I’ve been using Facebook’s new Chat Heads feature on my HTC One for a grand total of two hours. In that time, I’ve become convinced that the concept behind it is bigger than Facebook Home, Facebook Messenger, and could become bigger than even Facebook itself – at least insofar as it relates to smartphone UI design.

The quick rundown for those not yet indoctrinated into the new club of bubble-tappers: Chat Heads are floating overlays on your smartphone’s home screen. They’re circular icons containing avatars of friends you’re currently talking to via Facebook Messenger, and they can be stacked, reshuffled, or tossed away at your leisure. They can also be repositioned at almost any point along the sides of the screen.

Allowing for a spirited round of Spot The Chat Head.
Allowing for a spirited round of Spot The Chat Head.

Chat Heads are valuable because they provide one-tap access into Facebook Messenger, besting the usual Messenger alerts in Android’s persistent notification shade, which require a swipe and a tap to access. A Chat Head can even remove the need to enter Facebook Messenger at all, because it pops up a preview of inbound messages right on top of whatever you’re currently working on. If the message doesn’t require your reply, you can simply keep doing what you’re doing – the preview is small enough to stay out of your way, most of the time. Granted, the notification area above basically provides the same functionality in a more consistent manner, but that doesn’t make the on-screen alerts any less useful.

The existence of Chat Heads is significant because it moves us away from the idea of a one-dimensional smartphone OS. As a persistent overlay, it brings us closer to one of the few remaining advantages of the old desktop computing paradigm: layered multitasking. Chat Heads provides a capability that devices like Samsung’s Galaxy Note II and Note 10.1 also strive to replicate, with their split-screens and multi-windows. In some ways, it’s an even more powerful tool than Android’s much ballyhooed homescreen widget.

Android-Widgets
Chumps.

A Chat Head is more powerful than a widget because it’s always there, hovering over whatever you’re doing. You don’t need to hop to a particular app or a special home screen to access it; it’s already right alongside your memo, or your Twitter feed, or your webpage, or whatever it is you’re looking at on your smartphone.

Imagine, then, porting that concept to an application less narrow than an IM client. A stock ticker, say, for the business-minded, or a “Spotify Bubble” displaying a stream of lyrics for the currently-playing track. RSS feeds could take advantage of the right plugin to throw news onto the screen at intervals. Twitter apps could display tweets from a specific list or group. The possibilities are endless, and all of them are more powerful than their present-day widget alternatives because, once again: you don’t need to visit a home screen to see them. They’re already there as a hovering “head.”

floatinghead
Not like this.

Such an idea has as big a chance to annoy users as to add convenience, of course. There’s also the matter of limited smartphone real estate to contend with, a problem widgets had to deal with and which OEMs “solved” by building Android skins with more home screens. In an extreme future, Chat Heads could suffer the same fate: we could end up with our displays cluttered by too many floating orbs. But I think the possible benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, and that there’s potential in this idea to reinvent the way we manage information on our home screens.

There’s an interesting sign that Chat Heads won’t stop at IMs: Facebook has begun to offer SMS integration with Messenger. We may already be witnessing the early broadening of the Chat Head. The idea will be intriguing to some and repulsive to others – and it may ultimately fizzle just as some proclaim the HTC First will. In any case, it sure is exciting to think about the possibilities … because smartphone multitasking still has room for improvement, and there are only so many possible variations on the card-based metaphor.

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