Swipe gestures are not native to the web

Oftentimes, when I hear people talk about creating, or optimising a website for tablets, they mention rich interactions and they make a cool, swinging swipe gesture, while making a swoosh sound. And I’ve seen many design sketches for websites that let the user swipe through image galleries. It seems like swiping is considered to be extremely cool. Scrolling, on the other hand, not so much. I understand that new stuff is exciting, and I also understand that new stuff has to be investigated. But I believe that as of today we can safely assume that swiping is not native to the web.

Interference with the operating system.

Many operating systems I’ve tested somehow use swipe gestures to do things. On the Blackberry Playbook, if I remember correctly, swiping resulted in an overview of running apps. More and more browsers start using swipe gestures to navigate to the previous and next pages in the user’s history. My creation One Nothing A Day for instance, conflicts with the history swipe that Coast uses. Today I read this article about why Metro.co.uk decided to remove all swipe gestures from its site:

Chrome on Android and the new version of iOS both use swipe to change tabs and Internet Explorer 10 on Windows 8 touchscreens use this for navigation. These multiple layers of interaction have started to create confusion for people like you, our end users. So we concluded that the only gesture that we will continue to be able to control within a browser is scrolling.

Keep it simple

I wrote about this a few times before. A while ago I wondered if we really need ever richer experiences, and today in a column published in the Dutch edition of Web Designer Magazine I argue that instead of over-optimising for different types of input (like mouse, touch and voice), we should maybe focus on the similarities instead, like activating and scrolling, things that work on every single device ever created. In this column I also write about a project we worked on in which the code became so complex, that it all became a bit wobbly. Sooner of later, on a new device, the site would collapse.

Technically complex

Technically it’s possible to add swiping gestures to our sites. But there are some pretty complex technical issues with it. For instance, we don’t want to offer swipe to people who don’t have a touch device. Unfortunately detecting a touch device is extremely hard to do right, which will probably result in false positives. Getting swipe to work nicely in a browser is actually pretty complex too. In the past we had to replace the whole scrolling behaviour of the browser with a custom script to get it to work. Which is, of course, very hacky and resulted in sites that are probably terrible to use on all current devices. Not even two years later. I think things are slightly better now, but still, swiping needs a lot of JavaScript hacks, and hacks are not to be trusted.

In my post about Coast I was a bit cautious. I didn’t clearly state that swiping is not native to the web, I only asked it as a question. But today, after a few weeks of thinking, and after reading the article on the metro blog, I can boldly state that as long as swiping is not natively implemented in browsers on touch devices, swipe gestures are not native to the web.