designer at Coda, an all-in-one document platform. “Now, everything is accessible with a web link,” adds Olson, giving users an opportunity to reevaluate their tools to be more efficient.
Like Arc, Coda was founded in 2019 on a key observation: conventional spreadsheet apps have failed to evolve. It reimagines docs and spreadsheets to better fit how people use them today as opposed to years ago. In addition to accounting, Olson says, people now turn to spreadsheets for everything from project tracking to managing customer orders, and Coda allows them to add real-time elements to tailor a document to any workflow.
These new-age services’ delightful, modern aesthetics are also a breath of fresh air from their clunky predecessors. But more importantly, the reason they’ve edged ahead is how adaptive they are. Interfaces from tech corporations like Microsoft have been infamously monolithic and ill-equipped to accommodate complex, evolving workflows. “Anything that molds to a user's situation—environment, behavior, needs, mental models—and can change with them, and gets a user to their desired outcome as naturally and effortlessly as possible is going to win out,” says Elizabeth Alli, designer and founder of the DesignerUp academy, an ecosystem of design courses and community.
Spurred by pandemic remote work and TikTok clout, Notion became Gen Z's favorite note-taking app—and secured a $20 billion valuation in 2022. Image courtesy Notion.
So far, Big Tech has taken either of the two approaches to compete with the wave of new, indie apps: they either borrow their best offerings, like in the case of Microsoft Loop and Google’s “smart chips,” which are heavily inspired by Notion and Coda, or they acquire startups to get a headstart, as Salesforce and Adobe did when they bought Slack and Figma, respectively.
Many of these startups, Alli analyzes, have taken off because they’ve removed layers of abstraction from traditional software and built simpler experiences for users. “Such innovation sends signals to Big Tech and beyond and so the cycle continues,” she adds.
Though designers like Alli are excited that UX and UI have taken on a much bigger role in product development, they believe there’s still a long way to go. What she hopes is the industry continues to “recognize the importance of this work, understand how it's derived, and strive to create solutions and products that are more accessible, ethical and mindfully made.”
2023 is going to be the year web experiences are redesigned. Whether Arc, Shortwave, or Coda, the new vanguard of apps proves that yesteryear's walled gardens are coming down in favor of integrated, reimagined, and responsive experiences that adapt to hyper-online workflows that are now table stakes among users. “People want what they want, how and when they want it. And technology continues to make this easier, cheaper, and faster,” says Dr. Gerber. “Adaptive and responsive design is no longer a nice to have, it’s a requirement.”