Designs on a Tablet

Last week, I discussed some of the security and ownership concerns that organizations have about tablets. As designers and online content creators, we are also interested in adapting to tablets as new input devices and designing for their interface functionality and usability.

Tablet and mobile phone touchscreens provide a new canvas for designers and developers. These new technology platforms offer fresh, exciting ways to be creative and redesign the way users experience content. Swipes, gestures, taps, and pinches are replacing right-clicks and key combinations, not just in the user guides I write but in the way we think about and interact with all technology. I’ve already caught myself on several occasions trying to scroll my non-touchscreen laptop with touch. This, of course, is user error with a newly created mental model. I am reminded of Scotty in Star Trek IV speaking into the mouse, “computer?”

Designing for this new frontier means adapting or completely changing the way we create content and user interfaces. With tablets, you no longer have the screen real estate of a desktop. In the past decade, desktop monitors have increased in size and become cheaper, and, as the cost per pixel continues to shrink, many of us now work on the equivalent of widescreen TVs or even multiple large screens. This was a great development for online companies and web designers because content was king and the more you could get on a page, and preferably “above the fold,” the better. But Internet usage on tablets and mobile devices will soon completely dwarf Internet usage on desktops ( The new king is concision. As with Twitter, communication with brevity is the key to effective content on tablets. Meaningful and explicit navigation design is required to communicate the same level of content as on a desktop.

Size matters. Not only is the screen real estate smaller on tablets, but a finger is much larger than a mouse pointer. We need to make search fields, buttons, tabs, and links larger for our fat fingers, thus further reducing available content area.

Some classic desktop user interface methods need to be completely replaced or eliminated for the touchscreen. One example is the mouseover. Mouseover or hover does not work on current touch based systems. Try going to the current (as of 3/12/13) Yahoo! News site on your iPad. All of those tabs at the top have mouseover menus for subpages. Usability and access is broken for this device. We will need to change our designs to fit the new technology.

As my instructor proclaimed, the tablet revolution may perhaps kill the desktop, though I see both devices having valuable, individual roles for years to come. And not just because I am a PC gaming fanatic. More importantly, the tablet is not going away and neither is the need for companies and designers to be able to adapt to new technologies. Just when you think you have one technology figured out, something else will come along to change our IT plans and the way we interface with the world.

What about beyond the tablet? In May, the Leap Motion controller will hit the market. How will designs need to adapt for touch-free interactions?

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One Response to Designs on a Tablet

  1. Thomas Weeks says:

    Yes. The form factor of tablets are challenging the ideas behind the GUI and web UIs. However it’s important that we drive the technology and have it take the reigns away from the user. Some things need to evolve AWAY from the traditional window/mouse GUI, or screen swipe all together. I don’t need to site Linux/UN*X here, but even Windows now has a “headless” option where the whole server subsystem can be controlled via OO based powershell calls and there is no mouse.

    The Google Glass is an interesting new direction, but may need further human friendly interface refinement. (interesting possabilities there though!) The tablet is cool, sci-fi looking, but again, writing lengthy emails, documents or doing anything other than consuming information is not desirable on a tablet.

    As a side note: Personally, I have a secret fetish for high quality keyboards. I’m a geeky-tech kind of guy, but am typing this on my IBM Model-M “clickity” keyboard that I love the aesthetics of. My love of keyboards also extends into my phone. I have a Sprint/Samsung Galaxy Epic4 with flip out keyboard:

    It’s not just a touch thing. A keyboard is a must for me as I often find myself editing web content to adding an email alias on my server while on vacation and need arrow keys, special cli pipe symbols and control characters.

    But this “keyboard UI” thing is also an area of evolution. One interesting evolution of the UI moving AWAY from the traditional window/mouse or even tablet GUI is that of the “tiling window manager”. Many developers I know are moving away from window/mouse GUIs and towards a TWM. The only way to describe it is a window manager that requires no mouse. All windows, terminals, browsers and graphical programs shift position and size depending on your focus (active window control), and all cursor/copy/pasting is all done via keystrokes. You hands never leave the keyboard. It’s very fast and efficient. A GUI/mouse Window manager just “gets in the way”. TWMs have actually been with us a while, but are just now coming back into popularity, partially as a backlash to the limited, total-GUI/touch experience of tablet style UIs:

    While TWMs are a special case mostly used by command line junkies, engineers and code/devs, they’re still an example of the continued evolution AWAY from the tablet/minimal GUI. Which lines up nicely with my love of keyboards. 🙂