Let’s start with some cases where a touchscreen does make a lot of sense -
- For a small device like a phone where you can hold the device and also touch the entire touchscreen at the same time.
- For experiences that translate well to touchscreens like air hockey or jigsaw puzzles or moving things and rearranging things.
- For people who are very touch-oriented. Basically, kinesthetics who think of the world primarily in terms of ‘feel’ and ‘touch’ - people who want to feel things for themselves, people who like to physically handle objects rather than view them or hear them.
There are also lots of other cases where touchscreens make sense.
Those are all valid uses – However, there is a myth that touchscreens need to replace everything. Which is what this post will address.
There are lots of things for which a touchscreen is completely unnecessary
This will probably come as a shock to people smitten by the concept of touchscreens – There are lots of devices for which a touchscreen makes zero sense.
Let’s consider a few examples (we’ll leave out painfully obvious examples like theater screens) -
- Cameras. You take pictures and you change settings. Buttons work just fine.
- Entering Text. A keyboard beats a touchscreen any day.
- Using a computer. You can get by pretty easily with a keyboard and mouse.
- Reading an ebook. The things you’re doing i.e. turning pages, marking sections, thumbing through the pages - don’t really need a touchscreen. Buttons or a keyboard work just fine.
- The TV. You don’t really need a touchscreen for the TV.
In some cases it actually hurts to have a touchscreen – replacing a computer’s physical keyboard with a touchscreen keyboard is a great example.
Just because an idea is cool or innovative doesn’t mean it’s optimal
Am typing this on an HP Touchsmart – the selling point is the big touchscreen. Which never gets used.
There are things like flipping through photos using your hands that are cool. However, the effort of raising your hand and touching the screen is too much – the right key on the keyboard and the mouse are much, much easier.
It’s the same if you’re reading a book on the iPad. It’s cool to be able to flip pages in animation – However, you’re reading a book. A button would work just as well. Highlighting is pretty awkward too.
We’re in the midst of this illusion that just because touchscreens are a cool, innovative new technology we should put them into everything. Well, for a lot of devices they just don’t make sense.
The Mouse and Keyboard as a layer of abstraction
The keyboard and mouse provide a few key things -
- The mouse provides an easy way to move anywhere on the screen without having to go to the physical screen. It’s a layer of abstraction with the mouse pad being the virtual screen.
- The keyboard provides easy text entry and lots of commands and lets us enter text and commands without impeding the view on the screen. It’s ‘extra space’ for entering commands and text.
- The keyboard and mouse together let us manipulate the screen without having to touch it or clutter it or hide it.
A touchscreen completely ignores this. A touchscreen assumes that the keyboard and mouse are relics of an age when we couldn’t make the screen touchable. The truth is that the screen is a completely separate entity from the keyboard and mouse. There are completely different functions fulfilled by each.
Just because we can roll the keyboard and mouse into the screen doesn’t mean we should.
It doesn’t matter how cool a touchscreen is – If it’s slower or less convenient than the keyboard and mouse then there’s a very real price to pay for the coolness.
The Touchscreen is inferior to the keyboard and mouse in what they do
More heresy for the ears of touchscreen devotees.
The mouse lets you jump to any spot on the screen quickly and easily. It then lets you choose between different actions – left click to highlight, double-click to select, right-click for menu, middle button for scrolling. The key is that a tiny movement with the mouse gets translated into a giant move on the screen. The key is that it’s very easy to do different things once you reach your destination point.
The touchscreen does not provide this reduction of effort. You have to actually touch the screen. You have to move exactly as much as the size of the movement on the screen. You also have to add in steps since there is just one ‘touch’.
You do add in actions like pinch and zoom and various combinations of touches – However, mouse buttons provide that too and there’s a limit to our fingers and the possible combinations.
The keyboard provides easy and quick and powerful text entry. It allows for typing on a flat comfortable surface and it allows this without blocking the screen. It also allows us to place the monitor at the height and angle most comfortable for us while typing with the keyboard at the level and on the surface most convenient.
It separates the entry of text and use of various commands from the screen on which text is displayed and the screen which is manipulated by these commands.
The touchscreen is woefully inadequate as a keyboard replacement. The on-screen keyboard is slower to use, it hides part of the screen, and it’s an ergonomic nightmare. All the ‘put it on your lap to type and bend your neck to view the screen’ is going to have non-trivial consequences.
We’ll eventually reach the point where we use Touchscreens only when they make sense
The iPhone is in many ways a red herring. The screen is very small so you can use it while holding it in one hand. You can easily reach any part of the screen. Most of the functionality doesn’t use a keyboard. It was the first time we had a good, working touchscreen used in a phone.
It basically was a really good device that used a touchscreen very well and in a setting where touchscreens made a lot of sense.
It doesn’t mean that every single device should get a touchscreen. Perhaps most importantly it doesn’t mean that our computers should be touchscreen devices and it doesn’t mean our eReaders should have touchscreens.
Assigning a value to the ‘coolness’ of touch
Touch is a selling point. It’s cool. It’s innovative. It’s new technology and it imbues the user with magical properties that the Gods themselves envy (well, perhaps not that last part).
In terms of actual practical benefits there are probably three categories of devices -
- Devices like the Phone where certain factors like the small screen size make it a good choice.
- Devices like eReaders where replacing the keyboard with a touchscreen may do more harm than good. Basically, devices for which a touchscreen isn’t exactly a killer feature – in fact it’s a non-factor except for marketing.
- Devices like TVs and remotes where a touchscreen would just be a gimmick. Where there is no way to pretend that a touchscreen adds value.
For the second and third category of devices the ‘coolness’ and ‘newness’ of touch means that it has some non-trivial value to users. It probably falls under the category of features that help a product be more appealing and sell but may not necessarily make it better.
So let’s assign it a value.
- For devices where it makes sense it’s a killer feature.
- For devices where it brings benefits and disadvantages it’s basically worthless except as a marketing feature. It’ll work for the first few years and then people will figure it out.
- For devices where it is a gimmick it’ll remain a gimmick.
eReaders fall into the second category. Touchscreens will help give touchscreen eReaders an edge until people figure out it adds very little to the actual reading experience.
While it will help sell more eReaders for the next year or two an excessive focus on touchscreen eReaders does have a significant downside - the opportunity cost.
The opportunity cost of an excessive focus on Touch for eReaders
At any given time there are multiple technologies competing for attention and market experimentation. Take the Kindle and the various directions Amazon can take it in -
- Adding color to the Kindle’s screen.
- Making the screen a touchscreen.
- Making the screen have much more clarity and better contrast and refresh faster.
- Support for video and animation.
- Improving the response speed and how fast everything happens.
If Amazon were to focus 80% of their energy on adding a touchscreen they’d also be taking 80% of their focus away from the other areas. Realistically, there are probably 2 main areas Amazon could focus on – So a focus on touch would mean 3 out of the 4 remaining areas get ignored.
Focusing on touchscreens may do more damage than good.
If we’re talking about devices where Touch is nothing more than a selling point (or isn’t even a selling point) then focusing on Touch means you miss out on an actually valuable feature. A feature that may be very marketable in addition to being very valuable.
Touchscreens are beginning to look like a dead-end for eReaders
How often do you actually use that touchscreen when you’re reading a book. On the Nook it’s an annoyance. On the Sony Touch Edition it’s OK and not a killer feature. On the iPad it’s OK but not a killer feature.
When it comes to reading, a touchscreen just isn’t as valuable as something boring like screen contrast or readability in sunlight.
Here are some actual killer features – Text to Speech, eInk, wireless downloads in 60 seconds, great screen contrast.
Here are some features that might be killer features for certain people – Color screens (for diagrams and illustrations), Dictionary feature, Search, carrying thousands of books.
Where do touchscreens fit in? Is touch a killer feature or just a distraction?
Do you think touchscreens make sense for eReaders? Does your ideal Kindle come with a touchscreen?
Filed under: eBook Reader Devices | Tagged: ereader design, touch kindle | 7 Comments »