Depending on who you talk to, touch (touch-based apps, touch screens, touch-based OS’s, etc.) is either the Second Coming incarnate or the downfall of technology as we know it. Love it or hate it, touch tech is definitely here to stay, and is becoming more ubiquitous all the time. Developers are usually the ones leading the charge for new technology, as they tend to be the mavericks trying out the new goodies before the rest of us and with great results: they can actually influence the widespread adaptation of a new technology by making it easier for “regular people” to use; i.e., better apps, interfaces, and tools. In this article, we’re going to talk about why it’s important for developers to be paying particular attention to touch, and look at what the future might hold for this intriguing technology.
Pros and cons of touch
Touch technology is everywhere, from Ultrabooks to Windows*8 to refrigerators to phones to tablets; you really can’t get away from it. This is the future whether we like it or not. Touch goes right along with the realm of perceptual computing, which is basically the merger of digital and organic worlds into a more intuitive overall interface:
“… Perceptual Computing is NOT a fad. It's not a here today, gone tomorrow passing fad. I'm going to go out on a limb and stake my reputation on saying that it is the future of all computing to come. Using it with a touch screen display like you get on the Ultrabooks really hits home how useful it will become.” – Simian Squared Go Perceptual: Ultimate Coder Week 5
Touch screens and touch-based apps are seen as more intuitive, a more instantaneous, connected way to interact with content. Users are given the choice of using several different kinds of input with their computing devices now, and it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. 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. Most users see 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.
Developers and Touch
Touch is beginning to be a standard that is making its way into more and more devices. Users want touch; what’s more, they’re starting to expect it as a customary feature. It’s an input method that works nicely alongside the keyboard; touch pad, mouse, and whatever else you might be using to access your content.
Touch may be one of the most basic competencies that we have in common as human beings, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy to integrate into the computing experience. 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.
Users have always needed input methods that are streamlined, non-fussy as possible, and effective. Even though touch is relatively new, that basic list of needs isn’t going to change. 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.
With a touch-optimized Ultrabook, users have many choices when it comes to input controls: the mouse, the keyboard, a touchpad, up and down keys, and touch. A well-designed app will allow the users to decide whatever kind of input is most convenient for them. Support each option equally well in your application and users will naturally gravitate to whatever works best for their unique needs.
The future of touch
The data definitely shows that touch screens aren’t going away. For example, according to Gartner, an IT research company, more than 50% of the PCs purchased for users under 15 will have touchscreens by 2015:
"By 2015, we expect more than 50 percent of PCs purchased for users under the age of 15 will have touchscreens, up from fewer than 2 percent in 2009. On the other hand, we are predicting that fewer than 10 percent of PCs sold to enterprises in 2015 for mainstream knowledge workers will have touchscreens," Leslie Fiering, research vice president at Gartner, Mashable.com
Taking this prediction and making a hypothesis, the Gartner analysts also predicted that in 10 to 15 years an entire generation of kids will have grown up comfortable with touchscreen devices:
"As with many recent technology advances, touch adoption will be led by consumers and only gradually get accepted by the enterprise," Leslie Fiering, research vice president at Gartner said in a statement. "What will be different here is the expected widespread adoption of touch by education, so that an entire generation will graduate within the next 10 to 15 years for whom touch input is totally natural."
Touch has an extremely low learning curve for the most part, which makes it especially alluring to children, who have a very high attraction to tactile displays. Don’t leave us old folks out of it though – there’s a lot of new touch tech coming out that is isn’t just for the younger set:
“Capacitive screens have now become a commodity for touch screen devices. Screen technology is now taking the next leap and the coming years imagination is the only thing stopping us. We will soon have dual screens, malleable screens, screens built into wifi connected mirrors, desks or backside of gadgets clothed with e-ink screens, tactile feedback, color screens with great contrast in sunlight, holographics/stereoscopic screens, color e-ink touch screens, or screens actually knowing where they are in relation to other screens thanks to ultrasonic emitters and microphones.” – Forbes, The Future of Touchscreen Technology
Now, this technology isn’t necessarily new, but the way it’s being integrated into form factors (like the Ultrabook™) is, and that makes for some exciting developer possibilities. These technologies are changing the way we develop apps; for example, a user could choose to open up a Facebook page simply by using a hand gesture, or Tweet with a blink of an eye and voice recognition. With the addition of the Perceptual Computing SDK to bundle this entire tech together, developers have a unique opportunity to usher in a whole new era of PC and computer interaction. Check out this video for a look at where touch could be in just a few years:
video courtesy YouTube user TATMobileUI
Where are we going with touch?
Touch is only going to gain popularity as the technology industry continues to evolve. Mainstream adoption of touch by both consumers and enterprise customers is at the beginning of what it could be. Developers who implement touch into their designs for an increasingly more demanding audience will be at the forefront of this new push towards more intuitive input.
Where do you see touch going in the next five, ten, or twenty years? What are your thoughts as a developer looking at how far we’ve evolved with touch – and where do we need to go? Share your thoughts in the comments.