Redefining Touch: A Review of Clear

Since the introduction of the iOS App Store, few apps have truly dared to redefine the way in which we perceive user experience. Few have truly embraced the touch paradigm to such an extent that your interactions border on complete fluidity. There are plenty of reasons for eschewing such design conventions, the most notable being the relegation of complexity.

For an app to exist wholly within the bounds of natural interaction, the capacity for granular preferences is undercut. It’s not that such extensive control is impossible, it is that such fine controls represent the betrayal of a design decision. Each time a developer makes a conscious design decision, it removes a step for the end-user.

Although complexity and granularity is often necessary in the industry’s most powerful apps, the inclusion of such flexibility and customization is not necessary in the vast majority of use cases. Options implemented to facilitate versatility often sabotage the aesthetic solidity of an app. For some, such options are a clear necessity. For others, they bog down the touch interface.

The capacitive touch screen implemented in modern iOS devices is nothing short of phenomenal. Sadly, however, few apps have fully taken advantage of the touch portion of the interface. Aside from novel gestures, quaint design inflections, and fairly useful additional features, few apps dare to place touch at the core of their app. Few place the user at the center of the production.

This is, of course, for good reason. OmniFocus, arguably one of iOS’s most powerful apps, simply could not survive if the Omni Group chose to forego complex interactions in favor of an aesthetically simplistic interface. Instacast could not thrive if the developer chose to remove all buttons and options in favor of novel Multi-Touch gestures.

One app, however, dares to make the attempt.

This evening, Realmac Software’s first iOS app, Clear, made its debut on the App Store. Selling for 99 cents, Clear represents one of the most interesting designs I have come across in years. Centrally designed as yet another to-do app, Clear stands wholly apart from the pack offering, for the first time in quite a while, something measuredly and aesthetically new.

Strikingly reminiscent of the colorful simplicity of Windows Phone 7, Clear attempts to redefine the way in which the consumer views the modern iOS app. The conceit of the Clear is bold, but I dare say it is welcome.

In an immediate context characterized by ‘Corinthian Leather’ and skeuomorphic leanings, Clear breaks iOS interactions down to their most basic form. There are no traditional buttons, there are four settings, and there are no immediately clear UI prompts. You open the app, swipe through a handful of introductory messages, and then you are dropped into an environment entirely reliant upon touch.

Want to make a new list? Pull down. Want to move up a level? Pinch together. Want to create a to-do that is not at the top of the list? Pinch apart.

The interactions, once you’ve spent a few minutes playing in the app, are marvelously easy to use. Thanks to the remarkable speed of the app, whether the app is in your multitasking drawer or not, the time between opening the app and using it is faster than any other app in recent memory.

Upon opening the app, my interest was piqued by the obvious novelty, but I felt that this feeling might merely be whimsical. The novelty of a new design paradigm, the joy of the app’s wonderful sounds, and the sheer pace of the app all contributing to a feeling akin to that of a child playing with a new toy. But I’m happy to report that the novelty has failed to wear off.

Days later and I have Clear nestled into my primary homescreen next to the venerable OmniFocus. Despite both being foundationally designed to tackle the GTD question, I find Clear and OmniFocus can live fairly harmoniously on my iPhone. OmniFocus exists as the productivity behemoth in the top left. Sitting there with its bold purple and white icon, OmniFocus absorbs the vast majority of my projects, to-dos, and my notes. Syncing with my iPad and my iPhone, and providing a truly astonishing level of control, OmniFocus’ prominent position in the top left is certainly not going to be usurped by Clear - no matter its gorgeous interface. Clear sits next to it as a model for the future, absorbing my simple to-dos and non-pressing engagements.

OmniFocus reminders ring out throughout the day aiding in many facets of my life, while Clear remains quiet and colorful, ready to help whenever I need. And while that might sound somewhat negative, I mean it as a sincere compliment. The mere fact that a GTD app can exist in parallel with OmniFocus is, in my eyes, fairly astounding. But the two are irrevocably different, and are accordingly used in entirely differing manners.

While Clear may seem unnecessary for the most hardcore GTD aficionado, it will be of the utmost relevance to the casual person looking to keep a handle on their groceries and appointments. When chatting with Nik Fletcher, product manager for Realmac Software, I asked the question if Reminders integration is on the horizon. Although he didn’t give me a direct answer, Nik hinted that he and his team are aware of what users want, and that Clear will evolve. I found this to be thoroughly encouraging.

Obviously, though, Clear’s bounds are somewhat limited. Unlike OmniFocus, which can tack on new features and exhaustive new possibilities, Clear’s path is stifled by its commitment to its central conceit. In many ways, the Clear you download from the App Store today, is the Clear that will always be.

As is betrayed by the app’s name, Clear is incompatible with cluttered settings. Clear seeks to, pardon the wording, keep the end-users mind clear of any obstacles. You simply add your to-dos into your lists and you move on. Adding another step, or facilitating the cheapening of that psychological simplicity would be saddening.

I certainly hope that iCloud and Calendar integration will come, and I have faith that the Realmac team will find truly wonderful means through which repetitive items might find their way in but, even if they don’t, Clear is fantastic as it is. My one gripe is a result of the app’s full touch interface which causes the Notification Center pulldown to become stuck at the top of the screen, much like when you attempt to access it during a game. This is, of course, a minor issue - a testament to the craftsmanship on display in the app.

Honestly, if Nik and his team were to sever Clear from development and leave it for sale on the App Store, I would likely continue to recommend it to people. Unhindered by external dependencies, Clear exists as a standalone testament to the possibility of iOS development. Every time I’ve been caught using it in public, people have immediately asked what app it is and how much it costs. On more than one occasion I have been asked if I was, in fact, using an iPhone at all.

Such bold initiative and design deserves reward, and I certainly think Clear will find it in the App Store marketplace.

For as much as I love OmniFocus for its granularity, I am infatuated with Clear for its simplicity. For each color, each unique theme and each pleasant noise, I find myself making creative excuses to use the app more and more. Smashing through the upsettingly common skeuomorphism evident in the App Store, Clear provides something measuredly and aesthetically different, and that is a truly wonderful thing.

If you have any interest in design, in keeping your life in order, or simply witnessing the most basic yet powerful display of what your iOS device can achieve, I recommend purchasing Clear. 99 cents is little to ask for something quite so brilliant.

Clear is available for iPhone and iPod Touch in the App Store.