The Case Against the Touch Screen Interface

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
Nov. 3 2011 1:11 PM

Good Touch, Bad Touch

The iconic iPhone interface tarnishes the legacy of Steve Jobs.

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Those are two of the features enabled by smartphone-style apps on Toyota’s new Entune system, which debuts on a few models this year (including the 2012 Camry). Older systems are less ambitious—the Volkswagen Jetta’s optional touchscreen, for example, sticks to music and navigation. The result, though, is roughly the same as with the Nano: Turning on music demands your full attention; blind poking is not an option. There are no tactile landmarks to orient your fingers on one of these newfangled dashboards. Unlike a familiar cluster of knobs and buttons, the touchscreen can't be learned by touch.

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. Immersion is a fantastic quality while flicking virtual birds at digital pigs in your smartphone. Immersion at 80 mph is less desirable.

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While the relationship between collisions and mobile phone use—whether texting or simply talking—has been well-documented, there is not yet any hard data on how touchscreens might affect driving behavior. An ongoing Chrysler-funded study at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute has yet to draw any conclusions, but Paul Green, a research professor at the institute’s driving distractions group, worries about the increasing complexity of touch-screen systems. “Any time you have to look away from the road, even for a moment, it could be deadly,” says Green, who doesn’t see these systems becoming less complicated, or more intuitive, in the coming years. Why? “We have a shortage of trained human-factors people,” he says.

Human-factors is a strange field, blending everything from psychology and anthropology to engineering, to create interfaces that conform to human peculiarities. According to Green, the limited pool of human-factors experts in the world aren’t found on the payrolls of the automotive suppliers that provide those touchscreens. They take jobs in consumer electronics, for companies like Apple.

Which brings us back to the Nano, and another one of Steve Jobs' design innovations—a clever bit of pre-iPhone hardware that may be even more perfect than the touchscreen, and more representative of his legacy: the click wheel. First released on the iPod mini in 2004, it wasn’t Apple’s first crack at building an interface for a digital music player. It was a refinement, the product of three years of human-factors trial-and-error, replacing the moving parts of the original iPod’s scroll wheel with a touch-sensitive disc, and migrating the buttons of subsequent generations onto that same disc. The result was a marvel of one-handed efficiency, allowing for rapid scrolling through music libraries, as well as blind track navigation. The click wheel is overdesigned in the best way: For most operations, it demands only a single thumb, guided into loops and clicks with effortless affordance. It quickly became the universal iPod interface (with the exception of the shuffle), and remained unchanged, until touchscreens began to replace them. Forced to dance around Apple’s interface patents, rival companies never improved on the click wheel's basic design. When it comes to dedicated music players, neither did Apple.

Now, the click wheel is on life support. It’s found only on the iPod classic, a low-selling model seemingly kept around out of nostalgia. Yet despite reviewers’ complaints about the Nano’s missing playback buttons, it’s hard to imagine Apple back-pedaling. Like other device makers, Apple seems to think that these irate consumers are fooling themselves, that no one wants a product that’s optimized to do one particular thing and do it well. 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.

None of this is intended as a criticism of Steve Jobs. But there's a risk that his iPhone touchscreens will become his most enduring legacy. Like all distribution networks, Apple's iTunes will be usurped by something smarter and cheaper. Eventually, all of Apple's hardware, the gadgets that changed the world, will be obsolete. But the Jobsian touch-screen interface will keep spreading. It shrinks devices too easily, and replaces too many moving parts, for manufacturers to resist it. If Jobs slips into history as the father of the touchscreen era, that would bury his true genius. He gave us interfaces we didn't realize we wanted, mated perfectly to the devices we inevitably craved. The humble, nearly extinct click wheel is one example. The iPhone's touchscreen was another. Now the touchscreen has become the exact sort of compromise that once drove Jobs and his engineers to work even harder: an interface for everything, and a master of none.

Erik Sofge is a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics.

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