Mobile touch proliferates: Is UI design keeping pace?

-December 07, 2012

This article is part of EDN's Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2013 feature, where EDN editors and guest contributors examine some of the hot trends and technologies in 2012 that promise to shape technology news in 2013 and beyond.

You know a technology is “hot” when tech giant Microsoft jumps on board, as it did recently with its Surface tablet computer (Figure 1). In this case, the hot technology isn’t the tablet form factor—certainly a technology worthy in its own right—but the touch interface it sports.

Figure 1 The Surface Windows touchscreen tablet from Microsoft is receiving praise for its hardware design; on the software/interface side, not so much.

There’s no question that multitouch technology, typically in the form of capacitive touchscreens, has fueled the explosive growth in mobile devices. Microsoft’s recent entry promises to further the trend, as touch-enabled products become available that blur the lines between PCs, notebooks, and tablets.

But it’s not just about the hardware; a touch device’s operating system and applications need to be designed with that touch interface in mind. Apple’s elegant software user interface (UI) in its original iPhone largely achieved that five years ago, letting users easily and intuitively interact directly with their devices—and apps—in a new and powerful way.

So it’s surprising to see so many new apps sporting UIs that look as if they were designed for a mouse, or featuring virtual representations of traditional hardware interfaces. The latter, of course, can make sense in cases where there may be no real alternatives—such as with a computer keyboard for inputting text, or a music keyboard for playing a virtual instrument—but they’re hardly ideal.

Figure 2 Though the use of virtual knobs (and cables) in this iPad version of a classic hardware analog synthesizer—the Korg MS20—is understandable, their continued use in many new synthesizer and music apps seems far less justifiable.

What’s with the continued use of virtual knobs for controls, for example? These are still prevalent in a lot of audio and music production apps (Figure 2). There’s no question that their function is intuitively understood by everyone, but trying to manipulate a 2-D virtual knob effectively on a touchscreen is a different matter altogether. It’s easy to imagine better touch design alternatives (Figure 3).

Figure 3 The Borderlands iPad granular synthesizer offers a unique, multitouch interface designed to let users “engage with sonic material on a fundamental level, breaking free of traditional interaction paradigms such as knobs and sliders.”

It’s understandable why many developers may feel a need to mimic traditional hardware interfaces or use familiar mouse-driven-style interfaces in their applications. At first glance, these are comfortable and intuitive approaches for developers and end users alike, and—in the case of the former—can often look “cool.” But they are not necessarily optimal for the touchscreen interface—often far from it—and certainly don’t take full advantage of its potential.

Incredibly, Apple itself is at least partly to blame, having encouraged the use of “skeuomorphic” design—the idea of incorporating design elements of an older product into a new design, even though they no longer serve any purpose other than to provide a familiar and comfortable look. An example would be an e-book app that presents its content in a virtual paper book interface, complete with a folded “crease” down the middle and stacked “page edges” on either side.

This is a classic case of form over function—an area in which marketing-centric Apple has stumbled in the past—and, ironically, a path away from Apple’s trademark elegance and simplicity. Thankfully, a recent shake-up in Apple’s executive ranks suggests we will see a renewed focus on cleaner, more functional UI designs from the company and, by extension, from app developers.

That’s encouraging news for users of touch-based interfaces, and a sign that this hot technology won’t be cooling down anytime soon.

Also watching:

  • Wireless charging. Typically based on inductive coupling, wireless-charging technology—which enables devices to be charged by being placed on a charging surface (Figure 4)—has been used in some niche applications for some time. Now, an increasing number of wireless power solutions from major semiconductor vendors suggests that wireless charging may finally be catching on in the consumer market as mobile devices of various types proliferate.

Figure 4 Wireless charging is becoming an increasingly attractive option as battery-powered mobile devices and their associated wired charging accessories proliferate.

  • The personal cloud. Cloud-computing products and services aimed at individual consumers are changing the way we manage our data (Figure 5), whether it’s through the use of public services, such as Dropbox or iCloud, or home NAS devices with cloud features that allow remote access. The trend is so obvious and unmistakable that it has led one research firm to predict the personal cloud will replace the PC as the center of our digital lives by 2014.

Figure 5 Enabled by products and services that allow us to store and access our data remotely, personal clouds promise to free us from many of the limitations of our mobile devices and PCs.

Read more of EDN's Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2013:

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