Is it touch and go for future user interfaces?


The next couple of years promise a huge upsurge of interest in touch-sensitive user interfaces, as IT firms battle to provide new and intuitive ways to access information.

Following on from the massive popularity of Apple’s iPod and iPhone devices, major suppliers – such as Microsoft and RIM – are exploring how new input mechanisms that can improve the user experience.

RIM recently announced the details of Storm, its first touch screen BlackBerry. The device – which includes dual-mode functionality and integrated GPS - uses ClickThrough technology to allow users to push the screen as they select an application or enter text.

Other manufacturers are offering additional bonuses. Nokia’s 5800 touch sensitive phone includes a semi-professional camera and – most tantalisingly, perhaps – unlimited music downloads.

Camcorder specialist Flip, meanwhile, has just released details of its next-generation Mino recorder and the pocket-sized device relies on a touch-sensitive screen for its user interface.

Developments are not just confined to mobile devices and the latest Jaguar XF includes a touch-sensitive video screen that allows the driver to operate climate, entertainment and driving controls.

Other devices offer a clever solution to an intractable challenge, such as the Series 58 touch-sensitive switch from EAO – which can stick to a surface without the need to drill holes and its electronic switching element is powerful enough to operate though thick double glazing.

But is important to remember that being flavour of the month is no assurance of long-term popularity. And while IT firms are working hard to develop sleek touch-screen devices, they must remember that a good-looking device is no substitute for a usable interface.

There is clearly an advantage for multi-touch device over single touch, as they offer a greater palette of “touch gestures”. However, such richness comes with issues: first, no common standard for gestures across devices; and second, having to remember more gestures.

Problems with touch devices are common, too. Screen calibration issues can mean users have to “guess” hot spots for touch. Button performance can be erratic and users often enter applications or text accidentally.

Interfaces can also be slow to respond, leaving the individual waiting for a device to update menus and on-screen information.

Such problems mean users can sometimes be wistful for their old-fashioned mechanical buttons - and for many applications, the ability to support “Undo” functionality will be a key blessing!

Take Google’s new G1 phone, which includes a touch-sensitive screen and a computer-like keyboard and tracker ball mouse that provides an additional interface to the firm’s Android operating system.

Such developments illustrate that levels of users satisfaction will not necessarily match huge interest in touch-sensitive devices until interfaces are perfected.

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