Monday, December 06, 2010

Why Buttons are better than Touchscreens

The current trend in technology is to replace all screens with touchscreens. The trend has started with smartphones and is gradually spreading to netbooks, ebook readers, tablets and also mainstream computers. I can’t say I’m happy with this trend.

Sure, touchscreens look nifty and flash and when they’d first come out I was completely floored. The idea that you could touch something on the screen and have it respond was completely miraculous. Out went the mouse and keyboard. You could do anything on the screen. Having lived with touchscreens for a couple of years now, I’m not so sure.

But before I tell you why I don’t like touchscreen, let me tell you why I do like them. Touchscreens are very good for “point-and-click” operations – typically the kind of stuff that you’d do with a mouse. What better pointing device than your hand? Instead of using the mouse as a metaphor for the moving cursor on screen, you can directly touch what you want to touch. That’s why touchscreens work great on things like smartphones or tablets. It makes up for a missing mouse on these devices.

What a touchscreen doesn’t make up for is the keyboard. A keyboard is good because it helps the user form spatial memory. Edit -> Copy will always be on a different location on screen. But CTRL + C will always be at the same location on the keyboard. Think touch typing – the whole idea is that spatial memory makes you much more efficient at doing well practiced jobs. I’m also a big fan of dedicated buttons for volume control, playback etc.

Moreover, a virtual keyboard on screen takes up too much screen real estate. There is no physical response. Physical response is shown to increase the accuracy of typing.

So touchscreens are okay for small devices because providing a full-fledged keyboard is difficult there. But for slightly larger devices, keyboards rule. I don’t, however, have anything against throwing the mouse out!


  1. You are right about the button feedback, it's the main reason why I don't like typing on touchscreen keypads.

  2. @Ankit Rohatgi: I don't like touchscreens in general. If it were upto me, even smartphones would have a full fledged keyboard. But I don't see how you can fit that in a small form factor. Perhaps haptic response would solve some of these problems.