In a new world of tablet computers and smartphones, on-screen buttons are passé

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Design expert: Pay attention to the new rules of designing for touchscreens

By Todd R. Weiss

PHILADELPHIA – As software developers design how the next generations of apps will look and work, they need to transform their ideas about how to best put useful content on the shrinking device screens being used by consumers.

That’s because tablet computers, smartphones and other handheld mobile devices dramatically change how consumers can view content on screens that are much smaller than traditional desktop displays. Those differences call for a move away from traditional desktop on-screen buttons that simply don’t work well on smaller screens.

What’s needed instead, says Josh Clark, an iPhone app consultant and founder of app design firm Global Moxie, is for app designers to carefully focus on the content itself so they can visualize and truly find the most relevant ways to display it.

In a thought-provoking presentation here today at the 6th annual Emerging Technologies for the Enterprise Conference (ETE), Clark described why “Buttons Are A Hack: The New Rules of Designing for Touch.”

“When you remove the mouse and keyboard … all that remains is you and the device,” he said. That approach gets to the core of the connections between users and their touchscreen devices because they must use the tactile emotions of touch to find what they are seeking. The problem, though, is that not all touchscreen apps today allow users to truly explore touch natively, he said.

One example of this, according to Clark, is the ABC News app for the iPad, which features an Earth globe that can be “spun” with a fingertip to move from story to story for viewing. The problem is it’s built for show and doesn’t make it easy for users to find the content they are seeking, he said, partly because it only displays two stories at a time in the main screen and there’s no usable index.

“It’s actively upstaging the content,” Clark said. “Whiz-bang graphics don’t help us find information. More attention is given to the contraption than to the content.”

A better, more intuitive and cleaner approach comes from The New York Times Editor’s Choice app for the iPhone, which favors function over form. Instead of trying a flashy, tech interface, the app displays New York Times content in a form that appears like a newspaper page. Critics, of course, panned the interface as boring and traditional, Clark said, but experiments by other designers found that too much change can also be a turn-off for consumers.

Because the New York Times’ online brand has been around now for more than 15 years, it’s instantly recognizable as a brand to online readers, Clark said. And rather than rework it with an entirely new look and feel, research found that that connection is a boon because it keeps the Times familiar and comfortable for readers.

The lesson learned?

“Don’t underestimate the power of hum-drum as you go out and design interfaces,” Clark said. “Old ideas are not necessarily old-fashioned.”

Another key for app design is to match the touchscreen capabilities to the content you are producing, he said. If the app is for displaying the content of a print magazine, then keep the tactile feel of the paper magazine in mind – visualize how the pages turn and feel so you can keep your users “connected” to the physical magazine as they explore its online content. Automated “page flips” can be a good feature to use, as they allow the user to “see” the pages turning as they read the content, but make the pages turn quickly so you don’t lose readers, he said.

“Page flips are window dressing for sure, but they reinforce that you are reading a newspaper or magazine or book,” which provides context, connection and familiarity, Clark said. “And familiarity and intimacy invite touch. If you’re going to make it look like a book [or magazine] then you have to make it act like one.”

That’s not always done in app designs, and it needs to happen more, he said.

Even Apple’s own calendar app for the iPhone isn’t intuitive enough due to its design, according to Clark. Where a user should be able to “swipe” a finger across the calendar screen to turn a page, it’s not possible. Instead, they have to click an arrow to move a page ahead or backward.

That’s just not right with touchscreens, he said, because they invite intuitive actions such as touching, tapping, swiping – at the expense of those outmoded buttons. “You see this [disconnect] all over the place” in recent app designs, he said.

“Just enough is more,” Clark said, accentuating the idea that design just for the sake of design is not enough. The content delivery of today’s apps need to focus on the users and how they want to access information through their fingertips and touch.

“Watch a toddler use an iPad,” he said. “They just use it. So design for humans. Design for direct interaction. Design for toddlers. Think about how kids would use the app.”

All of this is still evolving, Clark said, as touchscreen app development remains in its infancy today. “We’re only a year into mainstream tablet app design. Don’t assume that anyone else has it nailed yet, especially the big guys.”

That means it’s great to watch what other app developers are doing, but don’t immediately jump in to follow them – they could have gotten it all wrong.

“It’s very early and it’s dangerous to lock in on half-baked convention” just because you see others doing certain things so far, he said.”Understand that you won’t get it right the first time and don’t give up.”

Todd R. Weiss is a longtime technology journalist who worked as a staff writer for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. Now a freelance tech journalist, Weiss contributes regularly to Computerworld, PCWorld.com and other publications. He has also written extensively for Linux.com, ForecastingClouds.com and TechTarget on a wide range of enterprise IT topics from Linux and open source to disaster recovery, cloud computing, virtualization, application development, IT education and mobile and wireless technologies. He began writing about computers in 1996 after a newspaper editor he worked for told him that “no one cares about technology.” Apparently, the editor was wrong.