UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 470 January 22, 2010

Tablet usability: the future can't come soon enough

Last weekend I sat on the Tube (the London Underground to international readers), Piccadilly line to be exact, heading into central London. A young man got on and sat down opposite me. He got out a little ASUS netbook, turned it on, and swiveled the lid to use it as a touchscreen. "Awesome," I thought, "he's got one of those cool touchscreen netbooks running Windows 7. I'd love one of those, it'd be so convenient."

I watched the man use the laptop for a while, as he tapped at the screen and used two fingers to scroll on a page. It looked ace—it looked simple. But soon the experience turned sour.

I watched as the man pulled a stylus out from the side of the computer and started to tap at the screen. I thought styluses had been banned by international law since the introduction of the iPhone nearly two and a half years ago. Still, if there are still some things that can't use the OS zoom function, then maybe a stylus has to be used.

I then received an even greater shock.

I watched in amazement as the man lifted up the screen to try and use the keyboard. Upside down. A CTRL + something command that was not present in the touchscreen menu.

Naturally, as a usability practitioner, I was horrified but continued to watch the bloke struggle. It took him five stabs and glances back at the screen to confirm the action was successful. By this time, the man looked thoroughly frustrated with his program's choice of shortcut. Soon after, he packed up his laptop and got off the train.

What seems to be the moral story is that no matter how advanced your OS is, the applications that you run can still scupper the experience, especially with tablets. There are two solutions to this problem:

  1. The iPhone way: Touch is the only interaction option. No legacy apps are allowed. It's an OS designed for touch and for touch only.
  2. The full screen keyboard way: Windows 7 may have a good touchscreen keyboard, but it isn't implemented in all apps (the iPhone way). You would need a true full-screen multi-touch keyboard, adaptable to different screen sizes, to make it function correctly.

Hopefully there's a third way: the Apple tablet way. We'll wait and see about that

This article was originally published on Steve's blog.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Steve Workman is a Consultant at PA Consulting Group in London. He started designing and building web sites in 2003, and he's been trying to make the Web a better place ever since. Steve is an organiser of the London Web Standards group, setting up educational events for like-minded people in the London area. You can follow him on Twitter @steveworkman.

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Comments

13
13

This is the advantage Apple has over the Windows crew, they can control the hardware. Maybe time for Microsoft to build hardware!! Hey the Game console should have taught them something about that kind of business.

18
14

Chances are the command could be mapped.

There is a place in the control panel for mapping gestures to commands.

Something like "swipe to the upper left = ctrl a" is really easy to do.

14
14

I agree with the above comment. While the stylus seems a bit archaic... thinking back to my 2000 Palm Pilot where I couldn't get the damn thing to activate any actions without a pin prick of a stylus, but technology has evolved. I think the stylus could be a useful tool in not only letting one hand write notes that later are transferred into digital text, but it also lends the mark of a hand, personalization, which a lot of people crave. Furthermore, for graphics people, a stylus could come in quite handy when making adjustments to graphics.

Additionally, the stylus can help meet the needs of users with disabilities. With all this said, a stylus alone cannot do the job for providing a great user experience. Applications as mentioned in the above article needs to be developed to support in a user-friendly manner, both touch and stylus interactions.

17
12

I agree with the above comment. While the stylus seems a bit archaic... thinking back to my 2000 Palm Pilot where I couldn't get the damn thing to activate any actions without a pin prick of a stylus, but technology has evolved. I think the stylus could be a useful tool in not only letting one hand write notes that later are transferred into digital text, but it also lends the mark of a hand, personalization, which a lot of people crave. Furthermore, for graphics people, a stylus could come in quite handy when making adjustments to graphics. I think the stylus/touch screen can be evolved to work in tandem and meet multiple user needs.

14
8

I do not agree with the stylus part. I agree that if you are going to display a keyboard, do it propberly. The good think about the windows based tablet, at list when it comes to entering data (typing) is that they are made for you to write as you would on a piece of paper. Windows takes this writing and can turn it to text as if you would've typed it. It even is indexable. that said, I think their tablet approach (that you also need to consider, comes from years ago) is just different from what apple will (as we all seem to agree on) show.

Apple will set the bar higher and the MS will ahve to do something else.