The pull-to-refresh (or swipe-to-refresh) pattern lets a user pull down on a list of data using touch in order to retrieve more data. The “Pull-to-refresh” gesture was first introduced by Loren Brichter in the Tweetie app and in no time it became so popular that countless apps adopted this gesture. Today “pull-to-refresh” feature is a natural part of many popular apps, including Twitter, Gmail, Tweetbot and others.

In this article we’ll overview the pattern and see when and why pull-to-refresh is implemented well, as well talk about other options for refreshing.

How It Works

The refresh indicator appears only in conjunction with a refresh gesture or action. The animation below shows you the complete interaction model.
Image credit: Material Design

Image credit: Material Design

Swipe to refresh manually refreshes screen content with a user action or gesture. It’s quite obvious, but still sometimes designers use refresh indicator to show automatically update content. Since automatic refreshing mechanism doesn’t require any actions from the user side, automatically update content shouldn’t display a refresh indicator.

When to Use Pull to Refresh

Swipe to refresh works good for lists, grid lists, and card collections that are sorted by recent content (a collection is strictly sorted by descending date). This collection usually represent constantly-updating stream of items, and you can’t use an automatically update content (e.g. sync) because as you scroll up to the top it’s almost expected that you’ll automatically scroll up past the top since new items will be downloaded automatically all the time. So, instead of having the UI just automatically load more, the pull-to-refresh gesture is used to give the user a chance to “back out” of the refresh operation. Appropriate use cases for pull-to-refresh are:

  • Content feeds (Twitter, RSS)
  • Inbox messages (Email, SMS)

Twitter, for instance, has a list of tweets which is ordered with recent tweets on the top. User pull to see the most recent tweets. They reach the top of the list — last tweets are added.

Image credit: cyrilmottier

Image credit: cyrilmottier

When You Shouldn’t Use Swipe to Refresh

Swipe to refresh should not be used in the following situations:

  • Homescreen widgets. Because homescreen widgets should update content automatically.
  • Image credit: Material Design

    Image credit: Material Design

  • Maps. Because maps have no primary direction or content origin from which users can presume the swipe to refresh gesture will originate.
  • Image credit: Material Design

    Image credit: Material Design

  • Non-ordered list. If the user isn’t looking at an ordered list view in the first place, there is no expectation that pulling down will do refresh, and the gesture is therefore neither discoverable nor intuitive for the user.
  • Low “update rate” content. If the application does not contain content that typically needs to be refreshed on a frequent basis, the gesture is less necessary because there is a little chance the list/grid/card collection will need to be updated while the user is looking at it. Example: a weather widget.
  • List items are sorted in chronological order. For a vertical scrolling view that sorts items in chronological order (oldest first), you should use a refresh button, because pulling down to append items at the bottom of a list would be awkward.
  • Special content types. Cases such as live stock data/charts, server/background process monitoring or auction reporting when the thing to be refreshed becomes stale within the space of a minute or less.

How to Design Refresh Indicator Transitions

Transitions should act as intermediaries between the different states of the UI, helping users to understand what is going on when the screen changes. As the refresh indicator translates and/or scales into view, it should remain visible until the refresh activity completes and any new content is visible, or the user navigates away from the refreshing content.
Do: Keeping the refresh indicator in view during content update. Image credit: Material Design

Do: Keeping the refresh indicator in view during content update. Image credit: Material Design

Any user activities with content on the view during this update (such as scrolling) should’t move the refresh indicator off-screen:

Don’t: Hide the status of the refresh activity. Image credit: Material Design

Don’t: Hide the status of the refresh activity. Image credit: Material Design

Design Tips

Pull-to-refresh vs. “Refresh” Button

A lot of developers consider using ‘pull-to-refresh’ as a way to save space on screen. And it obviously saves space as nothing is visible on screen at all. But like with any other gesture based action, you have to know it’s there. Thus, it’s not as intuitive as a simple but clear “Refresh” button. Most of the time a refresh button would have been way easier to implement from a developer perspective and to use from a user point of view (since it’s always visible and available).

Refresh button for iOS app

Refresh button for iOS app

Refresh Time

A user’s wait time begins the moment when they swap the screen (initiates an action). Immediately, the system should give some visual feedback to communicate that it has received the request. A big part of UX is keeping a user informed about what’s happening and reassuring him or her that the app is working properly. The user’s confidence that the refresh happened directly related to its technical representation. That’s why your refresh indicator should continue to spin until the data is available. This engages the user and prevents confusion.

Thumb-Reach Issue on iPad

The action of pulling when visualizing a list is natural on a mobile device, but it looks kind of odd on the iPad in landscape mode. You need either stretch your thumb or put the device on a flat surface in order to comfortably operate with UI.

Image credit: tapsmart

Image credit: tapsmart

Functional Animation

Pull-to-refresh is a great place for creativity. As it was said before, transitions should act as intermediaries between the different states of the UI. Animation for pull-to-refresh can help the user to follow the motion of an element on the screen and to understand exactly how the two UI states are related.

Smooth transitions makes the interface feel weightless. Image credit: Zee Young

Conclusion

Used correctly, pull-to-refresh acts as facilitators for content update interaction, with feedback, notifications, and sometimes even a little entertainment.
Main image credit by Tubik

About the Author: Nick Babich is a software developer and author of a blog dedicated to usability