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Touch-screens are becoming the norm of display and interaction on mobile devices, from smartphones to tablets — devices with screen sizes in the range of 4” to 10”. Maximal area of the device’s face is dedicated to the screen, leaving a thin surrounding frame with enough space primarily for the physical ‘On’ button (e.g., awakening the screen, returning to the ‘Home’ display). Most controls for operating a smartphone or tablet and their applications are now virtual, represented as visual icons, symbols and keystrokes on the screen. Users can interact with the device (even for dialing a phone number) by pointing, swiping and similar hand (finger) gestures applied to the screen’s display. It all sounds and feels great, and mostly functions alright, but not all is bright — there is still much room for improvement and better fine-tuning.

The focal devices of this article are smartphones with screens normally between 4” and 5.4” and tablets that carry mostly screens in size of 7” to 10” (extra-size smartphones, also-known-as ‘phablets’, embody a screen larger than 5.4”). They essentially enlarge the real-estate of the screen by doing away with physical controls on the device (buttons and keypads). Operation of the device and interaction with its applications is delegated almost wholly to the touch of virtual controls and other finger-gestures.

This new form of handheld computer-type devices provides a highly advanced class of viewing verbal and pictorial content and interacting with them through manual gestures. Touch-screens were available already in the turn of the century with Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs). The touch-screens of smartphones and tablets are yet empowered in several important aspects: (1) they can be operated with the touch of fingers without need for a pen or stylus; (2) the screens are larger; and (3) the images are in much higher quality. The differences do not end here, if only to mention the communication abilities of the more recent mobile devices. Smartphones in particular can be said to converge a phone and a PDA in a single device, but with some additional capabilities that neither mobile phones nor PDAs have had in earlier times.

The first critical problem to address with touch-screen mobile devices concerns writing. A user is likely to encounter difficulties frequently when writing text with a virtual keyboard — it is rather easy to miss target character keystrokes. The difficulty is not simply in typing text but in getting the words spelled correctly, and overall avoiding character typing errors. The difficulty to produce a text without errors is likely to turn out more acute and agitating with smartphones and the smaller tablets (i.e., 7-8”). It may also cause users to leave spaces in the wrong places, and inversely to concatenate words. Correcting errors can be furthermore annoying when the user cannot find the direction arrows or point his or her finger to stand at the right position of correction; going backspace is not useful if one already moved to another line when the earlier error is noticed or any other correction of text is demanded.

Mobile devices foster writing correspondence texts (e.g., e-mails, chatting, social media updates and comments) even faster than with other modes, specially when users are in motion.  People tend to write correspondence as such more quickly and haphazardly, taking less care to avoid mistakes, and textproofing before sending is usually not in high priority or time-affordable. The result is that producing a well-thought and error-free text message on a touch-screen with a virtual keyboard may be an irritating mission (e.g., either abort message or send it with some errors).

  • Writing alphanumeric text with a 12-key physical pad is hardly convenient, and is usually time-consuming. In that sense QWERTY-type keyboards, physical or virtual, are better. There is yet an important difference to notice: The keys on a physical keyboard (e.g.,  Nokia E5 that followed on the original Blackberry phones) can be quite small but they feel like separated bumpers (i.e., giving the user a tactile feedback where the finger rests) whereas a virtual keyboard is completely flat and smooth. The cost of the physical keyboard is of course the smaller screen.

Mistyping is mostly associated with failure to accurately ‘hit’ the intended character keystroke with one’s index finger, and often enough with the thumb (e.g., when in motion and only one hand is free to hold the device and write). That is because virtual character keys tend to be too small for our fingers used for texting (less so on 10” tablet screens). The kind of errors that may result are typing the wrong character, typing the same character inadvertently twice, or  not typing the designated character. Apparently, failing to execute selected actions also occurs with images, such as when having to press virtual buttons or activating icon and text hyperlinks. These controls could be related to the device and its utilities or embedded in websites and imported apps. These issues are well-explained by Steven Hoober in an article in UXMatters (“Common Misconceptions About Touch”, 18 March 2013). Hoober makes an important distinction between seeing clearly text and icon targets and touching them effectively, and he recommends target sizes for them (in measures of points and millimeters).

Hoober refers to an additional sensitive and critical consideration in preventing users from taking accidentally the wrong action: he calls this ‘preventing interference errors’. He clearly suggests to avoid placing controls for actions with opposite consequences too near each other lest trying to touch-press one control could result in adversely activating the other unwanted control. This applies especially to actions associated with catastrophic results or outcomes that are difficult to undo. For instance, he recommends separating sufficiently the locations of controls for Send and Delete actions (Hoober recommends a distance of at least 8mms and preferably 10mms between centres of the controls [the target point of finger contact]).

Touch-screen devices benefit indeed from a larger screen real-estate for image display. But there is nonetheless competition on that real-estate for the content of display, and competition can be quite tough especially on devices with screens smaller than 7” in size. The competition is prominently between images of controls and the content of device utilities, webpages and apps. It applies primarily to the interface of a virtual keyboard that requires a relatively large space (in some cases up to 50% of screen area). However, there could be other controls needed for operating the device and specific utilities, websites or apps (e.g., designers may have to give up on some pictorial imagery in order to allow enough space for action controls like “Add to Basket”).

Focusing on the virtual keyboard: when called-upon to write, it pops-up and hides  other content of the display (e.g., e-mail message, shopping webpage) in the lower part of the screen. It may hide content that the user actually needs to see while proceeding in composing a message or responding to content in a website. The smaller the screen, on one hand a larger part of the underlying display is hidden, on the other hand the keystrokes have to be smaller. Unlike with a physical keyboard, the virtual one can at least be dropped out when not in use and called again when needed for writing. But it can be disturbing if every few moments one has to drop out the keyboard and surface it again to resume writing. With larger screens there should still be enough space for text in the e-mail message editor that one can scroll; with screens 7” or less one may be able to see only up to four lines at a time and even that in small type difficult to read (changing zoom may help but also cause trouble — more below).

Virtual keyboards on mobile devices are split into two or three displays due to space limitations (e.g., Latin letters as for English or German [but with some order variations], numeric figures and symbols, and an extra keyboard for non-Latin alphabets as Hebrew, Arabic, Cyrillic). But in any particular set of keyboard display, some character keys or controls may have to be forsaken for space limitations. As suggested above, it is most annoying when the direction arrows are eliminated (e.g., on a Samsung 7” tablet) because it makes it more difficult to go back and forth across a text while composing and editing it.

Relying on gestures can save space for screen real-estate and help in making interactions fluid and efficient, but working with a touch-screen has limitations. Raluca Budiu of Nielsen & Norman Group (user experience research and usability experts, 19 April 2015) lists some of the main problems that may arise for users: (1) The leading problem concerns typing, and particularly the need to continuously divide attention between the content written and the keypad area; (2) Poor tactile feedback, small keypads and crowded keys make the typing experience more troublesome; (3) The target size of controls or keys has to be considerably larger with touch interface to optimize reaching time and minimise errors compared with a mouse; (4) Since there can be many target areas on a touch-screen (especially of smartphones), it is easy to make accidental touch errors (see Hoober’s ‘interference error’) — some errors can “leave the user disoriented and unsure of what happened”. Budiu notes that respecting the Undo usability heuristic is furthermore important with mobile devices.

References to those main problems could be found in the earlier paragraphs of this article. Two more issues are addressed below:

Scrolling over a touch-screen — Mobile devices do not apply a scrolling bar — the user can scroll by swiping the index finger in a swoosh movement up or down over the touch-screen. The smaller the screen, and if one is in a landscape mode, more scrolling may be needed (shifting left and right is also possible). Trouble may start when the window display is populated by ‘clickable’ tiles or pictures: if the user does not swipe the finger quickly and lightly enough over the image, he or she may activate the underlying link rather than scroll across the window. When that happens, the user may arrive to a different window display, and one has to find the way back. More disturbing, when the content is online and connectivity can be slow on occasion, the user may remain stuck for a long time before being able to return to the desired location of content and resume work.

Zooming and automatic change of size —  Since type on touch-screens of mobile devices can be small and uneasy to read, one can zoom-in to enlarge the display appearance and the text in it. This is usually done by swiping the index and thumb fingers away from each other over the screen (conversely, one can zoom-out to reduce size but see more content by bringing the fingers closer together). But caution: one has to be accurate, and this does not always work so well. One may accidentally “blow” a picture image over the whole screen, for instance. When writing an e-mail message zooming can be helpful as one toggles between writing and reading the composed text. Yet, these devices are smart and sometimes they try to adjust the size for you according to the identified mode of use; sometimes it is appropriate but on occasion it causes trouble and nuisance. In more drastic cases, whilst trying to enlarge the type on a webpage, the system may lock in a loop and continue zooming-in until the user can see nothing coherent and has to start over again.

  • Note that the scrolling and size problems were encountered much more frequently on a Samsung tablet, either 7” or 10”, than on an Apple’s 10” iPad .

People may discover at times that although they were sure they could see exactly where their hand should reach and act, it somehow missed the target. That may happen because perception augmented by cognitive conception and processes of location and action are not the same in the human brain. These processes are connected (i.e., they share and pass information between them) but are nonetheless distinct. Visual information flows and is processed in two pathways: (a) perceptual but non-conceptual information is passed through the ventral stream to the temporal lobe where percepts are interpreted into meaningful images of scenes and objects; (b) visuospatial (location) and visuomotor (action) signals are transferred through the dorsal stream to the parietal lobe to guide, for instance, our manual movements. The ventral-temporal (semantic) visual system allows to identify a target for action yet the dorsal-parietal (pragmatic) visual system is responsible in parallel for determining where the target is and how to act upon it. Furthermore, action requires only a subset of information from percepts, including size, shape and orientation of a target object to complete a task, much less than what we perceive and even recognize as seeing. The conceptual identity of the target is mostly not required.

Jacob and Jeannerod (2003), distinguishing between Semantic and Pragmatic vision as cited above, argue that pragmatic vision processed in the parietal lobe is more complex and multi-layered than has been theorised and described in literature on vision. Humans may believe they act on whatever they perceive (as an image) but in fact they usually act on the nonconscious signals that arrive directly to the parietal lobe. Recognising and identifying clearly the target and understanding what to do with it are therefore not enough — the target should be designed in a form that permits (affords) the visuomotor system to perform the action correctly and efficiently. The semantic and pragmatic processes occur simultaneously. In some instances the semantic system may assist the pragmatic system but usually deliberate intervention is not needed. A user should not have to tilt the tablet, for example, while trying to accurately and slowly direct his finger to touch the small backward or forward arrows of the browser on the touch-screen. This is an example of an effortful action users should not be driven to.

Using mobile devices with touch-screens has advantages and can be a gratifying experience. But there is also a lot that can be done to improve that experience, moreover if the aspiration is that consumers will use these devices much more frequently for performing more tasks, and especially that they will use tablets more than desktop and laptop computers in the future. Although the touch-screen mobile devices promote to use fingers, they should support the use of a pen or stylus and perhaps even encourage it with smaller screen devices (for typing and not just for drawing). It is also helpful to enlarge the images of keystrokes, icons and symbols as one approaches to touch any of these controls. These are just hints and there are probably many more ways interaction designers can create to improve mobile users’ experiences, making them more effective and enjoyable.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Reference:

Ways of Seeing: The Scope and Limits of Visual Cognition; Pierre Jacob and Marc Jeannerod, 2003; Oxford University Press.

Additional recommended reading:

Mobile Computing; Jesper Kjeldskov; In Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction (2nd edition, Chapter 9); Interaction Design Foundation.

 

 

 

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Apple is facing this year its first major challenge of the post-Jobs era — Can it sustain its status as a technological innovation and marketing leader? Many players in the market of computer-based products, and especially mobile devices, surely aim to put to test the strength and ingenuity of Apple now that Jobs is no longer with us. Given the types of products (some may say gadgets) that Apple has flourished upon in recent years (iPad, iPhone, & iPod brands), its corporate and brand favourability among consumers are mainly at stake. And in their sake Apple has gone to war.

Apple actually has to fight battles on two fronts. On the front of equipment, specifically smartphones and tablets, its war is centered on Samsung and its Galaxy brand; on the front of operating systems (software) it confronts primarily Android by Google. While battles on both fronts appear to be bitter and are inter-related,  the war waged against Samsung in the legal battleground to protect Apple’s intellectual property makes it furthermore intriguing:

  • The company extends its effort to maintain its proclaimed competitive advantage beyond the immediate arenas of technology, product development and marketing to enforce a ban on the products of its rival by legal means and to keep them out of the market;
  • The strategy is not uncommon but its intensity and broad scope, fought over 20 cases in 10 countries across continents (North America, Asia, and Europe), are impressive;
  • The legal process consumes a lot of time and money, is often complex and twisted by technical legal innuendoes, forcing managers to leave this battle to lawyers, and consequently is very difficult to predict its outcome (i.e., a risky venture);
  • The effect of such battles on consumer perceptions and attitudes is ambiguous, raising doubts that even winning a battle will be accepted well by consumers in the long run.

By collating details from news stories in several media sources, the following picture emerges. Apple claims that Samsung infringed on its touch screen technology for smartphones and tablets (“lavishly copies” its technology). In addition, it claims that the Galaxy tablet 10.1 looks suspiciously similar in its design to that of iPad 2. Samsung charges in return that Apple is the one that copied their display technology and that the latter did not properly protect its 3G wireless technology or that in fact may have violated the patents of Samsung in this area. According to Bloomberg there are at least 30 lawsuits in total going on at present between the two companies in courts.

Earlier this month the war of Apple suffered two setbacks in the US and in Australia. In the United States a District Judge ruled against a preliminary injunction of Apple to ban the sales of Samsung’s Galaxy products in the US. And in a blow to the company’s appeal in Australia, the High Court ruled last week that Samsung may start selling its Galaxy Tab 10.1 in the country before Christmas. It is assessed that this may not contribute too much to the sales of Samsung in this quarter but it can be seen as a boost to its image versus Apple. This is a painful bump on the road for Apple but it is still not the end of their case concerning patents’ violation by Samsung in Australia, scheduled to resume in March 2012. As this post is written, Apple is awaiting a ruling in France. Meanwhile in Germany, Samsung was forced in September to make some changes to the design of its tablet 10.1 before being allowed to start selling it in the country; the product is available in stores at least since late November. Whether the modifications Samsung has made in shape and some features of display of its tablet would satisfy Apple seems questionable at this point. The war goes on.

One may observe that Apple has put itself in a difficult spot against Samsung because of its dual relations with the South-Korean company and that introduces a weakness in its whole campaign. Samsung appears to be the second-largest component supplier for Apple; it is estimated by Bloomberg that Samsung receives 7.6% of its total revenue from selling memory chips, displays and other components to Apple to be installed in iPhone and iPad. As a consumer who is not very knowledgeable about the technological stuff, and is certainly not involved in whatever is happening in the backrooms, how can I tell that it is Samsung that has stolen concepts and methods from Apple and not vice versa? Here are some additional facts that can increase the confusion from a consumer point of view: Fortune magazine (July 25) tells us that Samsung Electronics has gone under major transformation in 2010 including a boost of 98% to its R&D and operations investment, authorised by the chairman of the parent company Samsung Group, and an overhaul in top management. These moves likely contributed to record revenues ($136bn) and to a considerable increase in profits (58%) that year. It should also be noted that the company is a leading developer and maker of  TV sets and LCD screens, a neighbouring field of technology, as well as memory chips.

The motivation of Apple to fight over its patents and other forms of intellectual property can be well understood. Aside from continuing to invest in further technological advances, the company wishes to defend its competitive assets in which it has already invested huge amounts of money. First, it is an important means of deterrence to competitors against future attempts to steal knowledge, capabilities and technologies. Second, Apple may gain substantial sums of money in compensation for damages, financial and moral, that it allegedly incurred. Third, it can gain precious time in a highly competitive and rapidly changing market by holding back a key competitor like Samsung; even if it does not win the case eventually, Apple can by that time solidify its hold in the market and make obsolete the competitor’s product (on this ground Chief Justice French of the High Court in Australia argued in rejection of the appeal of Apple to ban Galaxy Tab 10.1 in the country).

The problem nonetheless with these justifications for the legal action of Apple is that they reflect inward thinking. Notwithstanding the merits of this defensive strategy (or rather offensive) to the company, it is not what really matters to consumers in the marketplace. Consumers want to compare alternative products and choose the one that best suits their needs, tastes in design, and their lifestyles. They want to judge for themselves which is the better product for them, not having Apple or any other company decide for them. Indeed there may be a symbolic gain and possibly prestige in receiving legal support for their patent, but it is usually short-lived. People tend to lose patience with long and tedious battles in courts and the insistence of companies to keep them up does not necessarily improve attitudes towards them in the public eye. So if suggestions are true that the two parties are close to a settlement, they should pursue it not only because of legal costs and energy spent but also to protect their images in the minds of their customers.

The more appropriate way to “fight” the competition is by channelling their effort to enhance their advantages to the consumers, persuading them which of them is better at what it is doing. It is not even necessarily who has the more powerful or superior technology, but what company offers the best solutions to users of smartphones and tablets. And reportedly Apple and Samsung have not stopped doing that — they now are in a race for the next enhanced level of display quality. Apple aims to adapt its ‘retina display’ dense resolution from its iPhone 4 to its next tablet iPad3 (326 pixels per inch). Samsung is working to create a new tablet with an 11.6 inch screen that will offer resolution of 2560*1600 pixels (i.e., at least 264 PPI — reports fails to give a straightforward comparison). There is already a debate whether consumers can detect differences in image quality at these levels of resolution on tablets, and if display manufacturers like LG and Samsung can create the kind of display Apple aims for (not to forget that Apple relies on suppliers of their essential components while being in a technological race with them, suggesting that Apple may again be heading for trouble).

  • According to data published by Fortune, Samsung sold 69 million units of mobile devices in Q1 of 2011 compared with 108m of Nokia, 24m of LG and 17m of Apple. However, Nokia and Samsung keep selling older feature (“dumb”) models of mobile phones while Apple offers only smartphones. Consistent and easily comparable reports and estimates of market shares are not easy to come by. Interested readers may find counsel in a review on “smartphone and tablet stats” published in The Guardian Apps Blog. For instance, it is worth noting that according to Gartner, sales of Android smartphones (incl. Samsung’s Galaxy) are expected to rise from 180m units this year to 310m in 2012, implying an increase in market share from 38% to 49%, whereas iOS smartphones (iPhone only) are predicted to increase in sales from 90m to 118m units but market share will remain at about 19% and may even slightly drop. As for tablets, Fortune cites IDC data that iPad’s market share dropped from 93% to 73% since Galaxy Tab entered with the latter capturing 17%.

Many consumers are probably aware that in a relatively short period smartphones of different makes adopted the display concept of an array of app icons that can be scrolled and moved around by the touch of a finger, enabled by touch screens. Apple proved excellent in its ability to convince consumers that they offer displays for smartphones and tablets that are the most cool, easy and fun to play and work with. Possibly even greater than achievements in technological innovation, Jobs had a remarkable talent in marketing Apple’s products more enthusiastically and persuasively than most competitors, drawing crowds of consumers after him. Can the new leadership of Apple maintain this key competitive advantage? The jury is still out.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Sources:

“Samsung wins approval for Galaxy Tablet sales in Australia as Apple Loses”, Bloomberg, 9 Dec. 2011 http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-12-09/apple-loses-bid-to-extend-samsung-electronics-galaxy-tab-ban-in-australia.html

“Apple loses in court: Samsung cleared to sell Galaxy Tabs”, NZHerald.co.nz (New-Zealand), 12 Dec. 2011 (relates to Australia)  http://www.nzherald.co.nz/technology/news/article.cfm?c_id=5&objectid=10772709

“Apple fails to block Samsung tablet and smartphone sales in the US”, Yahoo! News (Digital Trends), 4 Dec. 2011 http://news.yahoo.com/apple-fails-block-samsung-tablet-smartphone-sales-u-150324504.html

“Samsung redesigns Galaxy Tab after Apple’s sales ban, BBC News (Technology), 17 Nov. 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-15773944

“How Samsung turned up the sizzle”, Fortune Magazine (Europe Edition), 25 July 2011, Vol. 164, No, 2, p. 22. (Samsung Electronics climbed 10 places up from 32nd place in 2009 to 22nd place in 2010 in Fortune Global 500 ranking list of companies.)

“Samsung, Apple tablet tit for tat to extend to displays”, CNET.com, 8 Dec. 2011 http://news.cnet.com/8301-13924_3-57339897-64/samsung-apple-tablet-tit-for-tat-to-extend-to-displays/  —

 “iPad3’s dense display a challenge for manufacturers”, CNET.com, 26 Oct. 2011 http://news.cnet.com/8301-13924_3-20125504-64/ipad-3s-dense-display-a-challenge-for-manufacturers/   (Retina Display dense resolution)

 “Samsung to challenge Apple’s ‘Retina Display'”, The Telegraph, Matt Warman, 9 Dec. 2011 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/samsung/8946389/Samsung-tablet-to-challenge-Apples-retina-display.html

“Smartphone and tablet stats: What’s really going on in the mobile market?”, The Guardian Apps Blog, 1 Aug. 2011 (Viewed 12 Dec. 2011) http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/appsblog/2011/aug/01/smartphone-stats-2011

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