We’re Leaving Stackworld

Buckle up, I can already tell I am going to be referring back to this article for years. I have some big words, and a glimpse into what I see coming in the future, and I know some of it seems over-hyped. I know some of it seems unlikely. I’m standing on a limb saying some of these things, yet I am convinced I’ll be proven right, in broad brushstrokes. The future seems pretty clear.

Vision Pro is going to change everything.

You’re welcome to roll your eyes, chalk that up as an over-hyped Apple fanatic feeling impatient about the coming release, and moving on. But I’ve got some data to back this up. I have some insights to share. This is a bigger deal than people realise, partially because the price tag is so insane and partially because strapping a computer to your face can’t possibly have a future. Right? We’ll see, but first let me share a UX metaphor with you.

What if I handed you a stack of cards and asked you to find the ace of hearts. You’d flip, flip, flip them one by one until you found it. But what if those 52 cards were arrayed in a grid? You’d find the ace of spades much faster because your eye wouldn’t have to navigate a stack, flip, flip, flip, you could just find the thing you want. Right now your phone and laptop are stack world. And it sucks.

You’re reading this in one tab, but if you want you can open another tab. Unfortunately many of us have a lot of tabs. Maybe even lots of tabs across lots of browser windows. Flip, flip, flip. And below that, you have probably 12 layers of other apps., flip, flip, flip. But that takes too long, so you command-tab your way through apps, but one at a time of course, flip, flip, flip. It’s quite slow. We’re stuck in stackworld but we don’t even notice because it’s the best system we’ve come up with.

Now, let me be clear. I’m not claiming strapping a heavy chunk of metal and glass to your face is the answer for everything, or even most things. I’m not claiming there’s going to be some kind of revolution in 2024 where suddenly a spatial computing ecosystem puts our traditional computing ecosystem to shame. I’m simply pointing out that some experiences are unequivocally better experienced spatially rather than as stacks. And that some developers will make some extraordinary experiences, and some consumers will try them and like them. This will be a slow burn, but once you try it, Stack World will feel like using an old Nokia flip phone after getting used to an iPhone.

Sounds like big words, right? They are, but they’re backed up by the early hands-on reviews. For example, here’s Marques Brownlee saying it was the closest thing to magic he’s experienced. Or try listening to Michael Simmons, designer of Fantastical, freak out about how the product is a sure-fire hit that will change software design forever. Yes, it’s a big dumb face computer. But it’s an absolutely game-changing big dumb face computer. It might take 5-10 years until it’s truly mainstream, but it will go mainstream. And as it does, we’ll second-guess the assumption that all software works best as a single card of information meant to exist in a hard-to-navigate stack.

Designers like me who have spent a lifetime figuring out the best practices for Stackworld are going to have to switch gears. We’re going to have to figure out 3d scenes, choreography, directing attention the way cinema does, and a bunch of other skills that seem esoteric to us today. But it’s coming. Stackworld will always be with us in some way, but its limitations will become clearer in the next few years. I can’t wait.