UX & Service Designer for Connected Products

When Touch Doesn’t Mean Better

Category : Blog Post, Interaction Design November 14, 2011

I finally budged and bought a Kindle.

Being an iPad owner, I couldn’t see the appeal of paying for another tablet-like device for the longest time. I also find it wrong on both business and service design levels for Amazon to charge people for a device in a highly commoditized category. I didn’t want to support a bad idea. However, as my work travels became more frequent and longer, I found myself needing a screen that offers better readability than the iPad. After few months of on and off research, I ate my humble pie and placing an order for a Kindle. To my surprise, that led to a revelation about Touch UIs.

Kindle Keyboard

Amazon announced the new Kindle Fire just a few days before I made the purchase decision. Along with Kindle Fire came a low-end Kindle and the Kindle Touch. The last-gen Kindle with Keyboard was still available at a reduced price. Because I was buying readability, I automatically weeded out the Kindle Fire. I picked the Kindle with Keyboard simply because it was cheaper. After just one week into read on my daily news and e-books new toy, I felt very happy about my purchase. In additional the display being miles better to read from than my iPad, I felt more confident and relaxed while navigating through the contents. With just about every type of consumer devices moving toward Touch displays, that observation begs for a deeper understanding.

I used the Kindle for a few more weeks. I deliberately slowed down my activities to self-observe and reflecting on my experience with the device. I can explain my joy with navigating contents with the Kindle down to one reason – physical hard keys are better, by far, for controlling single-dimension, linear contents.

We read text forward and sometimes jump backward to reference. Dedicated hardware controls arranged linearly provides better detectability, higher active-feedback compatibility and ultimately simpler user experience. Whenever I tap on the paging keys of my Kindle, I feel more connected to the content. The click of the keys revive the tactile quality of reading a book that digitalization took away. The same goes with scroll wheel on my iPod, zoom ring on my SLR lens and volume control knobs on my hi-fi receiver. Mapping control of linear contents onto virtual buttons or even worse, artificially link 2 linear controls into a 2-dimensional Touch UI* quickly degrades the experience.

*The VLC video player on OSX allows the user to control volume by scrolling left/right and scrub the video by scrolling up/down. The feature works and it is certainly better than nothing. However, the better scheme is to move the volume control to the dedicated volumes keys and leave the touch pad for scrubbing the video only.


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