Touchscreen tyranny

Nice piece in Slate about the Iphone induced tyranny of touchscreens.  Touchscreens are great for certain devices, i.e., smartphones, but for others– especially things you want to be able to control without looking at, i.e,. MP3 players and car stereo systems, they are a huge step backwards:

Before the iPhone, touchscreens were exotic. Now they are everywhere—in cars, onrefrigerators, beside CNN anchors, and have shrunk down to just over a 1-inch square for the latest iteration of the iPod Nano. What has been described as one of Jobs’ greatest achievements spread from one class of gadget to another; huddled masses of single-function buttons converted, one by one, into powerful, touch-sensitive windows of infinite utility.

Grafting the iPhone’s clever, customizable interface onto other products sounds like a universal win. Then again, try using that touchscreen Nano. With the proper dance of carefully aimed taps and flicks, it can do more than any Nano before it. But when it comes to what iPods were built to do—play audio files—the Nano has devolved. The physical playback buttons have vanished. As one Macword reviewer complained when the player was released in 2010, it’s harder than ever to pause or play a track: “You must pull out the Nano so you can see its screen, then wake up the iPod, then navigate to the appropriate screen.” What might have been a one-step operation on the pre-2010 Nano now requires a sequence of three or four actions. And aside from adjusting the volume, the Nano can’t really be operated blind, with one hand in your bag or pocket.

When my Ipod Nano 1g finally died last year, I bought the touchscreen Nano 6g.  I love it because it is incredibly small, has a built in clip (huge drawback of earlier models) and generally works great.

iPod nano 8GB - Green

That said, I much prefer the click-wheel of the earlier Ipods.  So much easier to use.  Here’s the cool explanation for the problem with the over touch-screenization of life:

What touchscreens lack is something called affordance. It’s a lofty term for an object’s built-in ability to tell you how it works. A doorknob affords turning. The button on a car stereo affords pushing. A touchscreen affords nothing. It relies on software for any affordance, which in turn relies on total immersion for the user. Immersion is a fantastic quality while flicking virtual birds at digital pigs in your smartphone. Immersion at 80 mph is less desirable.

Newer is not always better.  We just seem to think it is.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to Touchscreen tyranny

  1. saideman says:

    Agreed. Windows 8 may get all touch-screeny, but for most of my computing, I just want to type and then hit my trackball. Touch screening means reaching from my chair, smearing the screen with my greasy fingers, and so on. Sometimes it ain’t broke.

  2. Brian says:

    Never heard of affordance before, but the term I like is tactile feedback. If you press a button on a radio, you feel the click. You don’t need to see it to feel it.

    Another area where I really hate the intrusion of the touchscreen is on treadmills. Who the hell thought of that? After 20 minutes of running at 7mph, try pushing little tiny actuating areas on it with sweaty hands, while you’re bouncing up and down at that pace. It’s next to impossible. You go flying off the thing before you can slow it down.

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