Touchy feely – is the mouse redundant?

December 12, 2013

We have recently taken delivery of a Microsoft Surface tablet and a couple of touch screen monitors. For Peter, our director, it was like Christmas had come early. Delivery day saw him happily ripping opening packaging and focusing completely on his new toys. We could have asked him for 100% pay-rises and a week off work and he would have agreed.

Peter’s enthusiasm for the touch screen has been driven by his experience of how using the Microsoft Surface has changed his behaviour. Gesturing and swiping is an easier way to navigate around a screen than playing target practice with a mouse. The ability to then move to the keyboard for data entry makes this a much more effective overall experience. And our website usability testing experience shows that being able to manipulate the screen by touch alters expectations of what you can do on a website. When we test sites on a tablet, users are more likely to find content which is not so visible or clearly presented than they are when we test on a desktop. They are more willing to ‘explore’ a site when they are hands-on than when once removed from the experience via the mouse.

It is not just us either, the world has gone touchy feely mad. The steady market penetration of smartphones and the increasing proliferation of tablets have meant the hands-on approach is increasingly common. About 1/3 of the UK population has regular use of a tablet (eMarketer) and a recent YouGov poll suggests there will be over 20m tablets in use in the UK after the Christmas period. With Windows8 relying more on touch too, we are increasingly surrounded by the touch screen interface.

Apart from being incredibly exciting to usability consultants like Peter, these technologies are of immense value to those who struggle physically with technology. Our other director Sarah has MS and is increasingly frustrated by the lack of feeling and control in her fingers. She is a prolific report writer, so battles daily with her mouse, finding it awkward to control it and point it at ‘small’ targets on the screen. She loves her iPad however, and we are confident that the new touch screen monitor will be like having a giant tablet.

At the other end of the spectrum children are being introduced to touch screen technology at a very young age. iPads are increasingly common in both the secondary and the primary school classroom. It is easier for groups of children to work together and share a tablet, than it is a PC or laptop with a mouse and keyboard. And with the development of ultrahaptics – touch screens so super-sensitive you don’t even need to touch them – comes the promise of mid-air gesturing, without the need to be truly hands-on.

Which all begs the question, should we be routinely usability testing sites on touch screens? If using a touch screen has such a significant effect on behaviour then websites need to be tested on touch screens. We already do a lot of testing on tablets and smartphones, but if 1/3 of consumers regularly interact with the internet via a touchscreen device is it irrelevant or un-natural to ask them to test a site using a keyboard and mouse at all? There was a time when we saw a shift of testers moving from using a PC with a mouse, to using the touch pad on their laptops and then struggling with a mouse in testing sessions. We will be closely monitoring our testers’ approaches to accessing the internet at home over the next few months, and looking out for the tipping point where touch screen use becomes the norm, so we can best advise clients on which devices and screen types to test.