Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

This Week's Sponsor

Save 20% on the award-winning Audio Hijack with coupon code 6C20AH!

By Jason Snell

WWDC 2020 Thursday: Giving a few pointers

Note: This story has not been updated since 2020.

The arrow covers the icon you’re thinking of clicking; the iPad’s pointer slides behind the icon, so it’s clear what you’re selecting.

If you’ve ever wanted a longform explanation of how Apple built pointer support into iPadOS, and the challenges involved in re-inventing the pointer interface for a device that’s primarily touch oriented, Design for the iPadOS pointer is the session for you.

The Mac’s arrow pointer was designed for pixel-level precision, but of course in most contexts iPad software was designed for fingertip-level precision—in other words, a lot less of it. This is why the iPad’s default pointer is a fingertip-sized circle, because that’s the level of precision that most apps expect.

However, in some contexts, pixel-perfect precision can be just what is required. So the iPadOS designers focused on a pointer with “adaptive precision,” that could switch contexts (and shapes) to become more precise when necessary. The obvious example is in text editing, where the iPad’s beam cursor is extremely precise horizontally (to allow you to select exactly the characters you want, or place that insertion point right in the middle of a word), while being quite imprecise vertically (it snaps to each line of text). In a calendar app, the pointer can adapt again, snapping in 15-minute increments to indicate that by default, the app assumes calendar events don’t begin at odd times.

Precision is also the reason that iPad pointers morph into shapes when they’re selecting individual buttons1. This way, it’s crystal clear which button you’ve currently got selected. If you were using a more precise pointer, you might find yourself right between buttons and not know what would happen if you clicked. The iPad’s approach eliminates this as a possibility.

As you move the pointer, the system is making some guesses about what target you’re trying to reach. The Magnetism feature analyzes the direction in which you pushed the cursor and finds a nearby interface element that you were most likely targeting, and snaps the cursor to it. It’s a subtle thing that makes the system intuit what the user’s intent was, even if their finger swipe across the trackpad wouldn’t normally be quite enough to get there.

The session also picked up on a theme I’ve seen repeated several times this week regarding the iPad. We talk a lot about how the iPad can be used with touch, or an Apple Pencil, or a keyboard, or a pointing device. But this week we’ve been reminded, again and again, that you can also mix and match these input methods, and developers should remember that. Hold down a modifier key and tap with the Apple Pencil or your finger, and the right thing should happen.

After watching the session, I have to be honest: I fully expect Apple to bring an adapted version of the iPad’s approach to pointers to macOS in a future release. Now is not the time, because there is a level of precision assumed by most macOS apps that is way beyond what’s assumed by most iPad apps. But the Mac would absolutely benefit by a more adaptive pointing system than the one it’s currently got, which (let’s be honest) is largely unchanged since 1984. Maybe next year?

  1. The translucent shape is located behind the button icon, preventing the icon’s color from being distorted by a pointer overlay. A subtle touch. 

If you appreciate articles like this one, support us by becoming a Six Colors subscriber. Subscribers get access to an exclusive podcast, members-only stories, and a special community.

Search Six Colors