Keyboard and Touch: Like Peanut Butter and Jelly

As touch design becomes more prevalent in the computing world, especially with the next Windows touch-enabled release and touch-enabled Ultrabooks™ this fall, we’re starting to hear more discussion around the keyboard as a viable method of input. There seems to be two definitive camps on the subject: one side wants the “purity” of touch and nothing else, the other aims for a more moderate view and says that touch and keyboard can be used in tandem for a fully holistic, more productive experience. Now, I don't want to ruffle any feathers (you can read Death of the Mouse? if you'd really like to get hot under the collar), but is there really validity for a so-called "pure" touch experience? Is getting rid of the keyboard something that should even be seriously considered? Are we moving towards a completely touch-only computing age? In this article, we’re going to take a look at the touch experience without the keyboard, evaluating this perspective both from the developer and the consumer side. We’re going to pretend that the upcoming touch-based Ultrabook isn’t coming with a nifty keyboard, and in fact, only offers touch as an input method. Let’s take a look at what all of this might look like.

Pro: Touch is everywhere Touch enthusiasts are really in their element lately, especially with the impending fall touch-enabled release of Microsoft Windows and touch-enabled Ultrabooks (of course, those come with keyboards, but for the sake of this discussion we’re ignoring that). Touch inputs can be found everywhere, from gas stations to refrigerators to phones. It’s the most basic of human interactions, and it’s slowly but surely making its way into the technology that we use. There's no doubt about it - we are moving towards touch being expected as a standardized feature.

Con: Touch is everywhere Touch just doesn’t “work” in certain situations, at least not yet. Can you imagine trying to create a complicated Excel spreadsheet using only your fingers? Pass me the Tylenol, stat. And why does my washing machine need a touch interface that connects me to Twitter, for Pete’s sake? Do my followers really need to know that I’m washing lasagna stains out of my bathrobe? Just because you can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean you should.

Pro: Apps Apps designed with touch in mind are becoming more and numerous, especially with tools like appMobi that make designing with HTML5 and integrating touch sensors a streamlined, less stressful, and more productive process. With the new touch-enabled Windows release this fall, Windows 8 UI-style aps will have the advantage of even more market penetration. Apps designed for this OS along with the touch-enabled Ultrabooks therefore have a double-team advantage.

Con: Apps There are a lot of designed for touch apps that work perfectly. Heck, there are a lot of apps NOT specifically designed for touch that still work pretty well with touch. But we’re a ways from full market adaptation. There are a lot of apps (what used to be called “programs” for all you young whippersnappers) out there, and not all are going to work well using only touch as an input method.

Pro: Closer to content One of the most appealing features of touch-enabled design is how it makes the content much more intimate, playful, and overall just more fun to interact with. Touch design "cuts out the middleman", so to speak, of traditional desktop GUI controls (pointers, icons, forms, etc.), making it easier to get to what you want, fast.

Con: Closer to content Getting users “closer to content” is great, but what do you do with them once you get them there? Sometimes textual input is needed, and while virtual keyboards are convenient, your WPM speed tends to dip down pretty low when using them. This is something I see improving as better touch design paradigms evolve.

Pro: Touch design What does it mean to "design for touch", and is developing for touch something that has to be done exclusively outside of the keyboard/mouse GUI? Absolutely not, but there do need to be some basic principles kept in mind. Design boundaries for touch include setting proper space between targets, making the targets large enough to hit with a wobbly finger, getting rid of unnecessary inputs, and keeping it simple. Simplicity of design is something that all good developers strive for, and touch forces that simplicity to be part of the inherent design, rather than a hurried afterthought. It’s an impetus for cutting-edge development that takes into account all the best of the principles of design.

Con: Touch design Developers used to programming with the standard desktop GUI in mind will have some catching up to do as far as developing for touch. But that's the nature of programming, isn't it - always moving forward.

Pro: Evolution of form factors The sleek designs of new devices coming out these days practically scream out for touch-enabled GUIs. Moving from clunky PCs that took up an entire desk to a slim tablet with x-amount times the computing power that you can hold in your hand, using just a finger to accomplish something? Now, that's amazing. The form factors of smartphones, tablets, and now PCs (Ultrabooks in particular) lend themselves towards touch-enabled design. The posture of how we hold these devices is a natural fit for using our fingers as the input methods. For example, we hold a smartphone in one hand and use our thumbs to scroll past content. We hold a tablet in both hands and use our thumbs in tandem with our index fingers to flick, pinch, or select targets. The movements are natural, relaxed, and almost on a sub-conscious level. This is what touch design aims for: to make the experience as unified as possible with as little interference as possible.

Con: Evolution of form factors While the devices we use are definitely evolving, that doesn’t necessarily mean that touch is the only input method we need. Sure, tablets and smartphones have had touch for a while. But what kind of activity are we primarily seeing on these devices as opposed to devices that have attached keyboards? It’s all about content consumption vs. content creation. Touch lends itself to the consumption side simply because it’s fiddlier to create something with your fingers; keyboards lean to the creation side because a keyboard makes it dead simple to get something out there. This isn’t rocket science; simply an observation of how we work as humans.

Pro: Argh, my aching back! One of the more basic benefits to touch-only is simply less “stuff” to haul around. Anyone who’s had to haul around a backpack full of equipment for several hours knows what I’m talking about. Touch makes some of this equipment unnecessary, and as technology evolves, we’re going to see more devices that are integrated with other devices, such as phones and tablets, etc., making for even less weight in that backpack. One notable exception to the Aching Back Club is the Ultrabook, which weighs about as much as a full can of soda. The upcoming release of the new touch-enabled Ultrabooks in the fall is going to make those of us looking for lighter solutions very happy.

Con: Argh, my aching back! Remember my point about content creation vs. content consumption? We might have less to haul around with a pure touch device, but when it comes to typing up an 800-word essay on the beauty of morning bacon, well, you’d better clear some time in your calendar. There are plenty of lightweight keyboards out there, both attached and detachable, that won’t add any weight to that backpack.

Pro: Easy adoption Detractors of touch might postulate that touch might be difficult for some segments of the consumer population to catch on to, that it might not be seen as intuitive compared to the more traditional input methods. However, a recent study overseen by Daria Loi, UX Innovation Manager at Intel, took on the task of seeing how subjects in different countries and walks of life would interact with touch-enabled Ultrabooks (see The Human Touch: Building Ultrabook™ Applications in a Post-PC Age). The results were encouraging as far as adaptation: an overwhelming majority of the subjects surveyed were “delighted” with touch, found it very easy to work with, and were prepared to pay more for the touch experience (good news for developers looking for ways to monetize their apps!).

Con: Easy adoption That same study mentioned above didn’t just test touch responses. Since the Ultrabook is touch-enabled – meaning it’s got touch AND keyboard – users were using touch and the keyboard in tandem. The experience got rousing thumbs up, with responses ranging from “very natural” to “intuitive”. Going from the keyboard to touch and back to the keyboard again was found to be a very pleasant, dynamic experience for the vast majority of the study subjects. Touch or keyboard weren’t necessarily favored over the other; rather, subjects found that using these input methods in tandem brought about the most natural, productive experience.

The times, they are a'changin' We’ve discussed how designing for touch forces developers to streamline their designs, simply because there’s not enough room to fit all the “stuff” that was there before and still make targets touch-enabled. This design evolution is great for a back to the basics flashback, but it also makes you wonder what is coming next in the world of touch. What will savvy, creative developers come up with next? Voice and touch in tandem? Maybe a little bit of Minority Report/Iron Man UI interaction? Who knows, but it’s definitely an exciting time to be a developer, especially when you consider that the very first touch-enabled Ultrabook is just around the corner. We’ve also looked at keyboards as a necessary part in the process of content creation and development. While apps and touch design have definitely come a long way, most people prefer having the keyboard in order to write anything longer than your standard Facebook cat lady update. Overall, touch is a game changer. It forces simplicity in design, creates a more intimate user experience, and gives our backs a break. However, a new(ish) input method doesn’t mean that everything else needs to be thrown out the window. The keyboard has been, is, and will continue to be an integral part of any smart computing system out there. Touch works with the keyboard to enhance the computing experience, just like peanut butter and jelly. One without the other is good, but together? Even better.

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