Free Ideas for UI Frameworks, or How To Achieve Polished UI

Ever since the original iPhone came out, I’ve had several ideas about how they managed to achieve such fluidity with relatively mediocre hardware. I mean, it was good at the time, but Android still struggles on hardware that makes that look like a 486… It’s absolutely my fault that none of these have been implemented in any open-source framework I’m aware of, so instead of sitting on these ideas and trotting them out at the pub every few months as we reminisce over what could have been, I’m writing about them here. I’m hoping that either someone takes them and runs with them, or that they get thoroughly debunked and I’m made to look like an idiot. The third option is of course that they’re ignored, which I think would be a shame, but given I’ve not managed to get the opportunity to implement them over the last decade, that would hardly be surprising. I feel I should clarify that these aren’t all my ideas, but include a mix of observation of and conjecture about contemporary software. This somewhat follows on from the post I made 6 years ago(!) So let’s begin.

1. No main-thread UI

The UI should always be able to start drawing when necessary. As careful as you may be, it’s practically impossible to write software that will remain perfectly fluid when the UI can be blocked by arbitrary processing. This seems like an obvious one to me, but I suppose the problem is that legacy makes it very difficult to adopt this at a later date. That said, difficult but not impossible. All the major web browsers have adopted this policy, with caveats here and there. The trick is to switch from the idea of ‘painting’ to the idea of ‘assembling’ and then using a compositor to do the painting. Easier said than done of course, most frameworks include the ability to extend painting in a way that would make it impossible to switch to a different thread without breaking things. But as long as it’s possible to block UI, it will inevitably happen.

2. Contextually-aware compositor

This follows on from the first point; what’s the use of having non-blocking UI if it can’t respond? Input needs to be handled away from the main thread also, and the compositor (or whatever you want to call the thread that is handling painting) needs to have enough context available that the first response to user input doesn’t need to travel to the main thread. Things like hover states, active states, animations, pinch-to-zoom and scrolling all need to be initiated without interaction on the main thread. Of course, main thread interaction will likely eventually be required to update the view, but that initial response needs to be able to happen without it. This is another seemingly obvious one – how can you guarantee a response rate unless you have a thread dedicated to responding within that time? Most browsers are doing this, but not going far enough in my opinion. Scrolling and zooming are often catered for, but not hover/active states, or initialising animations (note; initialising animations. Once they’ve been initialised, they are indeed run on the compositor, usually).

3. Memory bandwidth budget

This is one of the less obvious ideas and something I’ve really wanted to have a go at implementing, but never had the opportunity. A problem I saw a lot while working on the platform for both Firefox for Android and FirefoxOS is that given the work-load of a web browser (which is not entirely dissimilar to the work-load of any information-heavy UI), it was very easy to saturate memory bandwidth. And once you saturate memory bandwidth, you end up having to block somewhere, and painting gets delayed. We’re assuming UI updates are asynchronous (because of course – otherwise we’re blocking on the main thread). I suggest that it’s worth tracking frame time, and only allowing large asynchronous transfers (e.g. texture upload, scaling, format transforms) to take a certain amount of time. After that time has expired, it should wait on the next frame to be composited before resuming (assuming there is a composite scheduled). If the composited frame was delayed to the point that it skipped a frame compared to the last unladen composite, the amount of time dedicated to transfers should be reduced, or the transfer should be delayed until some arbitrary time (i.e. it should only be considered ok to skip a frame every X ms).

It’s interesting that you can see something very similar to this happening in early versions of iOS (I don’t know if it still happens or not) – when scrolling long lists with images that load in dynamically, none of the images will load while the list is animating. The user response was paramount, to the point that it was considered more important to present consistent response than it was to present complete UI. This priority, I think, is a lot of the reason the iPhone feels ‘magic’ and Android phones felt like junk up until around 4.0 (where it’s better, but still not as good as iOS).

4. Level-of-detail

This is something that I did get to partially implement while working on Firefox for Android, though I didn’t do such a great job of it so its current implementation is heavily compromised from how I wanted it to work. This is another idea stolen from game development. There will be times, during certain interactions, where processing time will be necessarily limited. Quite often though, during these times, a user’s view of the UI will be compromised in some fashion. It’s important to understand that you don’t always need to present the full-detail view of a UI. In Firefox for Android, this took the form that when scrolling fast enough that rendering couldn’t keep up, we would render at half the resolution. This let us render more, and faster, giving the impression of a consistent UI even when the hardware wasn’t quite capable of it. I notice Microsoft doing similar things since Windows 8; notice how the quality of image scaling reduces markedly while scrolling or animations are in progress. This idea is very implementation-specific. What can be dropped and what you want to drop will differ between platforms, form-factors, hardware, etc. Generally though, some things you can consider dropping: Sub-pixel anti-aliasing, high-quality image scaling, render resolution, colour-depth, animations. You may also want to consider showing partial UI if you know that it will very quickly be updated. The Android web-browser during the Honeycomb years did this, and I attempted (with limited success, because it’s hard…) to do this with Firefox for Android many years ago.

Pitfalls

I think it’s easy to read ideas like this and think it boils down to “do everything asynchronously”. Unfortunately, if you take a naïve approach to that, you just end up with something that can be inexplicably slow sometimes and the only way to fix it is via profiling and micro-optimisations. It’s very hard to guarantee a consistent experience if you don’t manage when things happen. Yes, do everything asynchronously, but make sure you do your book-keeping and you manage when it’s done. It’s not only about splitting work up, it’s about making sure it’s done when it’s smart to do so.

You also need to be careful about how you measure these improvements, and to be aware that sometimes results in synthetic tests will even correlate to the opposite of the experience you want. A great example of this, in my opinion, is page-load speed on desktop browsers. All the major desktop browsers concentrate on prioritising the I/O and computation required to get the page to 100%. For heavy desktop sites, however, this means the browser is often very clunky to use while pages are loading (yes, even with out-of-process tabs – see the point about bandwidth above). I highlight this specifically on desktop, because you’re quite likely to not only be browsing much heavier sites that trigger this behaviour, but also to have multiple tabs open. So as soon as you load a couple of heavy sites, your entire browsing experience is compromised. I wouldn’t mind the site taking a little longer to load if it didn’t make the whole browser chug while doing so.

Don’t lose sight of your goals. Don’t compromise. Things might take longer to complete, deadlines might be missed… But polish can’t be overrated. Polish is what people feel and what they remember, and the lack of it can have a devastating effect on someone’s perception. It’s not always conscious or obvious either, even when you’re the developer. Ask yourself “Am I fully satisfied with this” before marking something as complete. You might still be able to ship if the answer is “No”, but make sure you don’t lose sight of that and make sure it gets the priority it deserves.

One last point I’ll make; I think to really execute on all of this, it requires buy-in from everyone. Not just engineers, not just engineers and managers, but visual designers, user experience, leadership… Everyone. It’s too easy to do a job that’s good enough and it’s too much responsibility to put it all on one person’s shoulders. You really need to be on the ball to produce the kind of software that Apple does almost routinely, but as much as they’d say otherwise, it isn’t magic.

Author: Chris Lord

Computer programmer and banjo player.

11 thoughts on “Free Ideas for UI Frameworks, or How To Achieve Polished UI”

    1. I’m not familiar with iOS, but from what I understand, I think it does some of these things. Specifically, keeping UI off of the main thread (I think).

      1. Not sure how much of the UI is “off of the main thread”. On iOS, interaction with UIKit objects needs to be done on the main thread, and this is also where user interaction is handled. In order not to lock the UI, one must ensure that data processing tasks are run on background threads – commonly by using GCD’s dispatch_async, or using objects that do.

    1. I’m not sure what exactly you’re referring to, but just in case it’s misunderstood, this post isn’t intended to be a list of things iOS does. Having never done any iOS development, I don’t really know what it does – but I can observe some of its behaviour and make (possibly incorrect) assumptions.

  1. Hello. I wonder if you could go into more detail about “No main-thread UI”? The common UI model (or at least the one I seem to be lumbered with) is, of course, to have one thread constantly dealing with events, some of which are to repaint the UI. All changes due to user-interaction starts with these events, and heavy processing that might cause a long pause between repaints is spun off into other threads (and when it’s not, or when something that should be very fast ends up taking ages, the next repaint event waits in the queue and the UI appears to freeze).

    What are the alternative models here?

    1. It’s ok to have a representation of UI on the main thread and even to do blocking things with that representation – but the code responsible for drawing to the screen and responding to user events needs to have a separate representation that it can access without being blocked. These representations can then be periodically synchronised (in a non-blocking fashion). This is the exact model that Firefox uses, for example, and I believe, most other major browsers.

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