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I want to know when you should and shouldn't leverage spatial consistency/inconsistency in an interface.

For example, the new Android update changed the location of the Clear All Notifications button from a fixed location in the top right to the bottom of the notification list which has a dynamic height.

notification button inconsistency

Potential benefits of spatial consistency:

  • Ease of use
  • Can get very fast at performing actions
  • May not have to look at what he/she is doing

Potential benefits of spatial inconsistency:

  • Forces the user to pay attention

Are there more pros/cons? Any guidelines for when to leverage spatial inconsistency? My intuition tells me to never have a button that moves but Google thought it was a good idea!

  • Just curious - where did you come across the term "spatial consistency"? And have your read this? – Izhaki Dec 2 '14 at 1:17
  • @Izhaki It was the first term that came to my mind. Yes, I have read that paper (I think I even cited it in my CHI 2014 paper). Thank you for bringing it to my attention though, it is definitely relevant! I will go read it again. – Austin Henley Dec 2 '14 at 1:24
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The Android example you provide shows 'spatial inconsistency' relative to the device edges, but spatial consistency relative to the content: the 'clear all notifications' icon is always in the same place relative to the list of notifications.

The choice the UX designers made here was not between 'icon always in the same place' and 'icon always in a different place' but rather between 'icon always in the same place on the screen' and 'icon attached to the content it affects'. This is a common pattern on variable-sized content: Instagram photos and the like/commments link, Gmail emails and the reply box.

In this context, your list of benefits/drawbacks of 'spatial inconsistency' is, I think, a misnomer.

The benefit to the design that was chosen, IMHO, is that a user has likely just finished scanning their notifications — from top to bottom — when they want to clear all. So their eye and their attention are already at the bottom of the list. Further, if the notification list is long enough to go off the screen, in order to 'clear all' the user has to scroll through the list. This has the benefit of making sure that they in fact do see all their notifications before they clear them.

You need to take the larger context of an OS redesign into account, as well, when asking why a specific design decision was made. The choice to reposition the 'clear all' button was in the context of a larger overhaul of the Android notification system. From what I can tell (I'm not an Android user, but I have done a fair bit of research on this for this question), Lollipop now maintains a consistent status bar at the top of the device. Previously, viewing notifications would replace the status bar with a context-specific bar that had context-specific buttons. The new design doesn't allow that, so a new approach was needed.

All that said, you can definitely make a case that they should have placed the button at the top of the list (below the status bar), and I think we could come up with some pro/cons for that vs. the design they chose. But it's a different question than the one you've posed here.

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Check out the Notification patterns for Android Lollipop, specifically the Summarize your notifications section. These are the Do and Don't images for Hangouts notifications:

Generally speaking, Lollipop groups notifications in a "smarter" way than KitKat: categorical/app-specific notifications reduce the number of notification cards. Theoretically then, the use of the Clear all notifications button is going to be less frequent, resulting in its removal from the header. Although the notification list isn't an "app," so to speak, it follows the general patterns for hierarchy from the spec:

Button hierarchy and frequency

You can read more on button usage in the Components section of the Material Design spec.

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