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Good Touch, Bad Touch
November 4, 2011 9:19 AM   Subscribe

What touchscreens lack is something called affordance. It’s a lofty term for an object’s built-in ability to tell you how it works. A doorknob affords turning. The button on a car stereo affords pushing. A touchscreen affords nothing. It relies on software for any affordance, which in turn relies on total immersion for the user.... The days of analog affordance are gone. What we want, apparently, is to surround ourselves with touchscreens of varying size—tiny ones in our pockets, medium-size models for our laps and dashboards, and massive versions for our walls. We want tomorrow’s vintage shops to be lined with identical, blank, anonymous slabs. We want things to be vessels for software, and nothing more. - A Slate piece asks if touchscreens are becoming too ubiquitous
posted by beisny (97 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
YES.

And it's actually worse than that. It isn't just the built-in ability to tell you how it works. After all, once you learn it you don't need the hint anymore. But also the motions. I like touching things with my fingertips. But there's only so many different ways you can touch things with your fingertips and not all of those ways map well to real-world problems.

Thing of videogames where you are supposed to turn the doorknob by swirling your mouse pointer in circles. Or really any 3D game where you can only do operations in 2D and have to shift the camera around or do some other workaround to make it work right.
posted by DU at 9:24 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


A doorknob affords turning. The button on a car stereo affords pushing. A touchscreen affords nothing. It relies on software for any affordance, which in turn relies on total immersion for the user.

Why is this not a total bullshit distinction? A "button on a car stereo" affords pushing to us, but maybe not to someone living 1000 years ago. Similarly, the icons on an iPad screen "afford pushing" to my generation just fine. What's the meaningful difference between analog- and software-based affordance? He doesn't explain. His point about "immersion at 80 mph" seems stupid to me (bright touchscreen icons seem like they'd be easier to navigate with peripheral vision than black buttons) but maybe I'm not understanding.
posted by eugenen at 9:25 AM on November 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


My 3 and 5 year old nephews who intuitively understand how an ipad works would disagree.
posted by empath at 9:26 AM on November 4, 2011 [8 favorites]


...and this is why I still use a Blackberry.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:27 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


is wanking an example of affordance? or more like touchscreen?
posted by Postroad at 9:28 AM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


A touchscreen affords smudging.
posted by ceribus peribus at 9:29 AM on November 4, 2011 [17 favorites]


The point is, with a physical button, you can feel where you are and you don't have to look at the device to operate it, which is handy for e.g. skipping songs when your phone is in your pocket.
posted by kersplunk at 9:30 AM on November 4, 2011 [15 favorites]


is wanking an example of affordance? or more like touchscreen?

Joystick.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:30 AM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Not even getting into the issue that touchscreens are totally useless for the visually impaired.
posted by Melismata at 9:31 AM on November 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


Why is this not a total bullshit distinction?

Did you read the article? I'm guessing you didn't. Because while I thought this was going to be some Luddite nonsense the author makes a good point. It's about being able to use things without looking at them

An mp3 player with tactile controls can be used without looking at it. If I'm driving and I want to change songs on my Sansa Fuze, or a classic iPod for example I can just reach down and navigate forward and backward without looking at it.

For cars, touch screens are even worse. If you want to operate the thermal controls, or the radio or whatever it's easy to do once you get used to it without taking your eyes off the road. That's not the case if those controls are replaced with touch screens.
posted by delmoi at 9:32 AM on November 4, 2011 [15 favorites]


Touchscreens actually have very good affordance for pinching, sliding, dragging, etc with your finger... This is exactly why little kids take to touchscreens so well as empath points out.

You can't just say something "doesn't have good affordance". That's only half the sentence. A doorknob has good affordance for grabbing, turning. But it doesn't have good affordance for pinch to zoom. I mean, what does that even mean "affords nothing"?

I don't think they really understand what "affordance" means. They are correct that it doesn't have good affordance for pushing (thus texting without looking at it is really really hard) but I think what they meant is that it has poor tactile feedback, not affordance.
posted by like_neon at 9:32 AM on November 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


The point is, with a physical button, you can feel where you are and you don't have to look at the device to operate it, which is handy for e.g. skipping songs when your phone is in your pocket.

This is a solvable problem and not inherent to analog vs. software.
posted by eugenen at 9:32 AM on November 4, 2011


A "button on a car stereo" affords pushing to us, but maybe not to someone living 1000 years ago.

Yeah, I really think Erik Sofgre has not thought this through beyond the clickbaity "iPad: Threat or Menace" taglines. Touchscreens provide far more affordances for their functionality than virtually any other commonly used computer interface — because a control has to be visible in order to be manipulated, and has to show the user how to manipulate it. What he's really mad about is the softwareification of tasks that used to be handled by physical hardware, not touch-screens at all.
posted by RogerB at 9:33 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The switches on an Altair 8800 afford toggling.
posted by usonian at 9:34 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Yeah, it'd probably make more sense to say that the channels of potential affordance in current generic touchscreens are a lot narrower than for most interactive objects—you pretty much have to be looking, rather than feeling. That's not a lack of affordance, it's just a significant limitation. Haptic and audio feedback are both potential, currently-possible helpers as far as that goes.
posted by cortex at 9:35 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Improved: "Linkbait Headlines Like This One Tarnish The Legacy of Steve Jobs".
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 9:35 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Did you read the article? I'm guessing you didn't. Because while I thought this was going to be some Luddite nonsense the author makes a good point. It's about being able to use things without looking at them

I did. I get this point, but as someone says above, that's a question of tactile feedback and not affordance. I also think it's picayune, and doesn't really have anything to do with "software" or "analog." We can get to touch screens that give tactile feedback eventually, if there's demand for it.
posted by eugenen at 9:36 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I see none of the "LUDDITE!"-decriers have answered the question of how to turn a video game doorknob believably via a touchscreen. Among many other tasks.
posted by DU at 9:36 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Was it here or somewhere else that I recently saw the video of a baby with a magazine that made the point that for him it was, in effect, a broken iPad? He kept trying to touch things to activate them, and swipe to get a new page - which sort of worked, but it was clearly not optimal.

Yeah, it doesn't take much exposure at all for touchscreen interfaces to become second nature.
posted by Naberius at 9:38 AM on November 4, 2011


I'm still waiting for the digital interface that actually makes me sweat if I want it to -- that is, the game I can't win unless I get a good work out. Or on a subtler level, a keyboard that actually requires I deliver some oomph as I hit the keys. This kind of thing is actually good for folks with carpal tunnel and other tendon related issues.

We need our technology to get us more involved with the physicality of the world, not less. Touchscreens are a nice break from everything being keyboard/mouse driven ... but they're only the start.
posted by philip-random at 9:39 AM on November 4, 2011


Alternately: Yes, I agree, touchscreens are too expensive.
posted by Naberius at 9:39 AM on November 4, 2011


Even the most basic example makes no sense if you stop to think for a second about somebody totally naïve to it.

I mean, how the hell does a doorknob “afford” turning, specifically? What in the world about a semi-sphere extending out of a wall on a stick says I'm supposed to grip it firmly around its circumference and twist, rather than stroke it, use it as a lever, hip-check it, punch it into the wall, pull it out from the wall, or wiggle it?

I’ve been socialized to use doorknobs, but drop somebody from 10,000 BC in front of a doorknob and it might take a while before they figure out what to do with it. Prrrrobably around the same amount of time it takes them to figure out what to do with a touchscreen.
posted by Shepherd at 9:40 AM on November 4, 2011 [7 favorites]




The original article does not do a good job of working with the term affordance. It assumes affordances are by necessity a physical thing. In software design and in media, they need not be. MetaFilter has a commenting affordance. Our existing television system, by contrast, does not have one built in. Radio has the ability to afford both one-to-many and many-to-many communication, but our mass radio system only uses one of those affordances.

While I understand that "affordance" is not a term most people know, and thus further specifying "physical or tactile feedback affordance" might have overburdened the article's prose, I do worry that not being more specific has given the article's audience affordances to express Luddite worries about touchscreens. Which, as an educator and user experience designer, I think is throwing the baby out with the bathwater: touchscreens and other non-text, gestural interfaces are a huge win for learners, those with disabilities, people with repetitive stress disorders, etc.

But I feel you on the smudged touchscreen affordance thing. While I was writing this on my smartphone, the screen became hopelessly smeared with lasagna.
posted by gusandrews at 9:42 AM on November 4, 2011


This is why you can buy stick-on joysticks and bluetooth keyboards for the iPad. The device has a real problem when it comes to doing anything other than point at something. And it's also why tablets aren't going to be reach their full potential as tools for design until they get a pixel-accurate pointer that isn't sitting directly under your big fat finger.

Which isn't to say I don't love my iPad. But I'd never use it for playing music, because I listen to music at night, in the dark, and my little Sansa Fuze has controls that I can operate by touch.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 9:43 AM on November 4, 2011


I see none of the "LUDDITE!"-decriers have answered the question of how to turn a video game doorknob believably via a touchscreen.

Huh? Who cares? The way you make a "doorknob" with a touchscreen is by having a touch screen with a button that says "Open." If you have a simulated door in a video game universe that for some reason has a doorknob that has to be turned -- I don't know. You figure it out.
posted by eugenen at 9:44 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have been playing around a lot with softsynths on an iPad... You have real nice looking operable images of bakelite knobs. Some you "turn" by dragging your finger up and down in a straight line. Others you "turn" by sort of moving your finger in a circular manner around the knob. In some apps you can change how they work. In the real world you turn knobs all in the same way, using your handy opposable thumb and a finger or two. Touchscreens emulate the "look" of real things, but they don't behave like real things. Maybe we should drop this real world look of knobs and buttons and replace it with some sort of touchpanel world of pokeable and draggable objects?
posted by njohnson23 at 9:44 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm still waiting for the digital interface that actually makes me sweat if I want it to -- that is, the game I can't win unless I get a good work out.

Wii/Kinect/Move fitness games? Not that you can't game them if you want, I suppose.

Or on a subtler level, a keyboard that actually requires I deliver some oomph as I hit the keys.

Model M!

While I was writing this on my smartphone, the screen became hopelessly smeared with lasagna.

I don't think you're supposed to use spaghetti as a stylus.
posted by kmz at 9:46 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I see none of the "LUDDITE!"-decriers have answered the question of how to turn a video game doorknob believably via a touchscreen.

By touching it and seeing what happens. Doorknobs in reality aren't magic, they don't actually communicate their intent to someone who has never encountered one. You learn to use a doorknob by touching it, by seeing what happens. You turn it, it turns, door opens, you have now learned how to open a door using a rotating doorknob.

Figuring out how to turn a doorknob on a touchscreen is the same story. You try touching it. You use the tools you have available to you for apprehending a novel object, you investigate, you learn.

A well-designed virtual doorknob will respond to easily guessable input, a poorly designed one will not, and the issues of both interface design and general cultural familiarity with the vocabulary of touch screen motions comes into this, certainly, and we're in a weird (and interesting) place where that vocabulary is still developing. But mistaking that for Real Doorknob Good, Virtual Doorknob Bad, is silly.
posted by cortex at 9:46 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I love the touch screen on my phone but use a Sansa Clip to listen to music when I'm running for exactly the reasons that he talks about. I don't want to have to look at the thing to skip a song. I'll never buy a car with a touch screen for the same reason; I don't have to look at the volume knob to use it.
posted by octothorpe at 9:47 AM on November 4, 2011


>> Not even getting into the issue that touchscreens are totally useless for the visually impaired.

No more inherently so than a monitor and keyboard, or a book for that matter. It all depends on what measures have been taken to provide an accessible interface.
posted by JohnFredra at 9:47 AM on November 4, 2011


The way you make a "doorknob" with a touchscreen is by having a touch screen with a button that says "Open."

Exactly my point. Software has a very limited interaction mode that both the designer and user have to work around. Which means there are some tasks they are ill-suited for.
posted by DU at 9:47 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


phillip-random, the dance games for the Kinect and Wii are really good for making you sweat. As Dance Dance Revolution has been, for the last decade. Or did you not mean literal sweat?
posted by gusandrews at 9:48 AM on November 4, 2011


The point of a doorknob isn't that it turns, it's that it opens a door.
posted by empath at 9:50 AM on November 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Has anyone here been inside a Mercedes (or maybe it's a BMW) with that stupid wheel thing? I tried to set the clock in one of them and after ten minutes of navigating through every single menu, I just gave up. Now, in my VW, there is a small analog knob right below the clock that you turn to the left to set the hours and turn to the right to set the minutes. It's not immediately obvious that this is the function, but after doing it exactly one time, you can adjust for daylight savings/new time zones at a stop sign. Oh, and also, in the Merc, don't think about changing radio stations or adjusting the air conditioning while you're trying to navigate those menus as these things are all controlled by the same monolithic software system.

After having read this article, I think this is pretty much what the author is complaining about -- things that are good design for cellphones are not necessarily good design for EVERYTHING.
posted by artichoke_enthusiast at 9:50 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Eh, I'm no fan of touchscreens, but I don't really like videogames where I have to simulate real world actions too closely. (At least in traditional controller games. Kinect/Wii type things are different.) I want to hit A or left trigger to open a door, I don't want to have to turn my left stick or QTE type bullshit. (This is one of the reasons I have no interest in Heavy Rain.)
posted by kmz at 9:50 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


There was some vibrate on touch feature in the BlackBerry Storm which actually made typing worse than normal touch screens.

Also, obligatory Bad Touch.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:52 AM on November 4, 2011


I teach human-computer interaction courses, and the description of affordance is mostly (but not quite) right. Touchscreens may not have many physical affordances, but they still can have visual affordances that suggest how to use them. Examples of visual affordances on touchscreens would be 3D-looking buttons, or tabs, or other kinds of GUI widgets that suggest that you can interact with them.

The notion of affordances is also sometimes a bit circular, as eugenen commented. However, I would still argue that the physical design of objects often do tend to make certain actions more perceivable and doable than others. For example, it's much easier to turn a door handle down than up (and I've actually seen a door handle that went up, which had a sign that told you to pull up since no one got it right). This is the more direct notion of an affordance, one that relies less on convention and learned expectations.

As a fun experiment, go to your nearest cafe and see how many people can use the door right. If you think about it, there are only four things you can do with a door: push it, pull it, slide it, or stop in front of it and hope it has an electronic door opener. Given that there are only four possible actions, it's still surprising how many doors still "trick" people into doing the wrong thing. There's one cafe I tell students to go near our campus to just to see this happen, and it's an eye-opening experience for many of them.

As an aside, there also are touchscreens that offer physical feedback now. I've played with touchscreens that push back against you in the right places as you push, which feel almost like real buttons. Another project I've seen is looking at how to have adaptable screens that dynamically change the physical characteristics of the screen to have buttons. These are still research prototypes though.
posted by jasonhong at 9:53 AM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


The knob thing is called iDrive, it's on BMWs, and it sucks - the learning curve is steep, and it takes the driver's attention away from the road. (wiki)
posted by fragmede at 9:57 AM on November 4, 2011


Why is this not a total bullshit distinction?

Writers gotta write, publishers gotta publish.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:00 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think sour grapes is a very good response to my claim that software can't do everything the real world can.
posted by DU at 10:02 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


My 3 and 5 year old nephews who intuitively understand how an ipad works would disagree.

This is a good point. When my niece was 3 or so, she couldn't really make the connection that pressed the d-pad or buttons made Mario run and jump on screen. But when a game required tilting the device or pressing directly on the screen (this was a Nintendo DS) everything was fine.

As far as the doorknob example, at least now you can just touch the doorknob. Before you would either move the mouse and click on the doorknob, or worse, make sure your character is standing in just the right place so the "Press X for Doorknob" command comes up. The touchscreen isn't the perfect solution, but it's a step closer.
posted by Gary at 10:02 AM on November 4, 2011


I can't understand why people here are getting defensive about touchscreens. Just because they're great for certain devices doesn't mean they're great for all devices.

In-car is the best example of why touchscreens should not become pervasive. While it's inevitable that they'll become the predominant interface for infrequently used functions, for tasks that you perform several times per car trip, they're a complete disaster. Not only can they not be operated by feel alone, there's not even any muscle memory for control location because the entire set of controls varies depending on what menu they're in.

So whereas with, say, a physical fan speed knob that you can both reach for and turn without even looking, a touchscreen requires that you first look to make sure it's displaying the correct menu, find the appropriate on-screen button to take you to the menu you need, press the button, find the on-screen button that controls the fan speed, and press it, all the while having to look at the screen because touchscreens provide no feel or physical feedback. And all this while piloting a ~4000 lb. vehicle.

I just can't see why anyone would argue that a touchscreen is good in such a scenario.
posted by esoterica at 10:04 AM on November 4, 2011 [12 favorites]


There is a fundamentally sound reason to design a device with a touchscreen instead of a keypad. Multiple applications, where the interface will vary from app to app. There really isn't a better or more elegant solution than the touchscreen.

Your car stereo or mp3 player are essentially single application devices. They don't need touchscreens.

The design failure occurs when designers start using touchscreens for devices that do not really need them. Designers might call for a touchscreen for marketing purposes, to appear to be on the cutting edge of technology, when the touchscreen really isn't necessary or desirable. Blue LEDs, I am talking about you.

The more likely failure will occur in the near future: touchscreens will be less expensive to produce than analog/mechanical/buttons/knobs/physical devices. Designers will have little option to justify the cost of a good tactile interface for a single application device, unless we are talking marketing again. A good example of this is the watch industry. Back in the 1980s, digital watches were a status symbol. Analog watches were on the way out. However, you see someone with a digital watch these days, and you wonder if they shop at the Dollar Store.
posted by Xoebe at 10:04 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


>> Software has a very limited interaction mode that both the designer and user have to work around.

So does a doorknob.
posted by JohnFredra at 10:05 AM on November 4, 2011


The article reads like the touchscreen fails in its usability. Of course it fails. It's fundamentally a compromise. We forget that as "cool" as it is to pinch, drag, expand, etc. (and btw, that "etc." represents a set of one: tap -- right??), this interface replaces more tactile interfaces that ONLY DO ONE THING. My touchscreen (as an interface) turns graphic cues up to 10 and tactile cues down to 0. That's a tradeoff, not an advance. If I wanted more tactile, I'd have to give up some intuitive (what do I type to get it to do X again?). If I don't care about tactile, but value intuitive highly, I use a touchscreen.

This infatuation with the touchscreen will wind up killing people as they become more ubiquitous in in cars. As noted above, there's really no safer, more ideal interface to a fan than throwing a switch and cranking a knob.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:06 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


>> Software has a very limited interaction mode that both the designer and user have to work around.

So does a doorknob.


Category error.
posted by DU at 10:06 AM on November 4, 2011


I don't think sour grapes is a very good response to my claim that software can't do everything the real world can.

Software is part of the real world, and nothing in the real world can do everything the real world can.
posted by cortex at 10:08 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


So as touch becomes the new standard, people with visual impairments should make do until cortical implants become practical?
posted by Iridic at 10:09 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Just make sure you're using door knobs and not door handles - door handles have a egregious security flaw when it comes to keeping velociraptors out.
posted by fragmede at 10:09 AM on November 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


nothing in the real world can do everything the real world can.

Yes, exactly my point. This is why we use different things to do different things.

Except for touchscreens, which people are trying to make do everything.
posted by DU at 10:11 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is the true story of two interface paradigms picked to be debated in a thread to find out what happens when interfaces stop being polite and start getting real. The Real World.
posted by kmz at 10:14 AM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Except for touchscreens, which people are trying to make do everything.

Except they're not trying to make them do everything, they're just trying to use them to do a wide variety of things. And some of those ideas will succeed, and others will fail, and so goes the natural evolution of design.

There was no holy doorknob handed down from heaven. There was no modern automobile sprung fully formed form Zeus' forehead. Design is iteration and experimentation and refinement and abandonment. The stupidest thing people could do with touchscreens is collectively decide not to try and figure out what does and doesn't work with them.
posted by cortex at 10:21 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


phillip-random, the dance games for the Kinect and Wii are really good for making you sweat. As Dance Dance Revolution has been, for the last decade. Or did you not mean literal sweat?

No, I meant the real kind of sweat and yeah, I'm aware of the Wii etc. I guess I should've been clearer and said, I want this sweat to be a serious fundamental of gaming. Period.

I remember a Brian Eno interview from a few years back where he bemoaned the fact that the digital world as we knew it (still do for the most part) was fundamentally flawed specifically because it had been developed by geeks and nerds -- that only geeks and nerds could imagine a universe where pretty much everything was accomplished while sitting down, picking away at a keyboard ... with both hands. Only geeks and nerds had both hands free and wanted to be sitting all the time. And so on.

Except for touchscreens, which people are trying to make do everything.

Fundamental flaw in how we adapt to new tech. You see it happen in music all the time. Somebody comes up with a brilliant breakthrough and suddenly it has to be applied to everything, whether it makes sense or not. The drum machine for instance. It was a common notion among many in say, 1984, that in the future, the drummer would be redundant. Who would want a drummer in their band if there was a machine that could keep time perfectly? As if perfect time was the only thing someone like Keith Moon had brought to The Who.

Likewise the techno scene in the early 90s. It was genuinely frowned upon (by some) to make music that required any kind of tactile human element when there were now cheap machines (samplers, sequencers etc) that could do EVERYTHING. I mean, a band like Underworld showed up who worked from techno/DJ end of things but they were HATED (by some) specifically because they had a singer and occasional guitar.

Now (leaving music behind) we're supposed to be able to do EVERYTHING with our phones, or our pads. Why?
posted by philip-random at 10:24 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Affordance is more about outcomes than input modalities. the affordance of a doorknob isn't so much turning as the behavior of what happens when one turns a doorknob. in today's interaction lingua franca we have an expectation that a turned knob -- or more appropriately a pulled/pushed doorknob -- will result in an opened door. The point of affordance is to give the user an expected outcome. if you turned a doorknob and the doormat opened like a trapdoor dropping you into the basement this would be a poor implementation of affordance by the designer.

Unless of course you are designing for Wiley E. Coyote.
posted by lomcovak at 10:26 AM on November 4, 2011


Gosh, if only Apple could come up with something that would allow users to control their device interfaces without either requiring them to look at the device itself or depend on touch to differentiate between controls--but what? What?!?!?
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:28 AM on November 4, 2011


My 3 and 5 year old nephews who intuitively understand how an ipad works would disagree.

Was it here or somewhere else that I recently saw the video of a baby with a magazine that made the point that for him it was, in effect, a broken iPad?


Both points that warrant underscoring. You want to know the real power of a touchscreen? Watch my developmentally delayed two-year-old with an iPhone. Just this morning, for the first time ever, he awoke it from sleep, unlocked it and found the stock ticker scroll he delights in watching. (He also restarted mrs gompa's Maria Bamford album, so the whole little miracle was set to a soundtrack of crank calls to the Bammer's mom in the voice of the Baby Jesus.)

I'm obviously biased, but I think one of Steve Jobs' most enduring and important legacies is going to be what he's done to provide tools to enable communication for the disabled. In my son's case, he's actually a pretty bright kid - his "cortical function" is probably at or near normal but his ability to use expressive language (both verbal and nonverbal) is profoundly delayed, meaning he can think and understand things quite well but can't show you what he knows to save his life. iPhone/iPad type devices are revolutionary tools for kids like him, and they'll only get better as developmental therapy professionals start designing tools expressly for them.

(Note to such designers: Please please please don't put a button in the corner that shrinks the fucking app down to half-size. Baby Jesus just called, and he said those buttons make him cry. Okay? Thanks.)
posted by gompa at 10:29 AM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Movies and Star Trek have taught me that in the future everything is done with touchscreens. Or even worse, that minority report handwaving stuff. The fact that some people actually look forward to this kind of future is terrifying to me. At least there were still physical keyboards in that stupid Microsoft future ad.
posted by kmz at 10:30 AM on November 4, 2011


Software is part of the real world, and nothing in the real world can do everything the real world can.

The touchscreen is the only thing today that tries claims to.

this comment typed on a physical keyboard without Autocorrect.
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:32 AM on November 4, 2011


We Europeans laugh at your non-intuitive stupid door knobs! You can't even open a door with your butt if it's got a knob!
posted by ymgve at 10:33 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


We can get to touch screens that give tactile feedback eventually, if there's demand for it.

This would be a much better solution than going back to fixed buttons. My car stereo is great for adjusting the volume or station while driving, but kind of sucks at everything else. The interface falls down completely twice a year when I have to try and remember how to adjust the time. I think you have to hold down (not click) the knob, but first you might have to press "mode" a couple times. The interface that affords changing the volume doesn't really afford much else.
posted by Gary at 10:34 AM on November 4, 2011


The worst thing about touchscreens in a car is that you have nothing to rest your finger on.

When you attempt to push a button on a car stereo, there is a very, very quick moment in which your skin touches the button but you haven't pushed it in yet. Your body uses the friction of that contact to stabilize your finger against the button, and your body uses the feel of the button to correct your aim.

A touchscreen provides neither of these, because it triggers the action on that initial contact, so you cannot stabilize and correct...and that is why you feel like an awkward idiot when you try to thumbs-up something on Pandora while you drive, and it takes three times because you keep hitting hitting the "button" off-center.

I say this from personal experience

So this article was inevitable, I think, because it is correct.
posted by davejay at 10:36 AM on November 4, 2011


Not even getting into the issue that touchscreens are totally useless for the visually impaired.

While it's just one example of a touchscreen device, blind people love the iPhone.
posted by zsazsa at 10:37 AM on November 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Gosh, if only Apple could come up with something that would allow users to control their device interfaces without either requiring them to look at the device itself or depend on touch to differentiate between controls--but what? What?!?!?

The problem with natural language processing siri-style search comes when you are in a bus, middle school classroom, concert, bar, or other noisy environment, not because it might confuse Siri, but because it would be maddening to have everyone shouting at their phones to turn down their music and check if they have any mail from their boss. Maybe bluetooth throat microphones are the next big thing?

Maybe we'll all just be maddened.
posted by LiteOpera at 10:37 AM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also: one of the reasons kids over a certain age have an easier time with touchscreens is that their aim is better without requiring as much stabilization or correction.
posted by davejay at 10:37 AM on November 4, 2011


Oh, and yeah, this problem could be corrected quite well if we provide that tactile feedback on touch, allow users to slide their fingers around, and then activate the button on release -- but that has its own issues, such as the non-intuitive way you'd have to interact if you didn't want to press the button after all.

it would allow us to bring back the hover state for touchscreens, though
posted by davejay at 10:39 AM on November 4, 2011


"Trying to make everything do everything" is what inventors do all day. If touchscreens fail to work well for some purpose or other, they won't sell in that market. That's the way it's supposed to be.

Incidentally, DU, touchscreens aren't software. They are hardware. An input device, specifically. There are others, some of which resemble doorknobs. You're correct that software can't emulate those, but software can't emulate any other input device, either, unless you just want a robot that opens the door for you.
posted by LogicalDash at 10:40 AM on November 4, 2011


As I tell my students when we tour the campus looking at interface choices and trying doors that don't open in the ways that one expects, or that the "doorknob interface" would cause you to imagine that they work: We've been making doors for at least 4000 years, and we're still screwing them up.

I think this could be a category error, as mentioned: there's nothing to say that touchscreens can't have a haptic interface, a "feel" . Right now, most of the interface models that do so rely on piezoelectric elements under the touchscreen to provide tactile feedback, but I can totally imagine near-future improvements that provide touchscreen interfaces with feelings of "resistance" or "clickiness".
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 10:58 AM on November 4, 2011


Anyone else watch "The Departed" and see where Ben Affleck sends the text secretly from his pocket and think man I miss that? And marvel at how fast it became antiquated?
Anyway, somebody was playing around with the development of touchscreens which had little inflatable cells for when you wanted buttons. I wonder what ever came of it.
posted by hypersloth at 11:00 AM on November 4, 2011


Ha, oops, I mean Matt Damon.
posted by hypersloth at 11:05 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Resistive touchscreens have been around longer than capacitive ones, though I don't think anyone's tried to combine the two. I guess you'd use the capacitive layer for hovering and the resistive one for clicking?
posted by LogicalDash at 11:06 AM on November 4, 2011


Anyway, somebody was playing around with the development of touchscreens which had little inflatable cells for when you wanted buttons

I think a screen with an individual cell per pixel that can rise an fall a certain (and analog) amount -- like this but much, much smaller -- would be amazing. Hardware buttons generated on the fly for whatever you're doing!
posted by griphus at 11:06 AM on November 4, 2011


I'll take touchscreen and the lack of affordance over the stupid skeumorphic stuff Apple and others have tried to do over the last ten years. The worst violator was WinAmp's volume control dials... actual dials you'd move with a mouse click and drag.
posted by dw at 11:07 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is a solvable problem and not inherent to analog vs. software.
What? How exactly are people supposed to use a touch screen without looking at it?
I mean, how the hell does a doorknob “afford” turning, specifically? What in the world about a semi-sphere extending out of a wall on a stick says I'm supposed to grip it firmly around its circumference and twist, rather than stroke it, use it as a lever, hip-check it, punch it into the wall, pull it out from the wall, or wiggle it?
Talk about missing the point. First of all my friend's cat was able to figure out how to use a doorknob (although he couldn't actually turn it with his paws, he would grab at it and paw it in a circular motion, then look at us expectantly). It's something that people can get with a single example.

Secondly, you're confusing the definition of "affordance" with the definition of "afford"
Huh? Who cares? The way you make a "doorknob" with a touchscreen is by having a touch screen with a button that says "Open." If you have a simulated door in a video game universe that for some reason has a doorknob that has to be turned -- I don't know. You figure it out.
I realize you're talking about in a video game, but think about the real world with that example.

A touch screen controlled door wouldn't work without you actually looking at the screen, unless it always says "open" if the screen had multiple functions you would have to navigate to the open button. If the screen has only one function then it's not really a 'touchscreen' it's just a capacitive button.
posted by delmoi at 11:18 AM on November 4, 2011


(Wanders away wondering why noting that touchscreens might not be the best interface for everything is controversial.)
posted by maxwelton at 11:43 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I’ve been socialized to use doorknobs, but drop somebody from 10,000 BC in front of a doorknob and it might take a while before they figure out what to do with it.

I grew up in the United States, and got a job in Munich when I was 19. I managed to get myself "locked out" of my hotel room the first night there, because I couldn't figure out how the doorknob worked.

Back home, I was used to doors like this: you put the key in the lock and turn it, to lock or unlock, and then you twist the handle, to release the latch. If the door has two keyholes, one is the deadbolt and the other locks the knob itself.

The doorknob on my hotel room worked like this: you put the key in the lock and turn it, then - while it is still turned - you pull on the knob. Twisting the knob does nothing, and pulling on it while the key is not engaged does nothing. I had never heard of such features before, and spent a few hours sitting outside my hotel room before the staff came back from break (it was a small hotel) and showed me how to operate the door.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:49 AM on November 4, 2011


My first tendencies are Luddite, no doubt; I am, after all, securely in middle age.

I am not a technophobe by any stretch. I love gadgets as much as the next guy. But there are compromises being made here, whether you like the changes or not.

Some examples:

Historians have been concerned for a while that in the future we will not be able to review the mindsets of our leaders like we've been able to in the past. This is because communication has become almost exclusively digital :e.g., the President has a change of opinion and makes a corresponding change in the speech he's giving tomorrow. We won't know or be able to know or appreciate his thought processes because the changes are inserted into his text file and the original passages are vanished into the ether. Correspondence can disappear instantly for all kinds of reasons. That's a loss, I'd say.

Blind people being able to speak to their appliances is cool in one way. But it's also absolutely public. Even though the learning curve may be higher, buttons can be pushed in complete privacy. Again, compromise.

Also, aesthetics suffer to some extent. For all intents and purposes, a touchscreen is a touchscreen is a touchscreen. They may have a different bezel but they are all essentially flat planes of glass. There are zillions of variations of doorknobs. You may think that's a hassle, but I think it makes life more interesting.

So. I'm squarely on the fence here, leaning toward the old days.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 11:49 AM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I’m with Xoebe.

There’s a surprising amount of defensiveness about the Tech here. I know people grow very attached to it because it’s cool and gee-whiz, but much of this really is the LED watch of our times. It’s the same thing as all those 80’s and 90’s electronics (especially keyboards and music gear) that had push buttons and menus instead of knobs and switches. At first it was supposed to be The Future, but soon everyone realized it just sucked to use in real life and the companies were doing it to save money. Now it’s a mark of cheapness. Anything good will have knobs and switches.

In the late 90’s I was in the studio with someone who had an EQ from the early 80’s that hooked up to a screen so you could see the virtual knobs move up and down. It was the most ridiculous and unnecessary thing ever.

The iPad and such is a different story; it’s simply not possible to have all the controls for all the different software that’s available, so in that case it’s really just a compromise.
posted by bongo_x at 11:59 AM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Touchscreens solve more problems than they introduce, and as long as that's true, people will keep using them. But, hey, linkbait is linkbait.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:09 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


PARIS: Micro-fractures, Tuvok. Doesn't necessarily mean we'll have a hull breach.
TUVOK: And if we do, I suppose these useless design elements from your Captain Proton scenario will compensate for the problem.
PARIS: Hey, every one of these knobs and levers is fully functional.
TUVOK: And completely superfluous.
PARIS: Maybe to you. I am tired of tapping panels. For once, I want controls that let me actually feel the ship I'm piloting.

Star Trek Voyager, "Extreme Risk"
Original Airdate: October 28, 1998
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 12:11 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Stupid article but good topic/problem.
posted by polymodus at 12:17 PM on November 4, 2011


Gestures are a vocabulary, and offers no more affordance than American Sign Language. The gesture based vocabulary has consisted of one word for the past 30 years and has only evolved in the past four. The author is right in saying touch screens lack affordance, but that is neither the be all nor the end all. Just wait until our kids finish growing up with it. (high fives his iPad)
posted by furtive at 12:52 PM on November 4, 2011


Also, you put an 18 month old in front of a modern computer, and you put another one in front of an iPad, you tell me which one becomes more productive. Anyone with a kid the same as their iPad knows the answer to this.
posted by furtive at 12:54 PM on November 4, 2011


If your kid is the same as your iPad, your spouse might be a computer.
posted by kmz at 12:58 PM on November 4, 2011


Ha, oops, I mean Matt Damon.

Category error.
posted by nicwolff at 12:59 PM on November 4, 2011


Also, you put an 18 month old in front of a modern computer, and you put another one in front of an iPad, you tell me which one becomes more productive.

Productive of what?
posted by Iridic at 1:10 PM on November 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


Also, you put an 18 month old in front of a modern computer, and you put another one in front of an iPad, you tell me which one becomes more productive.

Productive of what?


Well, my kid's just a moderator in a handful of Yahoo Answers forums at present. But like I said, he's two. And delayed. He'll probably have a job at Groupon by kindergarten.
posted by gompa at 1:37 PM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Touchscreens are only the most affordable (and well-established) form of programmable input. While they do suffer all the drawbacks pointed out in the article and this thread, it seems seriously myopic to imagine that this type of input will predominate or even exist in the future.

What we really want is programmable matter -- to define not only the look but the physical form of a display through software. But in a way we're already there -- eInk is arguably programmable matter, since it's actually moving bits of colored matter in and out of visible position in response to electrical currents. Add a layer of elements that can expand and contract and you get raised surfaces. Add a layer of elements that can change from solid to compressible and you get clickability. And now you have programmable buttons.

I would take bets on this happening within 10 years.
posted by bjrubble at 2:16 PM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


I like my Android, but its touchscreen frequently reminds me of this passage from the Hitchhiker's Guide:
      A loud clatter of gunk music flooded through the Heart of Gold cabin as Zaphod searched the sub-etha radio wave bands for news of himself. The machine was rather difficult to operate. For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch-sensitive—you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure, of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriating still if you wanted to keep listening to the same program.
Prescient as ever, Douglas Adams. Prescient as ever.
posted by Scientist at 3:11 PM on November 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


Also, you put an 18 month old in front of a modern computer, and you put another one in front of an iPad, you tell me which one becomes more productive. Anyone with a kid the same as their iPad knows the answer to this.
Yeah, like someone said, productive of what? 18 month olds don't really really need to produce anything. But of course a very small child will have less trouble with a touch screen then something with a mouse. Their brains probably can't deal effectively with symbolism and substitution. They won't understand that the mouse is a representation of the cursor and the mouse pad is a representation of the screen in space.

But, a I kind of doubt that older kids would really have more trouble with a mouse and keyboard then with a touch screen once their brains have developed further. A mouse has advantages over a touch screen. In particular it's much more precise. Clicking a web page hyperlink on a mobile browser can be a challenge when the link text is much smaller then a finger, compared to with a mouse. But a mouse isn't realistic on a mobile device.
posted by delmoi at 3:59 PM on November 4, 2011


At 18 months, I'd worry that touch screens might negatively impact brain development actually, ditto screens too really.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:17 PM on November 4, 2011


A mouse has advantages over a touch screen. In particular it's much more precise.

This would have to be tested but I'm not sure this is necessarily true. You can also have a pseudo mouse on a touchscreen, in other words use a finger size 'mouse' to control a pixel precise cursor.
And a touchscreen gives you the possibility of a stylus, which is pixel precise and is less conceptual than a mouse.
posted by romanb at 4:28 PM on November 4, 2011


You can also have a pseudo mouse on a touchscreen, in other words use a finger size 'mouse' to control a pixel precise cursor.

That's true, but most touch screen software doesn't work that way, although I often kind of wish it would (or at least I had the option of doing that)
posted by delmoi at 4:37 PM on November 4, 2011


I think people are missing that physical objects can still have bad affordances. Design is about making the object shout what it is supposed to do.

The issue with a touch screen is that the same interface has to represent a myriad of different items.

A door that has a metal plate instead of a handle is probably supposed to be pushed, right?
posted by titanium_geek at 5:16 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


One small problem with the article… speech recognition. You have been able to use the iPhone's telephone via a double click of the home button and speech commands for awhile now. With Siri, now you can control many other aspects of the phone (like playing music). An "ear" affords speech.
posted by readyfreddy at 11:32 PM on November 4, 2011


The worst thing about touchscreens in a car is that you have nothing to rest your finger on.

Although I agree with the general sentiment that tactile feedback is a nice thing, touchscreens in cars have so far often been used to control things like map navigation. A big reason why car buttons work is not just tactile feedback but the fact that buttons have limited functions and are positioned across the cockpit in places you expect them to be.

So to use a digital map with car-like controls, imagine what you would need to zoom in and out, rotate, pan across a map, etc, those would require as many buttons as it takes to drive the car.

To use touchscreens to control devices in the car, its possible that having multiple screens with fewer functions in standardized locations would be easy enough to use even without tactile feedback you get with a rotating volume button.
posted by romanb at 2:06 AM on November 5, 2011


People who enjoyed this topic might be interested in this rant, also mostly about touchscreens. Personally I think that his problems can and hopefully will be addressed by programmable matter, as bjrubble mentions above.

Anyone who was coming on the concept of 'affordance' for the first time might like to check the book The Design of Everyday Things, one of the major books in the area and totally easy to read.
posted by jacalata at 4:40 PM on November 8, 2011


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