Get In Touch: Design Principles to Remember

Published: 08/20/2012, Last Updated: 08/20/2012

One of the most exciting developments to come around in the personal computing space in the last several years is touch. We’ve got touch screens on nearly everything nowadays: smartphones, tablets, even refrigerators (does my fridge really need its own Twitter account?). With the advent of touch sensors in the next generation of Ultrabooks, we’re really going to see some fun stuff happening for both consumers and developers.

Recently, Luke Wroblewski shared a fascinating presentation titled “Re-imagining Apps for Ultrabook™ (Part 1): Touch Interfaces”. In this video, he shares his thoughts on the impact that new forms of input can have on both the consumer and enterprise sectors, especially touch. He also touches (see what I did there?) on the importance of following design principles and making sure that they make sense for the end user. In this article, I’m going to briefly go over the major points made in the presentation, as well as give my own thoughts on how touch can potentially affect both consumers and developers.

Ultrabook and touch

Touchscreens in Ultrabooks are coming right around the same time as touch-enabled Windows 8, as well as touch capability in convertible form factors (like the Lenovo Yoga). What does it mean to have touch? Well, basically this means that developers can create completely new experiences for users, utilizing features that typically have only been seen on mobile devices. It also means that consumers can enjoy a whole new way to work and play using a device that melds together structures from both tablets and laptops. Add in the Ultrabook’s high-powered processors, keyboard, and other desktop features, and you’ve got the best of both worlds.

Touch and consumers: what they are looking for

Daria Loi, UX Innovation Manager at Intel, recently spearheaded an innovative study titled "The Human Touch: Building Ultrabook™ Applications in a Post-PC Age". The study showed that out of the 81 participants in several different countries surveyed, a whopping 77% approved of the touchscreen experience, equating it to a “laptop with extra gear”. Touch-based interactions have traditionally been on mobile devices, but with touch-enabled Ultrabooks, touch is becoming part of the laptop experience as well.

This was really displayed well in one of the examples used in Luke's video of how we users interact with content. Using a touch-based interface is intuitive, almost on a sub-conscious level. We don’t necessarily need any controls to get where we’re going. We expand the content with our fingers, tapping and sliding and pinching. We move lists up and down intuitively, flicking fast. Instead of laboriously scrolling through all those vacation photos, we can almost hear the “fweee!” of the screen as we zip through hundreds of items at once. There are no clicking buttons, there are no scroll bars, and there are no icons. The middleman is gone.

Different paradigms

Most desktop apps follow the GUI paradigm of windows, icons, menus, pointers, etc. These don’t quite fit into the constraints of touch, and in fact, can be quite difficult to use with touch capabilities. And that’s okay – not all apps are going to lend themselves to touch (at least right away). New paradigms have to be developed in order to account for both the potential and the limitations of touch. Remember that touch study we talked about? Most users saw touch as another “tool” to be used in tandem with the keyboard, not an “if this than not that” proposition. They are used intuitively together to accomplish a wide variety of tasks.

Touch and developers: what to keep in mind

Obviously, touch is a paradigm that is making its way into more and more devices. Users want touch; what’s more, they’re starting to expect it as a standard feature. It’s an input method that works nicely alongside the keyboard.

Touch may be one of the most elementary capabilities known to humans, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to implement. There are a few things that developers need to keep in mind when designing for touch in order to make the experience as user-friendly as possible:

  • Space: Fingers are not the most precise of instruments. Space out controls in touch mode and ease frustration.
  • Content: The content is the interface, and not the tools. For example, filling out forms using touch is an exercise in futility. Make sure that your app uses proper target touch sizes. Try rethinking forms including elements such as an instant input mode and virtual keyboards.
  • Controls: Controls are necessary, but the standard icons and menu buttons don’t necessarily apply here. Use sliders, input boxes, and easily accessible checkboxes to reduce reliance on the keyboard, unnecessary steps, and sheer head-banging fury.
  • K.I.S.S.: The old adage of “keep it simple silly” certainly applies to touch. It’s an input method that forces simplification; you have to decide which actions are most important, what stays on the screen and what goes away. It can be a difficult process, but you end up with software that is easier to understand and therefore much easier to use.

Interaction is the end goal

Users need input methods that are streamlined, non-fussy as possible, and effective. In order to get people to interact with touch, developers have to design for predominately direct manipulation; i.e., you have to use your fingers to interact with the content. The content is the user interface, making a change from the graphic interface. Distance has effectively been reduced in touch, in other words, extra “stuff” like icons, fiddly little toolbars, and pointers just get in the way. Simple is best.

Touch is a game changer

Clearly, touch is an industry-altering change for both consumers and developers. The first step towards this exciting opportunity for developers is to firmly understand the principles around touch design, account for targets, postures, and discoverability. One way to accomplish this is to track the Ultimate Coder Challenge, a six week competition between six skilled developers that showcases Ultrabook technology as they create or reengineer apps to take advantage of Ultrabook features. In this contest, you can get a first-hand look at how touch is being implemented in all sorts of fascinating projects, anything from a dating app to money management to a rock ‘em sock ‘em wind-up robots game (really!). It’s a great way to dive right in to the possibilities that Ultrabook touch development has to offer.

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