The Case Against Widgets

It seems like it’s tech news gospel that Apple is going to release a vastly different version of iOS 1, the operating system that runs on iPads, iPhones, iPods and Apple TVs, at the upcoming WWDC.

All well and good. iOS does look pretty dated in places. The basic UI elements could do with a refresh: they haven’t really changed significantly since 2007. Maybe a bit of flattening couldn’t hurt those deep dark shadows around dialog boxes.

Apart from the de-Forstallization (or Deforestation) of iOS there are a few other things “slated”2 to change. One of those is something that anyone who argues the superiority of Android is sure to bring up, something that a lot of people are hoping will come to iOS. Something that would be a terrible, terrible idea.


As described by the Android Developers site:

Widgets are an essential aspect of home screen customization. You can imagine them as “at-a-glance” views of an app’s most important data and functionality that is accessible right from the user’s home screen. Users can move widgets across their home screen panels, and, if supported, resize them to tailor the amount of information within a widget to their preference.

Wouldn’t it be great if instead of having to load up an app to get at its data and functionality, you could just have it right there on your home screen?

Well, actually, no it wouldn’t.

For that 2-seconds-faster look at your email, calendar or the weather, you sacrifice the ability to decide for yourself when you see those things. The human brain is great at parsing a lot of information in a small amount of time and synthesizing it. It’s not so great at deciding on the fly which information is immediately relevant and discarding the rest without burning any cycles on it.

It boils down pretty simply: the less you control the input your brain is allowed to receive, the more control it has over you. There’s a common trope in “productivity” circles which is something like: in order to be as productive as possible, I need to have constant access to as much up-to-date information as possible. This couldn’t be further from the truth: a constant flow of incoming information is something that can cripple productivity. Actual productivity means doing things, and if you’re perpetually in a mode of parsing and cataloging new information you don’t have much head-space left for doing things. This is the reason that I try not to live in my email.

On a personal level widgets are a bad idea3. But widgets are a facet of a real cultural battle we’re involved in that has profound implications for the future. Every technological advance towards greater information availability gives a nudge to our cultural expectations. This is why whilst today you might find yourself getting angry if someone doesn’t respond to a text promptly, twenty years ago this expectation didn’t exist.

There used to be a general idea that as technology advanced we’d have to do less and less work, whilst our little electronic buddies took up the slack for us. Quite the opposite! People now work longer hours for less pay than they did 30 years ago! Part of this is to do with the fact that, as our ability to perform certain tasks has increased (work email from home, etc) the expectation that we will perform them has increased in tandem.

Google Glass is another facet of this war of attrition. Glass is the widgets problem on steroids. At least you can put a phone in your pocket.

I’d be happy if iOS 7 looked completely different, ecstatic if they updated some of the core applications like Mail and Calendar, catatonic with glee if they put a wifi toggle somewhere handy. But please don’t dump a steaming sack of widgets all over the home screen and think that’s progress.

  1. This is a nice concept video, but I can’t imagine that this’ll be much like the next iteration of iOS. It’s too un-Appley. 

  2. “Slated” has to be one of my least favorite newsy buzzwords. 

  3. There are a couple of exceptions to the rule. I think a quicker way to access connectivity settings, for example, is a no-brainer. And widgets aren’t always bad, I’m sure that there are some specialized cases where their benefit would outweight the negatives.