August 28, 2006

Imaginary Feedback

What happens when you press a button? A button can trigger close to anything nowadays, but it's not what the button triggers that I'm interested in at the moment. Until our current age of screens a button pretty much by definition produced a bit of tactical feedback. You press a button and it presses back at you, giving you a confirmation that yes indeed that button was pressed.

Even in the screen age, most buttons still produce tactical feedback of some sort. Every letter of this text I type comes complete with a nice, Apple designed, bit of feedback, each button of the keyboard press gently back at me. The buttons on the screen are trickier, the tactical feedback tends to still exist, but slightly abstracted, you press the mouse, or trackpad or whatever button, and you feel a small kickback, albeit one a handful of inches away from the button you are actually looking at and in your mind clicking upon. On screen buttons tend to compensate for this distant tactical feedback by adding visual and or audio feedback to the mix.

When it comes to touch screens though all of sudden the tactical feedback it gone completely, all that is left is whatever audio or visual guides the designers have left in the system. It's for exactly that reason I dislike touch screens, despite their name they just don't feel right. When I use a Citibank ATM, which is often as they are my bank, I tend to tap the screen not with my finger, but with the side of my ATM card, there is something completely wrong about "pressing" a hard glass screen, that neither gives in nor gives back any feedback as you push upon it. Its a cold and unresponsive feeling, a dead interface into a live machine.

Of course for all my dislike of the touchscreen I've been a big Treo fan since the days it was a clamshell. Maybe it's the softer screen, or the fact that you don't usually need to use the touchscreen if you don't want to, or maybe it's just the superiority of the Palm interface design. I still prefer real buttons and the Treo has no shortage of those with a full QWERTY keyboard, but it also showed that a touchscreen could work maybe. Until it stops working of course, which my current Treo's has been doing intermittently the past couple days. The Treo is well designed enough that this is just a minor annoyance, so far it's always started working before I've gotten fed up enough to call up insurance for a replacement. But it also led to an interesting observation. When the touchscreen is not working it literally feels different, harder, as if a secret mild tactical feedback mechanism just disappeared.

Odds are this is a psychological phenomena. I touch the screen and because I get no visual or audio feedback somehow my brain feels the screen differently. Yet every time the touchscreen cuts out it feels distinctly like I can feel the hardness of screen before my eyes register the failure of the touch to work. Its as if the eyes-fingers-consciousness circuit is faster than the simple eyes-consciousness one. Either way, when the touchscreen is working it seems like somewhere in my mind, the act of touching a handheld screen and seeing visual feedback of a button press is creating some sort of phantom tactile feedback. A subtle but real impression that screen is softer, has more give, than it really does. Does that mean there is hope for full touch screen interfaces? If the long circulating rumors about Apple's new video iPods are true, it sounds like Steve Jobs is better there is. Me, I'm not so sure, I still like to press real buttons.

Posted by Abe at August 28, 2006 11:31 PM


I completely agree. It's not just about buttons, either. The best thing the Chumby could do is make two ways to input - squeeze something soft, or tap the top. Touch screens get greasy and can be frustrating, particularly if there's a delay in the interface (as there often is with bank cashpoints here in Spain). I like to feel that I'm manually affecting things, and psychologically that I've actually pressed the right one (touch screens sometimes have bad edge detection too). Voice activation has the same issues. It's solid button presses all the way for me.

I take it you're familiar with Bill deRouchey's blog, The History of the Button? It resonates with what you're talking about here.

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