Touchscreens are better than you think.
When you first use an iPad, you’ll be surprised how quickly you understand it.
Indirect and Direct Input
People see the iPad, and they see a touchscreen, and they think of an ATM. They conclude that it kind of sucks, and you couldn’t do real work on it. But newer touchscreens are better than what we’re used to. Not only can you use multiple fingers, but the iPhone (and iPad I’m sure) are very responsive. You get the sense of physically sliding an email message up and down with your finger, or stretching a map to zoom in. But by and large, people haven’t noticed that modern touchscreens are great.
We have forgotten that a mouse is an odd and clunky thing to use. When the Mac came out in 1984, tech writer John C. Dvorak famously pooh-poohed its focus on such a weird device. But the mouse has been better than everything else — trackballs, trackpads, arrow keys, joysticks — so we got used to it. But once upon a time, you had to learn to physically handle it, and that was difficult because using the mouse involves a chain of delegation:
- You - Mouse - Pointer - Button
You move the mouse, to move the pointer, to point at the button. Then you can click, but you have to hold it still. So the mouse and its pointer are tools you have to learn. You get good at it of course, and much like a musical instrument or sports equipment, it can be like an extension of your body. (I should know, I played a lot of PC games.) But you can never control a mouse as well as you can control your own body, and you have to adjust when you buy a new one. It’s still just a tool.
When you scroll a window, there’s another layer of indirection, and another tool that you have to learn:
- You - Mouse - Pointer - Scroll Bar - Web Page
This is like a game of “telephone”. Everyone knows that when the page is significantly long, a scroll bar becomes imprecise, and it doesn’t scroll right to where you want it. Because there is so much indirection, it’s difficult and sometimes frustrating to get the computer to do what you want.
Enter the touchscreen, and direct input:
- You - Button
- You - Web Page
You just tap the button, or slide the page. On a sensitive touchscreen running on a responsive device, it works as well as a physical button or a sheet of paper. To the extent that this is easier than using a mouse, iPhone and iPad are easier to use than a PC or Mac. Much like you can “just tap” a button, you can “just use” an iPhone to browse the web or read your email.
The iPad’s big screen will tear down all sorts of barriers because you’ll have enough space to work with two hands. We haven’t explored all the possibilities so we don’t know just how good it will be, but it’s definitely going to be better.
On the Nintendo Wii, the unique Wii Remote affords new ways to control video games, and by extension, new kinds of gameplay. Nintendo’s own Wii games take advantage of that — think of swinging the sword in Zelda. But the Wii Remote and its Nunchuk extension can be used very much like a Playstation or Xbox controller. So for the most part, third party developers don’t bother. They use the same old controls and the same old gameplay. As a result, the Wii doesn’t revolutionize video games like it might have.
On the iPad, user interface designers are forced to make new interfaces, because fingers are stubby and they can’t do what a mouse does. You couldn’t use the current PC incarnation of Photoshop on a touchscreen, because all the buttons are too small for your fingertips. You have to rethink it. So although the Wii Remote didn’t cause the changes in games that it could have, we can expect touchscreens to change computer interfaces.
So how do you adapt mouse-based apps to a touchscreen? iPhone apps typically leave out the functionality that isn’t so important. That makes the important parts very clear, and leaves enough space for fingertip-sized buttons. iPad developers are encouraged to do the same thing.
But the iPad also sets a new interface precedent with “popovers”. You can hide auxiliary stuff off screen, which leaves more screen space for your web page or email. The message list in the portrait view of Mail is a popover. You show the message list by tapping a button in the toolbar. Besides the toolbar, the rest of the screen is dedicated to reading one message at a time.
On an iPad, Photoshop’s main screen might consist of a photo, the paint color, and options for the current tool. Your tool palette wouldn’t be on the screen all the time, it would be hidden behind a button. Tap the button and the palette appears, then tap a tool and the palette goes away. The cost of that extra tap is real, but small. Yet with a mouse, it would be a big hassle to have to click twice just to pick the paint bucket tool.
Here’s an illustrative experiment.
Using your computer, see how long this takes in total:
- Reach and grab your mouse.
- Pick a menu on the screen, point to it, and click it.
- Pick one of the menu items, point to it, and click it.
Then, pretend your desk is a touchscreen, and time the equivalent:
- Tap a particular spot with your finger.
- Tap again, about two inches below it.
The mouse experiment takes a second or two, and it’s no wonder we have so many buttons in toolbars: They only take one click, in about half the time. Yet the touchscreen experiment takes about a quarter of the time.
A mouse is so slow, compared to your fingers, that minimizing the number of clicks is paramount. Everything that you might want to do at a moment’s notice has to be on the screen all the time.
… and Space
Because Photoshop’s tools are on the screen all the time, they must be small. Screen space is expensive, and there has to be space left for the photo. So they’re just icons, most of which are unclear at first. Photoshop even squeezes multiple tools into one button. But if the tool palette were only shown temporarily, the buttons could be much bigger, with clear text labels. So you could have nice big tool buttons, which are easy to identify and easy to tap.
Screen space is still precious, but taps are cheap. Given the addition of popovers, it’s very cheap to get additional screen space. So even though the iPad screen is only ten inches across, the user interface can be much bigger in total than on a PC. That means it can be clearer and simpler to use. Then, it’s easier and faster for a user to decide what to do, and it’s also easier and faster to communicate that decision to the computer.
Since taps are cheaper than clicks, and since they enable clearer interfaces, users are going to do more in a minute with their iPads than they would with their PCs. There’s less overhead, both in learning and in operation. In business apps for iPad, users could be demonstrably more productive than in their PC equivalents. (Just don’t forget the bluetooth keyboard accessory.)
Most companies sell electronics by listing features and doing flashy marketing. Then you buy it and it does all that stuff, but it’s only that good. Sometimes you’re let down because it doesn’t work as well as you wanted. Apple definitely does flashy marketing and they do list features. But when you use an iPhone or a Mac for a long time, you slowly realize it’s even better than you thought when you bought it. And that’s how they sell their next product.