Designing for Touch by Josh Clark

Josh the Touchmaster is here at An Event Apart Atlanta to tell us about Designing for Touch.

Science! Science and web design. As Scott said, a lot of what we’re doing now is checking the nuances of things we’ve been doing all along. We’re testing our assumptions.

We had web standards. Then we had responsive design. Now there’s a new revelation: there is no one true input for the web.

There are lots of new input mechanisms coming down the pipe, but right now the biggest new one is touch. This talk is about designing for touch.

As of last month, 31% of US adults have tablets. A few years ago, it was zero. The iPad is the fastest-growing consumer product in the history of consumer products. But touch isn’t just for mobile phones and tablets. Touch is on the desktop now too. All desktop web designs have to be touch-friendly now.

The ugly truth is that we’ve thought of web design as primarily a visual design medium. But when you add touch into the mix, it gets physical. It’s no longer just about how your pixels look; it’s about how they feel too. You are not “just” a visual designer now. There are portions of industrial design in what you do: honest-to-goodness ergonomics. In a sense, you’re designing a physical device, because it will be explored by hands. Phones and tablets are blank slates. We provide the interface. How will it feel in the user’s hands? More specifically, how will it feel in one hand?

Phones

Thumbs are fantastic. The thumb, along with celebrity gossip, is what separates us from the beasts. There’s a natural thumb-resting area on the iPhone (coming from the bottom left to the centre). That’s why positioning conventions have evolved they way have on iOS—very differently to the desktop: navigation at the bottom instead of the top.

There’s an age-old principle in industrial design: content at the top; controls at the bottom. Now we see that in iOS. But in Android there are assistive buttons at the bottom (just as the industrial design maxim suggests). But now if you put your controls at the bottom too, you’ve got too much going on. So on Android you should be putting your controls at the top. But the drawback is that this is no longer in the thumb-sweeping area.

That’s iOS and Android. What about the web?

There are problems with pinning navigation to either the top or bottom. First of all, position: fixed is really screwy on mobile browsers. Secondly, in landscape (or other limited-height environments), the controls take up far too much room compared to the content. The third problem is also related to space: browser chrome.

Instead, a better pattern is to have a menu control that reveals navigation. The simplest version is when this is simply an internal link to navigation at the bottom of the page. As Luke says, forget HTML5: this is HTML1. Best of all, this pattern leads with the content and follows it with the navigation.

So that’s where things stand with touch navigation on phones:

  • iOS: Controls at screen bottom.
  • Android: Controls at screen top.
  • Web: Controls at page bottom.

Tablets

What about tablets? This is more likely to be a two-handed grip. Now having controls at the bottom would be really hostile to touch. The phone thumb-zone no longer applies, but thumbs still matter because they could be obscuring controls. Your thumbs are more likely to be on the sides, with easy reach to the top. So put controls in those regions where thumbs can come to rest: the side.

There are some cases where bottom navigation is okay: in an ebook where you’re showing a complicated control …or a map with a draggable interface below it. When you need a control to do browsing or preview for the content above it, the bottom is okay.

Hybrid

The unholy alliance: a laptop with a keyboard combined with a touch-enabled screen. There are lots of them coming down the line.

Mouse and trackpad usage drops off a lot on hybrid devices. There was always the fear of “gorilla arms” with hybrid devices but it turns out that people are gripping the sides of the screen (like a tablet) but when people are jabbing the screen, it’s more like a phone. If you overlay the thumb comfort zone of a hybrid laptop with the thumb comfort zone of a tablet, there’s one area that’s left out: the top …exactly where we put our navigation on laptop/desktop screens.

This is a headache for responsive design. We’ve been correlating small screens with touch. It turns out that screen size is a lousy way to detect a touchscreen. And it’s hard to detect support for touch. So, for now, we’re really just guessing.

But we have top men working on the problem. Top. Men. There’s a proposal in CSS4 for a pointer property. But even then, what will a hybrid device report if it supports trackpad, keyboard, mouse and touch?

Desktop

All desktop designs have to be touch-friendly. This is going to require a big change in our thinking. For a start, it’s time to bid farewell to hover events, certainly for crucial content …maybe it can be used for enhancements.

Given the thumb zones on tablets and hybrids, we can start putting frequent controls down the side—controls that stay in view even when the content is scrolled. Just to be clear: don’t put your main navigation there—put the controls that people actually use. Sorry, but people don’t actually use your main navigation. People use main navigation only as a last resort.

Quartz uses a very thumb-friendly layout. But how big should the touch targets be? It turns out …seven millimeters; the tip of a finger. Use nine millimeters if you really need to be safe.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not using millimeter as a unit in my CSS. But standards can help here. A pixel is defined in CSS2.1 to have a set millimeter size. But that doesn’t factor in the reality of dynamic viewports: zooming, pinching, scaling. Devices still report they’re actual physical size; the hardware pixels, that have nothing to do with the calculated web pixels.

On the iPhone we arrive at this magical 44 pixel number, which is repeated over and over throughout the UI. As long as one dimension is 44 pixels, you can squeeze the other dimension down to 29 pixels: 44x29 or 29x44. On iOS, that unit is repeated for a rhythm that just feels right: 44, 88, etc. The interface is designed not just for the hand, but of the hand. Use that rhythm, even on desktop screens.

That’s lovely and elegant. Digital watches are not. Touch targets need to be a certain size.

Now these optimisations mean there’s inevitably some constraint. But that can be a good thing: you might have to reduce what’s on your screen, and that means that your interface will be more focused. Clarity trumps density.

But simplicity isn’t always a good thing. Complexity has become a dirty word, but sometimes it’s needed. People don’t want a dumbed-down interface that won’t let them do everything.

And when you don’t have space constraints, that doesn’t mean you should fill up the space with crap. Aim for clarity, no matter what the size of the screen. On a smaller screen, that can be a more conversational, back-and-forth interaction, requesting and revealing information; question, answer; ask, receive. This progressive disclosure requires more taps, but that’s okay. Extra taps and clicks aren’t evil. When done right, they can actually be better because they provide clarity and invite conversation. As long as every tap is a quality tap that provides information, and helps complete a task, they are not evil.

But the long scroll …that is evil. That’s how kittens get killed.

Luke has documented the off-canvas pattern as a way of pushing some information off-screen. It’s kind of like a carousel. So instead of everything being stacked vertically, there can be sections that are navigated horizontally. That’s what Josh and Ethan did on the site for People magazine on small screens.

So for desktop interfaces, these are the points to remember:

  • Hover is an enhancement
  • Bottom left for controls.
  • Big touch targets.
  • 44px rhythm.
  • Progressive disclosure.

But even though Josh has been talking all about the touch interface, it’s worth remembering that sometimes the best interface is no interface at all. And we need to stop thinking about input mechanisms as singular things: they can be combined. Think about speech + gesture: it’s literally like magic (think: Harry Potter casting a spell). Aral’s hackday project—where he throws content from the phone to the Kinect—gets a round of applause. Now we’ve got Leap Motion on its way. These things are getting more affordable and available. So we could be bypassing touch completely. We can move the interface off the screen entirely. How can we start replacing clumsy touch with the combination of all these sensors?

Digital is growing more physical. Physical is growing more digital. Our job is becoming less about pixels on screens and more about interacting with the world. We have to be willing to challenge established patterns. We have to think. We have to use our brains.

Have you published a response to this? :