Guess What? Not Every Device Needs to Have a Fancy-Looking Touchscreen

They're not all made equal

  • Touchscreens are seen as premium features, but they’re anything but.
  • Touch UIs are complex, often badly-designed, and harder to use. 
  • Buttons are simpler to use but much harder to get right.
JBL’s new Tour Pro 2 earbuds with touchscreen charging case

JBL

Touchscreens have ruined the design of some hardware. Why do we still think of them as premium additions, even though they can make everything worse?

Touch is everywhere. It's on our phones and tablets, but also thermostats, appliances, and now even an earbud charging case. In large part, one might say phones are so successful because of this flexibility, allowing them to be cameras, musical instruments, and even drawing pads. But this also means designers are never really forced to finalize a user interface. You can add a touchscreen and code a basic UI design, with the promise that any shortcomings can be fixed later. And then there's the fact that touchscreens aren't always a good way to do things—Exhibit A: JBL's new touchscreen AirPod competitor, the Tour Pro 2.

"One of the main issues is that touchscreens are inherently more complex than traditional input methods like keyboards and mice," Oberon Copeland, tech writer, owner, and CEO of the Very Informed website told Lifewire via email. "As a result, designers need to carefully consider the ergonomics of their interfaces or risk creating designs that are difficult or even impossible to use. In addition, touchscreen devices place an emphasis on visuals over text, which can make it difficult to convey complex information clearly."

Bean Counters

For a product manager, a touchscreen is enticing. A commodity, off-the-shelf capacitive screen is cheap compared to designing, manufacturing, and assembling a custom set of buttons, and it's quick to deploy. If you forget to put a volume knob on a speaker, you're done. But if you used a touchscreen, you can have your software people add one in via an emergency software update. 

What's more, you can "add value" by adding new features, which is much harder to do with a physical UI like those found on older devices. This allows you to iterate on your product, offering major updates to the same physical device, which is good for existing owners and also attracts new ones. 

There are a few reasons why touchscreens are often seen as premium, even when they may not be the best option.

And this would be fine if touchscreen interfaces were well thought out, but they’re often not. If you’ve ever tried using a washing machine or dishwasher that’s brand new to you, only to end up just using the first program you could actually make it run, you’ll know how bad touch UI can be.

The appeal of touch for companies is clear: it’s cheap and fast to deploy from commodity parts. All design and development is in software, and there’s the possibility of endless revisions in the future. But why do users like them?

Premium Touch

"There are a few reasons why touchscreens are often seen as premium, even when they may not be the best option," Daniel Chen, chief product director at software company Airgram, told Lifewire via email. "Firstly, touchscreens are a very new technology, and as such, they often carry a certain novelty factor. They are also generally associated with high-end devices like smartphones and tablets, which gives them an air of sophistication."

This is a bad combination. Buyers see touch as a premium feature rather than the blight it is, and product creators can use it as a cheap, lazy way to get a product out there. 

Worse

Touch isn’t even a good way to interact with a device, and in some cases can be dangerous. Whereas a physical control can be grabbed or felt without looking— keys on a piano or the AC temperature knob in a car—touch needs you to look, even if you’ve used it a million times, just to make sure you’re tapping the right virtual button. 

person tapping on a touchscreen with their finger

Timothy Muza / Unsplash

"Sometimes adding touch control makes it [using the device uncomfortable]," UX/UI designer Egor Sokhan told Lifewire via email. "For example, climate control in modern cars it's not only inconvenient but also dangerous. Tactile pressing on a physical button could be done without losing control on the road."

Touch isn't all bad, though. Our phones are amazing, for example. If done well, it can be intuitive, easy to use, and enable things not possible in any other way. But despite the appeal, it's not for everything. And those JBL wireless earbud cases? Put a status screen on there, sure, but touch controls? At that size? No thanks.

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