Another Touch Interface, Consistency Is Dead

June 19th, 2012 8 Comments

Much to no one’s surprise, Microsoft debuted two tablets yesterday, both called Surface, both running Windows 8 variants.

This announcements enters yet another interface into the touch OS pantheon, which already includes iOS, Android and all its flavors, and Windows Phone 7. There are others for sure, but these main flavors will surely comprise the bulk of the installed base over the next few years.

As tablets continue to replace desktops and laptops, most users will most certainly learn how touch interfaces work from one of these OSes.

The question that’s been bugging me for a while is how easily people will transition between them.

Recently, I got a case study from my lovely wife, who locked her keys, wallet, and phone in our car while she was out and about. Before you laugh, I did the very same thing once, with the engine running, and yes, it’s possible if you have a Jeep without keyless entry. So, if you’re laughing, you’re really laughing at both of us, and that’s just not nice.

Anyway, my wife is a longtime iPhone user, literally from its inception. I bought her an iPhone the day after they launched, way back in 2007. Without her phone, she had to borrow her friend’s Android phone to contact me. She couldn’t remember my phone number, a biproduct of the modern age of contacts, so she had to email me from her friend’s account.

All this means she got a crash course in Android, and I got a random email and a beautiful case study in touch interface knowledge transfer.

The results were exactly as I expected, frustration abounded. The stress of the situation actually provided a great filter for the experience, since she wasn’t relaxed and open to learning new functions. She reported that she couldn’t do basic operations on Android and essentially had to have her friend navigate the entire experience.

I cleaned it up, just a little.

Anyway, could she figure it out, given time and incentive? Of course. Is that an acceptable answer?

Absolutely not.

Consistency matters to design, but unfortunately, the rush to compete with Apple and create profitable, I mean magical, touch experiences has resulted in the death of any consistency between touch OSes and even among apps on the same OS.

And no one seems to care anymore.

Users are broken into warring factions, using the inconsistencies between interfaces as evidence that their choice is obviously better. Even when users try to jump between interfaces, they are rebuffed by steep learning curves and frustration, the archenemies of usability.

Competition prevents the producers of the interfaces from following conventions, citing their new features as revolutionary and differentiating. Couple this with the strong economic incentive to lock customers and developers into their platform.

No incentive exists for consistency.

The reason design conventions exist at all is to provides users with affordances between applications; conventions exist because technology didn’t used to be a requirement. It was optional.

Because using software was optional, we formed conventions to care for the users, to invite them to use new software and show them how easy it was.

Not anymore. Technology is a requirement, so figure out how to use it. No more invitations. Figure it out or GTFO.

Empathy used to be a design value, but many modern developers do not write software for others. You’d think this would create strong empathy, and it can, but only to the point where the developer shares requirements with the user. Beyond that is uncharted territory for many modern developers, who just don’t care.

It’s all one giant cluster that we’ve created ourselves.

I have no pithy wisdom to share, no silver bullet ideas that would fix this problem.

It’s going to get much worse before it gets better.

Find the comments.

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8 Responses to “Another Touch Interface, Consistency Is Dead”

  1. William Rudge Says:


    It’s ironic you would mention the cars. They don’t have consistent interface either. Turning lights on, signals, wipers–they seem to be interchangeable on the cars. The same movement in one car turns light on will turn wipers on in the other car, which can be mildy embarassing for me. :-)

  2. joel garry Says:

    Touch interfaces are stupid. Buttons and knobs have tactile feedback, you don’t have to have so much hand/eye coordination getting in the middle of everything, kinesthetic learning can add some parallel processing to the wetware. For example, I’m driving along, without touch interface I can just glance that my hand is going towards the radio, I don’t have to stare at it to change stations. Since the concept of the interface is non-optimal, there won’t be a natural convergence of disparate interfaces.

  3. Jake Says:

    I expect tactile feedback will soon be added to account for just this drawback, e.g. that keyboard that rises up to give users keys to press.

    Not to stir the pot, but if you feel touch interfaces are stupid for those reasons, then you must feel the same way about standard OSes, right?

    Computers haven’t had tactile feedback since punchcards.

    I think touch has its place, but it’s far from perfect.

  4. Jake Says:

    Good point, although inconsistencies between cars are usually confined to ancillary functions. Safety and major operational functions are consistent, e.g. the turn signal behaves the same way, the pedals are the same, etc.

    Major functions between touch apps, even on the same platform, are wildly different, e.g. find the settings for an app.

  5. erikanollwebb Says:

    I contend that although Apple has fixed the consistency by insisting that all things follow their conventions to get onto the App Store, there’s plenty about the UI requirements that are wonky and difficult–but once you are used to it, you convince yourself it’s easier because it’s familiar. I had a similar conversation with my mother about the Kindle Fire, which she said was so hard to use (ie didn’t work like her iPhone or iPad). After a while, she didn’t think it was that hard to use after all. I keep both an Android phone and an iPad handy for design comparison but since I’m used to both, I don’t think the Android is difficult — however some apps are really atypical and I just tend to stop using them.
    Consistency in patterns is definitely a good thing, I’m just saying I don’t think consistency always equals superior experience if the consistency has some strangeness to it.

  6. Gary Myers Says:

    A good chunk of the problem is that rather than allowing a UI component to be reused, the mechanism is patented and reuse punished (eg slide to unlock). You end up with several warring factions each with part of the best UI and no single product that can include them all.

  7. Jake Says:

    The main differences between OSes are hard enough to learn, but it’s the myriad of apps that make life difficult. Even the same app on different platforms can be different, and is even expected to be so by critics, lest it be “just a port.”

    I get your point about consistent badness, but even then, a user would know to avoid something.

  8. Jake Says:

    Exactly what I meant above, consistency is punished, which is bad for users.

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