Earlier this year Tom Lakovic published a nice essay at Wired.com (“To Make Tech Design Human Again, Look to the Past“), criticizing current interface designs (mostly digital). He uses the phrase “Inappropriate Touch”, criticizing the current practice of slapping a touch screen on something and calling it a user interface.
This phrase really resonated with my own thinking. I’ve had a bee in my bonnet for quite a while about this trend, and Lakovic’s term is beautifully apt.
It seems like every project that needs a human interface solves that problem by whipping up a phone or tablet app, whether that makes sense or not. Even worse, products that don’t need an interface are getting one anyway, slapping on a touch screen and calling it a “smart” whatever.
This practice is lazy at best and often catastrophically thoughtless. Boneheaded design often results in horrid interfaces. The trend is snowballing, because the widespread practice is lowering the bar of both designer and user expectations. If this is the only kind of interface you ever see, then this becomes what we think a “human interface” is.
I see these interfaces in student projects (you know who you are), which at least have the excuse that they aren’t real products. Unfortunately, this also means that students are being taught that human interfaces aren’t important, and cheap, low quality phone app is good enough. “Fast and dirty” is OK only as a deliberate choice, not as the only choice.
It is also apparent in professionally designed products. In fact, it’s not just that interface design is neglected, consumers expect and demand these awful interfaces. As Tim Moynihan remarks in Wired, designers face strong, if irrational, forces: “If it doesn’t interact with your phone, it’s a non-starter. If its functionality can be replicated with an app, it’s probably DOA.”
In a way, this trend is reaching the point of farce in the “smart watch” craze. These devices are essentially peripheral devices for your phone (which is a peripheral for “cloud” computing). There are vanishingly few applications that benefit from an interface that is about 4 cm square. So why are there hundreds of apps for the Apple Watch, other than fashion?
Actually, this is part of a longer term trend in the tech field, which has been dominated by gee-whiz flavor-of-the-month gadgets designed by engineers and marketeers. There was quite a bit of buzz (buzz, buzz) about John Maeda’s talk at SXSW and related “Design in Tech Report”. He argues that the latest trend in tech is to include designers in the development.
As far as I’m concerned, it was never OK to have engineers and/or MBA’s designing human interfaces.
I’ve been blogging on this topic this year, as I find more and more cases to complain about.
This document will be my dossier, the “Inappropriate Touch Screen” file, with a collection of my posts. Consult the links for details.
The “Inappropriate Touch Screen” Files
“Inappropriate Touch”: Lakovic On Interaction Design (6 Feb. 2015)
Tom Lakovic has a nice essay at Wired, “To Make Tech Design Human Again, Look to the Past“. In the article he used the phrase “Inappropriate Touch” for these interfaces, which I adopt for this document. He also gets wonderfully grumpy on the topics of the design-crimes against the keyboard, beefs about touch screen interfaces on your toaster, and blasts the use of touch screens in cars. Worst. Idea. Ever.
Neptune Suite: Reshuffling Personal Devices (20 March 2015)
If tablets and phones are poor interfaces, how much worse are “watch” sized devices?
Weak IOT User Interfaces Are Easier Than Ever (10 April 2015)
Associated with the trend toward lazy, thought free, “slap on a touch screen” design is the availability of toolkits that make it really easy to make (bad) touch interfaces. In the “Internet of Things” arena, we see several toolkits which, aside from wiring you into one or the other proprietary infrastructure, offer simple templates and stereotypes for user interfaces for, well, everything. This is really boneheaded, and the resulting products really suck. The IoT will be really cool, but it won’t be via a screen based interface.
Watching the Apple Watch Watchers (13 April 2015)
I’m not the only one who thinks watch interfaces are mostly inappropriate. The Apple Watch has revealed how difficult it is to create apps and interfaces for these pesky little buggers.
Augmented Sketching Book? (20 April 2015)
Nothing will fire my wrath faster than taking something that is not broken and “fixing” it by adding a touchscreen or mobile app. Case in point, a sketch book. See my post about the sensual pleasures of a personal (paper) notebook.
Garden Sensors+App: Connecting or Disconnecting the Gardener? (21 April 2013)
If having a personal diary or sketchbook is sensual experience, then gardening is a sensual lifestyle. Slapping a touch screen on your garden is, well, a horrible idea. Even if it does something useful, which I really doubt.
Yet Another “Stupid Phone Trick” (4 May 2015)
A good app can have a bad interface, but this is an inappropriate interface on top of a deeply misguided app. (Hint: building an interface to something that is already and interface is not likely to be a good idea. “Just say no” to any app that you are supposed to use while driving.
More Fun With Slime Mold: Hybrid Musical Interface (12 May 2015)
This wins full points for species appropriate interfacing, in a pretty difficult case. Physarum polycephalum are significantly different from Homo sapiens, so the digital mediation is complex and iffy.
Unfortunately, Miranda succumbed to temptation (as well as the reality of time and resources), and uses an iPad app as a control interfacem though certainly we can excuse the lapse, given the awesomeness of the hybrid musical interface.
94Fifty: A “Smart” Basketball (11 September 2015)
94Fifty is apparently a real thing ($199!). It claims to be “[t]he only connected smart basketball for iOS and Android to help improve shooting and ball handling skills – fast.”
The product involves a sensor equipped basketball, a mobile app, and some clever cloud processing. It is supposed to deliver “real-time actionable audio and visual feedback from your 94Fifty Smart Basketball to your device with the 94Fifty Basketball App.”
Yoiks! This is so wrong in so many ways!
Species-Inappropriate Touch Screens (12 September 2015)
As long as I’m on the topic of Inappropriate Touch Screens, let me turn to the booming field of tablet-based “games for cats”. Given that the World Wide Web was built so people could put up pictures of their cats, who is surprised that cat lovers are a major target for mobile devices?
But entertaining pictures of cats are for people. But there is also a torrent of touchscreen games, supposedly for people to play with their cat. C’mon.
Yumit: Another Bad Idea (14 September 2015)
Not from Silicon Valley, per se, but certainly from designers with the “Silicon Valley Disease”.
Tackling a real if small problem of spoiled children who do not want to eat their meal, the creators decided that the solution is to “offer kids an incentive” to eat, and to make it a “fun game”.
Blog Fodder from the CES: Acres of Inappropriate Touchscreens (9 January 2016)
CES is, of course, chock-a-block with “smart” products, and this usually means that they have slapped a touch screen interface on something that never needed one before. This year, they also tend to inhabit the Internet of Too Many Things, connecting to home networks and cloud services..
These are the classic candidates for The Inappropriate Touch Screen File.
In addition, many of the “smart” products are solutions to non-problems. Assuming they work at all (which often is questionable), who needs it? I give extra points for an Inappropriate Touchscreen Interface that also addresses a non-problem, or creates worse problems than it solves.
Inappropriate Touch Screen: Kids Edition (15 January 2016)
Today’s “innovators” live immersed in digital life, and are imbued with the idea that tiny screens are not only inescapable, but they are good for you. I don’t mind this ignorance when they are designing yet another silly app for college students, but it borders on criminal negligence when inflicted on children without evidence of safety or even thought about the welfare of the users.
This long preamble is leading up to an extremely grumpy comment on the allegedly educational toy, “Marbotic Smart Letters” (and related products), shown at CES. Basically this is a bunch of alphabet blocks—which have worked great for generations—“augmented” by an iPad app.
Robot Furniture? (July 2016)
Inspired by MIT research, Ori (rom “Origami”) “architectural robotics” reconfigures a small apartment into different configurations. The bed slides away, a desk slides out, the wall slides over to make more living room when the bed is not in use.
This is described as “modular and scalable mechatronic”, though it is triggered by pushing a button. The only “automation” I can find mentioned is presets, a la a thermostat.
Oh, and, of course, an “app to reconfigure the unit from anywhere in the world.” Sigh.
“Hair Coach”–with App (January 2017)
In recent years, CES has become an undisputed epicenter of gadgets, so I can’t let the occasion pass without at least one addition to the Inappropriate Touch Screen Files.
I’ll skip the boneheaded “Catspad”, which isn’t particularly new, and certainly makes you wonder who would want this.
I think the winner for today is the “Hair Coach”, which uses a “Smart Hair Brush” to offer you “coaching” on your hair care.
To Be Continued