I have been musing over the ongoing craze for touchscreen devices. While it seems that everyone and his dog now uses a touchscreen phone, in reality, touchscreen devices still make up a smaller percentage of the mobile market. But beyond that, it is generally believed that touchscreens provide better user interfaces on mobile devices. But do they?
I have been using a very capable touchscreen device for some time now, the Samsung S8003 Jet. Before then, the only other recent pure touchscreen devices that I have played with include the iPhone 3GS, Samsung Tocco Lite, and Nokia 5800.
Besides the pure touchscreen phones, a few hybrids have made my list – Sony Ericsson Xperia X1 and T-mobile G1. But these are not pure touchscreen devices and so do not fall under the category of devices I am examining.
In one word: usability.
What? you scream, Impossible! Preposterous!!
But before you cry for my head, read on. By definition, usability refers to the effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which users can achieve tasks in a particular environment of a product. In this case, the product is a mobile phone.
In my opinion, two features ensure that non-touchscreen devices provide better usability than pure touch devices:
I am unable to remember the number of scenarios in which I had only one hand available, but carrying a phone with only a touchscreen slab meant that I had to drop whatever else I was doing to use the phone.
In contrast to this is the sheer ease of use that candy bar or slider phones with regular or QWERTY keypads offer. Pull the device out with one hand and type away.
In my experience, regular phones like the Sony Ericsson T650i and candybar QWERTYs like the B7320, E71, BlackBerrys provide greater usability than pure touch devices.
It is one of the things I remember the B7320 for.
We love those huge displays, and coupled with a beautiful user interface, pure touchscreen devices just blow our minds away. Yet, those displays very often get in our way.
You are holding your shiny new touch device and showing something to your friend. But a slight tilt of the angle at which you hold it results in the display auto-rotating, messing up your presentation. Probably a minor irritation, but then it is often the minor irritations that make the difference between high and low usability.
You are watching a video full-screen and in landscape on that glamourous AMOLED touch display, and you lean back a bit on the couch, resulting in an adjusted angle. The display simply auto-rotates again, and you have to sit up straight to get back into landscape mode.
That never happens on your non-touch device. The display stays how you want it. That never happens with the E71 or BlackBerry Curve, for example
At the end of the day, much of this boils down to personal preference. Both sides of the divide have pros and cons.
For example, standard keypad phones are the best of the lot if your primary objective of having a phone is usage that mostly revolves around voice calls.
Replacing the standard keypad with a QWERTY improves usability for those who need to input lots of text. One-handed use is mostly possible and the display does not have a mind of its own. The B7320, being a case in point, gives you a fairly large display that does not switch orientation when you would prefer it to stay put, and one-handed usage. Usability.
Yet, though I am sold on QWERTY devices, I have consistently maintained that standard keypad devices provide the best usability on the planet. Those are the type of phones that the illiterate farmer in Owerri or the village in India is able to use without much problems. While the press may make noise about how they think that touchscreen devices provide the best usability, the truth is very far from that.
The most usable mobile phones are those simple, basic standard keypad devices that almost anyone is able to use without getting an education.
Touchscreen devices lend themselves to media consumption – the large screen being vital to that. Even then, the issues of one-handed use and display orientations still remain. Still, it depends on what the individual wants.
The above issues serve to remind us that touchscreens are not the mobile el dorado that many would like us to think they are. I predict that we will continue to ooooh and aaaah over our touchscreen devices for years and then when the euphoria wears out, we will largely return to more usable models – some sort of hybrids, perhaps.
One thing is for sure, pure touchscreen devices are not the future of mobile. They are certainly not the past. Or the present.
What do you think? If you use a pure touchscreen device, how do you handle the twin issues I raised above?