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All Physical Computing

Week 3 – Tactile Controls

From arts spaces to the US Navy, there’s been much discussion in recent years of where touchscreens belong in our lives versus tactile buttons & controls.

One of the most common criticisms I see of Tesla in recent years is their moving core car controls from buttons onto a widescreen touch tablet. (One of my favorite design podcasts, Design Details, dove into this in January.) As they move around controls with UI redesigns & make the tablet larger, it distracts drivers on the road. What I’ve found galling is not that one company known for off-the-beaten-path design is doing this, but the way every other premium car brand appears desperate to follow in their footsteps: from Mercedes to BMW to Ferrari, every car company is ditching buttons for a touch tablet.

Having started learning to drive last month, I took issue with dozens of poor design choices in the tactile controls in my parents’ car—they felt like the result of decades of legacy & most could use a rethink. While software is undoubtedly a better home for parts of the in-car experience, muscle memory-able physical controls maintain their own purpose. Considering many of these premium brands’ tribal customer bases, staking out a claim that you’re not trying to be Tesla, by designing best-in-class physical controls, rethought in an era where customers are accustomed to capacitive controls & software features, feels like a straightforward selling point a premium brand should take up.

One great example of recognizing the value of tactile, tangible controls is the Digital Crown on Apple Watch. Early Samsung & other smartwatches adopted wholesale the Multi-Touch gestures Apple pioneered for iPhone & iPad to a much smaller touchscreen on your wrist. Apple did not abandon those well-known gestures for Apple Watch, recognizing that touching anywhere on the screen is easier to use than an array of limited, hardware buttons (like the early Pebble models). But they critically realized that at the same time, scrolling on a 38mm display means your finger would block much of the content, & pinching to zoom was neither precise nor elegant. The Digital Crown, a rotating dial on the side, offered an easier way to scroll & zoom, with grooves providing an obvious affordance for the intended interaction, while referencing traditional watches’ crown control for adjusting the time. Starting with Series 4, haptics perfectly synced to the scrolling content made the control feel even more tactile. This innovation, blending hardware, software, & haptics, runs literal circles around a pure-touch experience for the device.

Neither tactile controls nor software ones are right for every context or project. The best designs, as ever, don’t beeline toward one or the other out of principle, but consider the full context of the audience, their technical familiarity, physical dexterity, use cases, & other project constraints to make the best conclusion on a per-control basis. It’s up to us as designers to advocate for what’s best for our audience.