Touching the… something

You may recall I’ve had words on various touch gadgets in the past, like here or overthere – this post I thought I’d devote to a designer’s look at touch technology itself, so let’s dig in:

– undoubtedly riding the coattails of both the ridonkolously successful iPhone/Pad and their own attemps at mobile OS, Microsoft have started teasing Windows 8. Now, if one did not much like MS, one might ask why one should believe they can make that work when Win-7 clearly ended up as little more than a graphic front-end on XP but that would be outside the scope of this article, and… whoops, I guess I did ask it after all.
Anyway, that’s not the point – the point is, MS want to be the first to apply what is essentially the user interface of a smartphone to a “PC”, as they call it. Complete with swiping, tiles, apps, the whole shebang.

Behold:

The above video became the straw that made me start writing this, and now I must explain why…

Well, in one of the articles I linked at up at the beginning, I mention hotkeys and such, and I also berate the lack of an actual, physical keyboard – at the heart of it, these two complaints are the problem with touch.
Of course, you may think that hotkeys are the stuff o’ geeks, and certainly there are ones you (or even I) have never heard of, but if you’re being but a little productive on your computer, chances are you use some, like cut/copy/paste, or arrow keys or tab, for example.

Then there’s the physical keyboard itself – it relates to touch like a church organ does to a harmonica. What I mean is, even if you’re the most dexterous person you know, the number of possible gestures you can squeeze out of ten fingers (even if none are used to hold the device) pales in comparison to the number of combinations even a relatively-fumbling person can manage with those ten fingers and a qwerty keyboard – there’s just way more material there, which means potential access to a greater number of practical shortcuts.

But there’s something more to the difference between touch and an actual keyboard, and it’s the same reason that this never became popular:

It’s a laser keyboard, and it’s been around for almost twenty years but maybe you’ve never seen one in real life, as it never really caught on.
Why? Because it lacks something you probably didn’t know you needed in a keyboard (and indeed in many other cases): Tactile feedback.
Your fingers, flying mostly below the radar of your consciousness, rely heavily on feedback from the keyboard, and therein lies the rub: – anyone doing anything other than casual browsing (i.e. non-productive activities) on a device is going to experience significant slowing in interaction if, instead of the fingers instantly “knowing” if they hit those buttons or keys or not, and if they responed, you’d have to rely on a visual or audio cue (like a blink or a click) that you have to consciously take note of.
That’s why the F and J keys on your keyboard, and the 5 if you have a numerical pad, have a small bump – to tell you, at a near-subconscious level, that your fingers are in the right place.

This is hyper-low tech – it’s tactile response, something we’ve had since we were friggin monkeys, having snuck into everyday use (check your non-touch phone if you have one, see the little bumps? – see the little nubs on your headphones, telling you which is left and right?), and we rely on it so heavily we’re not even aware of it.

It makes sense – afterall, how often do you ever look down at your fingers, or any other part of your body, to check where it is? Usually (as in, when you’re not learning the tightrope, for example) you don’t have to because the body is exceptionally good at keeping you informed about what it’s doing.
Imagine doing something as simple as walking by consciosly deciding what to do with your legs and feet all along – this is head-explodingly difficult, and the reason some people never learn to walk fully again after certain types of injuries, namely the type that makes the body “forget” how it feels, and forces the concious mind to work it out instead.

The concious mind is good at many things – but being fast is not one of them.

So everyone who uses even slight amounts of blind-typing, which here means “anyone who ever take their eyes off the keyboard at any time during computer use”, is going to have to overcome this. Now granted, for much casual use speed is not of the essence, and you’ll probably be OK once you’ve got new routines but for most productive uses, touch is going to be a major hurdle.



(if you’re now sighing and rolling your eyes, mumbling to yourself how they’ll overcome that easily and soon, you should know that Nokia announced their tactile feedback touch keyboard as far back as 2007 – also something you’ve probably never seen or even heard of. Apparently it’s not that easy)

OK, so what am I saying here, that I want to outlaw – or at least diss heavily on – touch interfaces?
Of course not. Well, the dissing part may be true. But they’re cool, and what’s more, they are now popular with Microsoft, meaning we’re stuck with them even if they weren’t cool at all.

What I want to say with this article is this: – some very important details concerning humans and design are especially apt at flying below the radar and be overlooked, specifically because their place in whatever process we’re talking about is mostly (or completely) outside the spectrum of the conscious experience involved, even if they’re absolutely central to it.
I think we should devote specific attention to try and notice these details.
Not because we can’t make things that work otherwise – things like touch technology clearly works – but because we can make things that work even better if we do.

I also think touch interfacing has as much place on an actual computer as wifi on a sledgehammer, and by thinking this is the one goal of computer development now, to add touch to everything, MS and Apple both (damn, I wish we had more choices!) risk crippling the otherwise incredibly versatile tool a computer truly is.

Broader vision, people, broader vision.

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