on discoverability

i recently stumbled on a bunch of videos by clubinternet, exposing people who have never used a smartphone to google. their task was to search for photos of their favorite actress. you'd guess there are not many products out there which are easier to use than a google search box. well, watch this:

while i can't deny a slightly humoristic touch, this video has troubled me. touch interfaces have improved drastically in recent years, and even allow non-tech savvy people to successfully interact with digital devices. nevertheless i always felt that they are not the goose that lays golden eggs. you see, we are actually just moving objects below a screen made of glass. what other object in the world behaves like this? i am of the opinion that there has to be a better way to interact with devices. in the words of bret victor:

I call this technology Pictures Under Glass. Pictures Under Glass sacrifice all the tactile richness of working with our hands, offering instead a hokey visual facade.

Is that so bad, to dump the tactile for the visual? Try this: close your eyes and tie your shoelaces. No problem at all, right? Now, how well do you think you could tie your shoes if your arm was asleep? Or even if your fingers were numb? When working with our hands, touch does the driving, and vision helps out from the back seat.

Pictures Under Glass is an interaction paradigm of permanent numbness. It denies our hands what they do best. And yet, it's the star player in every Vision Of The Future.

To me, claiming that Pictures Under Glass is the future of interaction is like claiming that black-and-white is the future of photography. It's obviously a transitional technology. And the sooner we transition, the better.

but this is not the only problem touch interfaces have. maybe it is because of the way we move objects below a screen of glass, maybe it is because a screen does not give us a tactile feedback and maybe we need something completely different. but touch interfaces lack discoverability. like almost all digital products of today's time and age. interaction elements are concealed in the user interface, buttons are disguised in text, input fields are not obviously marked as such and interaction elements don't give feedback. we probably can tell what elements we can interact with based on our experience, but there is now way to tell just by looking at the screen. this issue is amazingly well summarized by don norman and bruce tognazzini:

Today’s devices lack discoverability: There is no way to discover what operations are possible just by looking at the screen. Do you swipe left or right, up or down, with one finger, two, or even as many as five? Do you swipe or tap, and if you tap is it a single tap or double? Is that text on the screen really text or is it a critically important button disguised as text? So often, the user has to try touching everything on the screen just to find out what are actually touchable objects.

the truth is this: if there is no way to discover what operations are possible just by looking at the screen and the interaction is numbed with no feedback by the devices, what's left? the interaction gets reduced to experience and familiarity where we only rely on readily transferred, existing skills.

with our digital products we are building environments, not just tools. yet we often think only about the different tasks inside our product. we have to view our products in a context of how and where they are being used. our products are more than just static visual traits, let's start to see them as such.