Touch the Screen vs Press a Button

Is the touchscreen the end-all of user interfaces for mobile devices? There were rumors in early 2011 that the iPad2 would lose all physical buttons (which did not come true, obviously).  To me, that sounds like a really good and bad idea. Good, in the sense that a device that is all a big screen certainly looks nice. Bad, since it would be much less user-friendly than a device with some real physical buttons to press.

I have been thinking about this subject lately, after using a BlackBerry Torch 9800 as my work phone for a few months.  I like the device a lot, but there are certainly some rough edges and some places where there is a UI conflict between touching the screen and pressing the buttons. At the same time, I am using both an iPod Nano 3G, and a couple of iPod Touches. I used to have SonyEricsson Symbian-based P900, P990i, and G900 smart phones which also were combined touch/press devices with a stylus.

I think it is clear that using a physical keyboard is preferable to an on-screen keyboard for typing serious amounts of text.  On the iPod, entering a URL or search term in a browser just feels fiddly, compared to the ease of composition with the physical keyboard on the
BlackBerry.  To me, I cannot get over the feeling that an iPod Touch or iPhone is really best as a consumption device, but that a BlackBerry is a superb creation device.  On a BB, I can type quite long emails, while an iOS device feels more appropriate for the occasional short messages.  To me, this is an important aspect, as I tend use the smart phone as a two-way email communications device.

The slide-out keyboard solution on the BB Torch (and many other phones from many different vendors) seems just right for this, giving you a full-screen device for reading tasks, with a full keyboard when needed.

On my old G900, I used T9 with a 0 to 9 keypad, and that worked surprisingly well.  A problem both with the BB and definitely with an on-screen keyboard is the fact that using it single-handedly is very hard.  On a screen, you do not get feedback from your fingers where you are on the keyboard, and the full keyboard of the BB is a bit too small to reliably use with a single hand.  I noted this in my G900 review three years ago, and it still holds true. The G900 looked like this:

Since a primary use of our iPods is gaming, I have noted some different UI principles for games.  There seem to be one class of games where touch makes perfect sense, like Angry Birds.  Press and draw to load, swipe to move the display, pinch to zoom – perfect and logical. Another class of games are obviously ports of mouse-based games, like Plants vs Zombies.  In such games, the touch screen is essentially used as it was back in stylus-time. It is just another way to generate single-point clicks.

Finally, we have the category of games that really would work best with a physical controller, like PacMan. Displaying a four-way control key setup on the screen does not get close to the right feeling.

I think the SonyEricsson Xperia Play was a brilliant idea – imagine an Apple device with that little built-in game controller.  Seems that SonyEricsson has not quite managed to execute on the idea, but in an ecosystem that generates variation like Android, this kind of device should have a place.

However, I have a hard time seeing the swiss-army-knife design of a phone having both a slide out keyboard and a slide-out game controller. Would be neat, but mechanically I don’t think it would work very well.

On to navigation.  The idea of touch gestures (in particular swipes) to navigate around the UI as popularized by Apple in the first iPhone is great in many ways.  My youngest child has used it since she was two, and it just works quite naturally.  However, there are still cases where a plain old navigation key works better. And having both is best.

Holding a device in one hand and scrolling a web page is faster on the navigation key on my BB than using touch on an iPod. The old G900 was even more efficient, just hold the down key – no physical motion needed at all. The iPod would be so much better if it could just have a scroll wheel on the side or something so you could use it one-handed
for reading without having to put a finger on top of the screen (and quite often accidentally clicking links in the process).

I also like the menu key on the BB (and on my old SonyEricsson phones), as a way to quickly get to the most important functions. This seems hard to emulate on a touch screen in a good way. In their touch-enabled phones, BB has tried it with a press-and-hold action – if you press down on the screen, a little action palette opens. Which does not quite work for me.

Another great advantage of some well-choosen physical buttons is that they offer immediate access to certain functions.  On a touch-screen device, I find that you have to dig through several steps to get into any function.  Home screens with most commonly accessed functions in all honor, but a direct key to dial a call or activate the camera is faster.  It cannot support all functions, obviously, but it lets you bring up the most common and important functions quickly. This is an aspect where my iPod Nano is much better than an iPod touch. On the iPod Nano, you can have it in a pocket and just hit the device to move to the next song or pause. On an iPod Touch, you have to look at the screen and find the right spot to hit.

On the other hand, the Nano would have been even better with a couple of buttons to increase/decrease volume rather than the scroll wheel. When out running, having to hold the things in both hands to make simple adjustments is really annoying. It also does not work with gloves on, which is a big problem with all touch device as well as touch-wheels – they require naked fingers, which is annoying in a climate where gloves are on for at least half the year. As I said before, someone should put a design center in Luleå or Novosibirsk or Alaska, and then see what kinds of devices come out.

A full keyboard like the BB also have the nice property of providing many points of access to shortcuts.  It might seem quite backwards of me, but I like the speed of action you get with the keyboard shortcuts in the BB email application. It has a lot in common with classic computer UIs, actually. It is hard to afford immediate access to 20+ functions on a touch screen without creating a very cluttered interface.  On the other hand, a touch interface done right makes it simple to access system-level things quickly by just touching the status icons on the screen – you get out of the application faster than if you had to use the keyboard to navigate up to some button.  For some reason, neither the iOS devices nor the BB does this right, while my old SonyEricsson smartphones all let me access detailed status by hitting the battery icon or network icons.

However, after singing the praise of the keyboard and touch screen in union, I must admit that there is a big downside to a combined touch/press device. UI design is harder when you have to both afford a good keyboard-controlled interface and a touch interface. The BB Torch I have suffers from this quite badly – having to afford both touch and non-touch interaction, as well as non-touch versions of the device itself does mean that the UI is not as streamlined and elegant as what you can get on a pure touch device. I often find myself jumping between keyboard and touch as I cannot quite complete what I want to do using just one or the other interaction mode, which really should not be necessary. Only having to think about a single type of input does seem to make things simpler for a UI designers, even if it also sometimes precludes creating truly efficient applications.

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