Apple’s Biggest Innovation – The Swipe?

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Years from now, will we look back and realize that Apple’s biggest innovation was not device, but rather a physical gesture?

The right-to-left swiping motion used with Apple devices to sort through photos or to navigate certain apps is quickly altering how we seek and absorb information.

David Payne, chief digital officer of Gannett & Co. Inc., parent company of USA Today, delivered this point eloquently at the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Marketing Summit. In his opening speech, he pointed out that the digital world changed when Apple introduced “touch” with the iPod and iPhone.

Touch screens had been around for years, but Apple brought them into our daily lives, in particular with the iPhone. As a result, the way we engage and interact with devices has changed, as evidenced by the dramatic decline in sales of the BlackBerry. And now with the explosive growth of the iPad, it’s about to change again. This time, though, it will be even more dramatic.

Payne referred to the “swipe” as the game-changer, or as he called to it, “petting the cat.” This new right-to-left world has caused Gannett to rethink the traditional “top-to-bottom” experience of its websites, in particular how it organizes content. As evidence, Gannett has incorporated this new “petting the cat” thinking into its new USA Today app (it’s worth downloading).

Last week, Fast Company ran a story on a new technology MIT developed that enables users to drag files across devices with a swipe. Coincidentally, it’s called Swyp. Nathan Linder, a PhD student in the fluid interfaces group at the MIT Media Lab, said, “Our framework allows any number of touch-sensing and collocated devices to establish file-exchange and communications with no pairing other than a physical gesture.”

Apple’s impact on design has enjoyed much acclaim and is noticeable in almost any new technology designed. But what may be overlooked is the impact Apple has had on the user experience and how users interact with technologies. And that impact goes far beyond just Apple devices.

For example, one attendee mentioned that his 3-year-old went up to the television and tried to “swipe” it to change the channel. A colleague mentioned that she is  constantly cleaning her computer screen because her kids try to open photos on her desktop by touching them. Apple has, and continues to have, the ability to change consumer behaviors, requiring the rest of the world to catch up.

Marketers must now realize that we are a step behind. We recognize the importance of adapting digital assets to fit the device, but we haven’t thought through the ramifications of “petting the cat” behavior. The swipe is here to stay. It’s now time to reset our navigation point from North to South to East to West.

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