To Touch or Not to Touch, That is the Question

on July 17, 2013
Reading Time: 3 minutes

This is an excerpt from an analysis on the strategic errors of Windows 8 and the philosophy behind the product that was written for our Tech.pinions Insiders Members. To learn more about Tech.pinions Insiders click here or to see all Insider topics and articles click here.

Adopting a New Posture

While I was at Microsoft’s build conference last week, I decided to make a point to keenly observe those attendees who have embraced touch on notebooks and watch how they use them. The plus to being at a Microsoft conference was that I saw more touch notebooks, and Surfaces for that matter, in one location than I have ever seen out in one place.

What I observed was interesting. Those who had adopted touch on their notebook would type with the device at arms length, but then move their body and face closer to the screen as they sought to use touch input. In essence to use touch they actually leaned in, performed the action and either stayed or leaned in to scroll a web site for example, and then leaned back to start typing again.

Interestingly, Surface owners had adopted an entire experience built around leaning in. I can only speculate that this is because the screen is so small that staying leaned in closer to the screen makes it easier to read the text, etc. Surface owners would even type with arms bent significantly more because of how close they were to the screen.

Alleged-Microsoft-Surface-Phone-Emerges-in-Official-Photos-2

My key takeaways from these observations were that to use a Windows 8 notebook, or an aspiring hybrid like Surface, adopting touch as a paradigm is one necessary component, but so is adopting new body language to operate it in a useful and efficient way.

So the question we need to ask ourselves is this: Is this better? Does touch bring so much to the notebook and desktop form factor that we should consider this new, somewhat un-natural required body posture worth the effort?

Let’s look at it this way. Is adding touch as a UI mechanism to something like a desktop or notebook a more efficient input mechanism? In notebook and some desktop form factors, I would argue that it is not.

I absolutely condone touch on smartphones and tablets. In these devices touch is natural, and the best and most efficient input mechanism for the use cases they are best at. This is because they are truly mobile and you use natural motions to touch the screen to navigate. But notebooks and desktop are different beasts that succeed at very different use cases for very different reasons.

WHY TOUCH?

What I’ve tried to bring out, both in public and in private, is this: does using touch as an input mechanism on a notebook or desktop make me more efficient in my workflow? I’m yet to find that it does.

When you sit behind a notebook or a desktop you are prepared to get work done. In this context speed, efficiency, and ease of use are keys to make these devices the best tools for the job. So for touch to be compelling, it must be better at the above experiences than a solid trackpad or external mouse. Does it do this? The answer is no.

Take the trackpad for example. My hands have less distance to travel for me to reach the trackpad on all installations. To use a trackpad I bring my hands closer to me a very short distance (maybe 2-3 inches). Contrast that with using touch as an input mechanism and rather than bring my hands in a short distance I must reach for the screen (approximately 5-6 inches). This requires more effort and more time than using the trackpad and is more tiring to the arm, by keeping it fully extended to operate. Unless you hunch over or lean in, which is also uncomfortable for any length of time. I concede that for some the amount of time and effort may not be considered much difference by some, but it is still a key point.

When I discuss this with those who advocate touch screens on notebooks, they propose that touching the device for input is a preferred mechanism to the trackpad. My counter point is that this is because most trackpads put on Windows PCs are downright terrible. Sometimes I wonder if Microsoft pushed OEMs to do this on purpose to make touching the screen seem like a better experience, simply because the trackpad is so bad, that it makes touching the device appear to feel like a better alternative.

I’d like to quantify this sometime by having a race with a Windows user and challenge them to a similar task, like creating a few slides and graphs in Power Point. Them on their touch notebook and me on my MacBook Air. We will see who can finish the task the quickest.