Are handset makers selling themselves short with inadequate “me-too” touchscreen products?
When it comes to handset design and innovation, the mobile industry has a strong herd mentality. Driven by short product lifecycles and the growing influence of ODMs (original device manufacturers), trends and technologies are quick to proliferate across manufacturers.
Two years after the technology debuted, the touchscreen is the current darling of the handset community. Even Research In Motion (RIM), at the vanguard of business mobility and QWERTY keypads, has launched a touchscreen device.
I would dearly like to believe that the trend for touchscreens signals greater appreciation and experimentation in user interface design and progression towards innovative gesture-control. However, the cynic in me sees an industry falling into the trap of form-over-function, selling itself short and disappointing consumers with “me-too” touchscreen products that at best fail to meet consumer expectations and, at worst, simply aren’t fit for purpose.
Touch undoubtedly taps into the current Zeitgeist. However, I suspect that rushing to implement it purely to build early market share or please the investors will ultimately come at the cost of long-term brand loyalty.
Legacy Code Will Do Battle with New Input Mechanisms
The user interface of a mobile phone is the window into the handset. It is the means by which we navigate and interact with both on-board features and connected services. The success of touchscreen – indeed any input mechanism – must, therefore, be intrinsically linked to a device’s operating system, navigation framework and menu hierarchy.
While it has its faults, the iPhone works so well because the OS compliments touch navigation. Clean hierarchies, graphical menus and strong integration with hardware combine with the fact that the iPhone OS was arguably only ever designed with touch and gesture in mind. Most importantly, the device doesn’t rely solely on touchscreen technology to succeed; instead much of the benefit comes from the application of user interface innovations such as multi-touch scrolling to sense whether the user wants to scroll, zoom or roll side by side, as well as pinching the screen to cut, paste and zoom. These are the intricacies of a touch-based user interface that ultimately delight end-users and it should not be a surprise that it is these innovations that Apple is so keen to protect through its patents.
While the Palm Pre has shown a degree of real innovation using the new Web OS, the same ground-up architecture can’t be said for any other OS currently available, even Android (although it goes further than most). Simply mapping a touchscreen UI onto a legacy OS, even a variant such as Symbian’s S60 Touch, is going to yield challenges as legacy code does battle with new input mechanisms and changes in the ways that consumers interact with their devices.
Consider the Use Case
A more pragmatic approach to touch must be adopted. Development and design decisions must be based on qualified and considered use cases and evaluation of which interactions benefit the most from the natural flow of touch and gesture.
Price comparison and review Web site Reevoo.com recently surveyed 19,000 consumer reviews, covering 226 phones from the last 12 months and found that half of those in the bottom 10 were touchscreens. Reviewers cited inaccurate, slow screens, poor virtual keyboards and buggy firmware.
This anecdotal evidence is supported by data from WDSGlobal, which provides outsourced technical support on behalf of mobile network operators and handset manufacturers. Reviewing some of the “spikes” in support calls over the last 12 months, a disproportionate number were attributable to touchscreen devices. Notably, most of the support calls related not to a failure on the part of the screen, but basic navigation and usability issues. Others cited some very basic complaints, including icons that simply weren’t big enough for “male fingers.” A quick check of Symbian’s guidelines for application developers shows a recommendation that icons should be no smaller than 7mm x 7mm with a 1mm gap between. Quick, go grab a ruler; that’s pretty small.
Clearly, there is a need to evolve traditional handset form factors and user interfaces. The way we interact with our devices has evolved, so too has the core use case for mobile devices. Indeed, one of the touchscreen’s greatest benefits is its ability to free up valuable real estate on the front of a device and allow visual content to finally be viewed on a respectable screen size.
The Future of UI
The way in which we interact with a mobile device will always be limited by physical form factors. The danger is that in trying to remove any compromise, designers and UI specialists will be tempted to integrate several input methods within a single device. Can current form factors accommodate new developments in pressure sensing or capacitive casing (essentially turning the entire unit into an input mechanism)?
Can these technologies co-exist and how long before we overwhelm the user to a point that UI advancements actually become counter-productive?
Deluca-Smith is vice president of marketing at WDSGlobal.