The HTC Touch (ht Dave Malouf) is a new touch-screen mobile phone with an iPhone-like seductive user interface, replete with the same kind of stunning UI bells and whistles — animations, rotations, sliding, flinging, and bouncing — that we are all eagerly awaiting in the Apple iPhone. A recent review in MEX magazine, however, isn’t very impressed.

HTC’s pitching of the product was very clear. TouchFlo, the ‘completely new’ interaction method used by the handset, was explicitly identified as its unique selling point. And therein lies the problem – TouchFlo is an extremely poor experience.

The reviewer dwells extensively on the fact that much of the interface relies on this “TouchFlo” feature, which seems to be the touchscreen finger-based analogue to traditional desktop mouse-based clicking and dragging. He implies that the technology itself is flawed, insofar as the screen wasn’t detecting and interpreting his finger movements properly (suggesting that this is really a hardware problem or a programming problem more than a UI design problem).

As a 5-year-long user of a full-screen PocketPC touch screen phone, I suspect the reviewer’s implication is incorrect: While I have plenty of problems with the usability of my touchscreen phone, I’ve never had the screen misread my touches and gestures (except in cases where I’ve used my fingertip to press a 4mm x 4mm button, but that’s another type of problem entirely).

Perhaps the tester himself is something of a klutz and just didn’t quite get the hang of how to move their fingers across the HTC Touch’s screen correctly (maybe they also type slowly, have bad handwriting, and can’t use chopsticks!).

I know, I know, I’m blaming the user, right? Well, my point is that perhaps any UI that involves even the most minimally intricate fingerwork will confound a significant number of normal users. What if the particular type of manual dexterity required for devices with such fancy interaction design is beyond the ability for, say, a third of all humans?

If this is the case, then the Apple iPhone’s similarly dynamic user interface might be a big problem for a lot of people, too, since the fantastic interactions we’ve seen in preview videos might prove to be as physically impossible to many people as juggling or playing the guitar.

I’m very interested in seeing how this pans out. As usual, rumor is that Apple didn’t do any usability tests on the iPhone. I suspect those rumors are merely Apple propaganda. We shall see.


8 responses to “Klutzes and Touch Screens”

  1. A touch screen device with a ‘Start’ button? *shudders*

  2. Thanks for posting a link to my article, but I think you’ve missed the main point. There are indeed problems with TouchFlo itself, but the main cause of the usability issues is the attempt to combine a thumb-based interface (TouchFlo) with a stylus-based interface (i.e. the standard Windows Mobile 6 software).

    On its own, Windows Mobile 6 is quite a good example of a stylus-driven UI. However, given HTC’s positioning of this device as a handset which can be controlled with a single hand (this positioning was re-iterated by several of the company’s executives), it causes major user experience problems when you are switched from applications which have been designed for thumb control into ones which require a stylus.

    As an example, try closing an application using the ‘X’ button in the top right-hand corner of the screen while holding and controlling the device with a single hand. You just can’t do it. These kind of problems occur throughout the handset and the only way they can be solved is to re-design the interaction model of Windows Mobile to be suitable for one-handed input or to market the device for what it is: a fundamentally stylus-driven product.

    And just to re-assure you, my handwriting may well be terrible, but I am capable of using chopsticks and I have been using touchscreen devices since the first Apple Newton!

  3. @Marek: Thanks for visiting and responding!

    The problems you are talking about in the comment above are indeed the meat of your critique, but they are not problems with the TouchFlo interface per se, but rather they are with the Windows interface that the device drops the user into regularly. Although you focus on the frequent switching from one UI paradigm to another, your complaint, essentially, is simply that the Windows PocketPC interface sucks. Even the basic Windows PocketPC UI, without TouchFlo, has the interface split-personality thing — sometimes they make the OS buttons big and fingertip-sized, sometimes they make them tiny and stylus-sized. This problem is fundamental to the Windows PocketPC UI and has been so for many years (believe me, as a longtime user I know!).

    You say the problem is switching modes. I say the problem is requiring a stylus mode at all for any interface function whatsoever except handwriting and drawing. That’s where Microsoft still just doesn’t get it. Everything should be do-able with a fingertip.

    In any event, I was keying in on your specific complaints about the TouchFlo layer’s poor tactile/haptic performance for the purposes of this essay — your estimate that the core interaction function only works 40% of the time for you is fairly damning critique. Perhaps this poor performance is common among many other users.

    Sorry about the chopsticks line, but I needed to use you to make a broader point about the potential problems with fancy finger-based UI techniques even with regular everyday people. Clearly you had problems with the product’s usability on a findamental tactile level, and I’m sure it’s not because you’re a klutz! 🙂

  4. Philip Ganchev Avatar
    Philip Ganchev

    Cris – First, Marek says that in his experience the sensor did not work well. Since you have not used this device, you are not qualified to make guesses about that.

    Second, Marek says that it is not enough to recognize where the thumb is tapping and gliding. You have to make the targets large enough, make them easily reachable with the thumb, and reduce the necessity of tapping/gliding on targets as much as possible. These are all constraints due to the one-hand thumb interface, and are not constraints (or are much less) for a stylus interface.

    Your rant misses both of these points that are quite obvious to me.

    In general, a great weakness of touchscreens is their lack tactile feedback, unlike keys, buttons, dials and knobs. So I predict that a great number of people will have trouble using them, and many will be able to use them but will (subconsciously) feel dissatisfied with the experience. I hope I’m wrong.

  5. Philip: I am qualified to make guesses. We are all free to guess and speculate. The point of my “rant” had little to do with Marek’s article, actually, or even with the HTC device.

    Secondly, nothing in your second paragraph is in Marek’s article, nor do I agree with your point. You don’t have to use the device with one hand at all — the fact that both you and Marek assume that you have to use your thumb to operate the phone is interesting, because as a longtime PocketPC owner I use my thumb occasionally but usually use my forefinger on my other hand. I am guessing (again!) that the notion that one-handed thumb operation is the ‘correct’ way to use this is a marketing message that is, in a way, backfiring: They are trying to sell the device as a one-handed tool, and as such it fails to work properly — when if they simply marketed it as a two-handed device (like most mobile phones!) perhaps Marek might have had an easier time using it and might have written a more positive review.

    I agree about the lack of feedback being a problem with touchscreens, but it’s something I, like you, hope that good UI design can compensate for. But back to my original point, perhaps a good % of people will never be able to adapt.

  6. Just to clarify the above, I am talking about the TouchFlo part of the UI, not the Windows part. The Windows part suffers from a great many problems because of its inexcusable and continued reliance on the stylus for most interactions, and on that point I think Marek and I are in strong agreement. Focusing on the shortcomings of the Windows Mobile GUI when discussing the long-term potential of mobile device usability is depressing and backward-looking because, as Marek points out, the Windows GUI really must be scrapped entirely in order for a device to be truly usable.

  7. snowcrash Avatar

    Thanks for your review.

    I agree, that some parts of the screen are difficult to access with your thumb. Especially the X button, as it is so small and located on the top right hand corner.

    I’m wondering if there’s an add-on app that can make the X button larger, or uses the top-bar area to the same effect?

  8. The touchflo is definately a big let-down (coming from someone who had no trouble using his last windows mobile phone with fingers). It’s problem doesn’t seem to be its design so much as the speed. It indeed wildly misreads much of the input you give, though this seems to be more a problem of its crippling lag. There’s been a rom update for the phone however, which apparently is supposed to be a big help. I’m still downloading it now, but if it doesn’t do the trick I am definately uninstalling touchflo. That a phone with these kinds of specs (touch diamond) could be this unresponsive is ridiculous.