The Case Against the Touch Screen Interface

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Nov. 3 2011 1:11 PM

Good Touch, Bad Touch

The iconic iPhone interface tarnishes the legacy of Steve Jobs.

The first day Apple's iPad went on sale in Europe on May 28, 2010 in Berlin, Germany.
The iPhone touchscreens have the potential to become Steve Jobs' most enduring legacy

Photograph by Sean Gallup/Getty.

A month after his death, the book of Jobs has almost closed. His legacy has been described in countless obituaries, features, and blog posts, with Walter Issacson’s well-timed biography, Steve Jobs, filling in the more obscure details. Many of these tributes and histories have highlighted the enormous contribution Jobs made not only to the technology we buy, but how we interact with those devices. Of the pioneering products that Jobs either invented or midwifed into existence, one seems to have accomplished this most resolutely: the iPhone. Jobs may have put it best, during the smartphone's unveiling in 2007: “We are all born with the ultimate pointing device—our fingers—and iPhone uses them to create the most revolutionary user interface since the mouse.”

When the iPhone arrived in 2007, it was a revelation, redefining the phone and the computer in one deft swipe. With its iconic, monolithic design and touch-sensitive interface, the iPhone was science fiction made real—the beginning of a new era of gadget lust and device convergence. It was ridiculously popular, as well, dwarfing the sales of any other Apple product, and selling as many as 100 million to date. But in the past four years, the iPhone has created its own, dubious legacy. Its touchscreen transformed the way we interact with technology, and created a new industry standard for gadget design. While the multitouch capacitive display was the perfect interface for a smartphone—folding the functions of a mouse, keyboard, and desktop into a phone, without cramping the display or adding rows of buttons—its broader influence throughout the world of consumer electronics has been a minor disaster.

Steve Jobs didn’t invent touchscreens, nor did some faceless Apple engineer. The first prototypes showed up in the 1960s, a decade before Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded their company. The iPhone wasn’t even the first application of the multitouch technology. It simply made touchscreens irresistible, with an intuitive operating system that replaced the analog, button-studded face of other cellphones with a shape-shifting, digital playpen. Before the iPhone, touchscreens were exotic. Now they are everywhere—in cars, on refrigerators, beside CNN anchors, and have shrunk down to just over a 1-inch square for the latest iteration of the iPod Nano. What has been described as one of Jobs' greatest achievements spread from one class of gadget to another; huddled masses of single-function buttons converted, one by one, into powerful, touch-sensitive windows of infinite utility.

Grafting the iPhone's clever, customizable interface onto other products sounds like a universal win. Then again, try using that touchscreen Nano. With the proper dance of carefully aimed taps and flicks, it can do more than any Nano before it. But when it comes to what iPods were built to do—play audio files—the Nano has devolved. The physical playback buttons have vanished. As one Macword reviewer complained when the player was released in 2010, it's harder than ever to pause or play a track: “You must pull out the Nano so you can see its screen, then wake up the iPod, then navigate to the appropriate screen.” What might have been a one-step operation on the pre-2010 Nano now requires a sequence of three or four actions. And aside from adjusting the volume, the Nano can’t really be operated blind, with one hand in your bag or pocket. A software update this past winter allows for customizing the wake button to perform one function when double-clicked, such as skipping or pausing. It's an improvement, but not a true fix. Like the iPhone, it still demands your full attention: Both eyes and, in most cases, both hands.

Admittedly, this is a minor detail. But that’s where interface design lives and dies, in the tiny time-savings associated with the simplest operations. An outstanding interface separates the products you love from the ones you simply use. In the Nano’s case, the touchscreen works. There’s nothing broken about it. But it’s clumsy and ill-conceived, given the uses for which it's supposedly designed. To put a touchscreen on a Nano presumes that a touchscreen can be a universal interface, and that all devices aspire to do all things. But people don’t buy a Nano because they want a mini-iPhone or a micro-iPad. They want something they can shove in their pocket or clip to their shorts when they take a walk or go for a run, a device for playing music on the move. In those scenarios, a touchscreen doesn't help at all.

The ubiquity of touchscreens has been even worse for other sorts of devices. It’s one thing to have to slow or stop mid-jog, and fiddle with an iPod so it performs its basic functions. It’s another to take your eyes from the road, and poke at the touchscreen in your car’s center console, tapping through menus, holding and dragging scroll bars, to access a specific radio station or playlist. That’s the state of the art in automotive infotainment, as the industry abandons decades of experience with analog controls for the sake of embedded, iPhone-like touchscreens. The allure, as always, is the infinite. Why should the designers at Toyota or Volkswagen commit to a row of radio station preset buttons, when that real estate could multitask instead? A smooth touchscreen can absorb the digital stand-ins for those old-fashioned buttons whenever it's convenient, so you can order movie tickets or make dinner reservations instead.

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.

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.