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When Tactile Interfaces are Better Than Touchscreens

Tactile Interfaces versus touchscreens
Credit: iStock

Steve Jobs hated buttons. This aversion informed everything from his wardrobe (no buttons on a turtleneck) to Apple’s product design – and therefore, user interface design for the past 13 years. The clean, near-buttonless beauty of the iPhone and iPad became the dominant form factor not just for directly competitive tablets and smartphones, but also for A/V control system interfaces, remote controls, and even car dashboards.  

Featureless sheets of touch-capacitive glass have become synonymous with modern, flexible design and universal control. Appliances like stoves and washing machines have not only replaced buttons and dials with touchscreens, but also tout iPhone- and Android app-based control as a product differentiator.  

My own company, PTZOptics, supports control of all our network-connected cameras through such an app. In February, however, we also released a new camera control device, the SuperJoy, that is absolutely bristling with buttons. We created this product in part because, in talking with our customers, we affirmed something neuroscientists and designers have been grumbling for the past 10 years: sometimes, buttons are better than screens. 

Supporting Task Mastery  

Buttons give our brains more information than a touchscreen. When we tap on a touchscreen, we’re reliant on visual cues: we have to see something on the screen change state in order to know we tapped the right area, and our input was received.  When we feel a button depress or a dial click, we instantly know that signal has been sent.  Recent studies have shed light on the benefits of this kind of multisensory input for learning. When we engage multiple senses – not just the sight of an icon, but the feel of a button, and maybe the audible click heard as it is pressed – our brains more easily encode the cause-and-effect sequence of events.  

Touch has also emerged as particularly powerful. A recent article in Neuroscience News describes the way tactile sensations light up the whole brain like a Christmas tree. When a person is learning a new or complex skill – for instance, controlling multiple robotic cameras for a live video production – having physical buttons can significantly increase speed to mastery. 

A physical button can also give users confidence because what it does is so clear. A button labelled “Off” turns a device off. A button labelled “Lecture Capture” turns on the appropriate cameras and microphones and initiates recording. Over the past year, I’ve spoken with several higher-education technology managers who have replaced complex touchscreen interfaces in some classrooms with a simple set of three or four clearly labeled physical buttons. Instructors who might otherwise feel intimidated by the complex systems required to deliver in-person classes as remote or hybrid experiences feel perfectly comfortable with a simple button-press.  

Faster Decisions & Fewer Mistakes 

Logitech G502 Lightspeed Gaming Mouse
Logitech G502 Lightspeed Gaming Mouse

Physical buttons have benefits even for skilled operators. A touchscreen cannot be operated by feel; we must look at it to know not just where to press, but what set of controls are currently present. Physical buttons allow “blind navigation” – the ability to make changes without having to look at the controller.  Blind navigation allows operators not just to respond faster, but to make better decisions. Because no visual processing is involved in pushing the button, additional brain cells are freed up to help with judgement. This is especially important in applications where the user’s eyes need to be focused elsewhere for fast decision-making, such as video production, driving, or gaming. For example, Logitech’s wireless gaming mouse, the G502, may not have the sleek minimalism of Apple’s buttonless Magic Mouse, but its 11 customizable buttons have made it a category leader. 

Particularly in high-stakes environments like live production or mission critical applications, buttons have another advantage over screens: fewer failed inputs and false positives. Capacitive screens have to be very sensitive in order to work, which means they sometimes sense the wrong thing. Also, depending on the size of the touchscreen, the “hit box” for input may be very small. When controlling a device from a smartphone, it can be very easy to miss a digital button or hit the wrong button altogether. If the user needs to wear gloves, all bets are off: many fabrics insulate fingers too well for touchscreen operation. 

The Digital Becomes Physical 

A pair of announcements from the automotive industry at CES 2021 demonstrate both the power of buttons and the drawbacks of screens. Mercedes-Benz bet big on touchscreens by debuting the MBUX Hyperscreen, a 56-inch display that covers an entire sedan dashboard. The marketing for this component touts the 12 built-in actuators for haptic feedback, the special coating that reduces reflections and glare, the single navigation layer, with no nested menus. Guess what else provides haptic feedback, low glare, and a single navigation layer? Physical buttons. On the other hand, automotive systems supplier GHSP showed off control knobs intended to add a layer of tactile interaction to sleek glass dashboards like Mercedes-Benz’s. These dual stacked wheels are designed to integrate with touchscreen systems to allow drivers to control driving, safety, audio, or climate systems without taking their eyes off the road – returning the blind navigation capabilities lost with a touchscreen interface. 

Embracing buttons doesn’t mean rejecting high-tech systems in favor of analog devices. The PTZOptics SuperJoy, the Logitech G502 mouse, and GHSP’s control knob are all intended to be flexible and programmable, like a touchscreen, but with all of the satisfaction and advantages of a tactile interface. They allow both fully customizable control – on the part of the carmaker for GHSP, or the end user for the G502 or the SuperJoy – and blind navigation. These are physical interfaces that support both learning and mastery for complex operations.  Buttons like this aren’t retro: they’re the future.