Most of us have some sort of device, be it a phone or gaming system, in our pockets that relies on a touch based system of input instead of traditional, hard wired buttons. We are experiening a shift in how we interact with the technology around us. Now, clearly none of this is new. The Nintendo DS has had a touch screen since its release in 2004, and I remember seeing a demo for a product that looked very similar to Microsoft’s Surface several years ago where the concepts that we know today as “pinch to zoom” were first seen. A touch screen has opened up new user interface possibilities, however I have began to notice a slight draw back to them.
The thing is, most touch sensative devices today require some kind of “unlocking” gesture. Sliding your finger in a predetermined gesture will unlock the screen and allow you to actually use it. Sounds familiar? This keeps your phone from turning on and dialing people while you hold it against your cheek on a call. While this safeguard is essential to keeping your phone from doing its own thing by accident, it also adds a layer between you and your device. I’ll give you a real world example.
I’m one of the five people in the world who own a Zune. As I mentioned on the last podcast, my old one kicked the bucket and in a moment of weakness I broke down and bought a new 64GB Zune HD. This one sports a touch screen and a far more slick interface from the previous version. I am not a member of the Church of Apple, so let’s just get past this part of the conversation shall we? Thank you!
The old 80GB Zune had a touch sensetive surface that also served as a clickable directional button. It was built to work with the vertical nature of the Zune’s UI, and it did a pretty good job at it. To fast forward a song, even while the Zune was playing and the screen was sleeping, all I had to do was click the “squircle”. I could do this with my eyes closed. Considering the fact that I got the most use out of my Zune was while driving I did indeed do this alot without actually looking at the Zune. Again, as with most touchable devices, the Zune HD has an unlock screen that I have to drag my finger from top to bottom. Then, I have to touch the album cover displayed to pull up the volume and fast forward/rewind controls. In the past, all I had to do was reach down and click a physical button. With the new one, I have to go through two steps in order to do the same thing and I have to actually focus on the device itself. The tactile feedback from a physical button has been erased, and with it a certain degree of simplicity. The baby has been thrown out with the bath water.
Now as an important side note, the Zune HD does indeed have a physical button on the side one can press to pull up this same screen. However, it is recessed and it not easy to find without looking at it. Thus bringing us back to the problem at hand.
So that’s my current random thoughts on modern user interface design utilizing touch screens and the direction it is taking. Perhaps alot of my current problems with the Zune HD has to do with my unfamiliarity with it. Maybe over time, sheer use will teach my fingers where to touch the screen in order to pull the volume select or fast forward/rewind options.