Pinch-to-zoom, sideways swipes to access multiple home screens, and even touch-sensitive bezels are becoming common occurrences in smartphones and tablets, but a paper being published by the Association for Computing Machinery suggests Android and iPhone are going about gesture-based user interfaces all wrong. The article argues that many gestures are invisible, unexplained, and inconsistent across applications. Given, a lot of that is due to third-party developers that don’t have a set standardized interface, the inconsistency is also found in the default out-of-box apps.
A lack of feedback means it’s hard for users to understand why certain inputs aren’t being recognized as intended, and also makes it difficult to adjust accordingly. This stems from a need for “non-destructive operations” (i.e. accidents don’t completely undo what you were trying to do). The paper also notes that as tablets gain in popularity, the gestures that we’ve become accustomed to may not work when scaled up, ruining consistency and basically wasting all the end-user learning that has been done up until now. The authors, Donald Norman and Jakob Nielsen, suggest that though the new input mechanisms that are being explored in modern smartphones and tablets are interesting and have a lot of potential, they need to spend more time in the lab before being launched on commercial products.
This is a bit hard to swallow, since those of us in the technological fast lane take these gestures for granted now, but after seeing my dad wrestle with the Palm Pre, I could see where many people might not be particularly pleased with the new way of interacting with our phones. Sure, it’s easy once we know what gesture does what, but it’s the learning that can be the biggest hurdle for new users, and ultimately the large-scale adoption of smartphones. BlackBerry gets knocked for lacking the same visual panache of competitors and not amply evolving, but I tend to think that the UI’s logic remains consistent and well-explained (barring a few hidden keyboard shortcuts).
We’ve already seen gestures get a little out of hand on Mac trackpads – could the same problem find its way to mobile?