Digital design and tactility

The kindest thing a client has ever said about one of my designs is that they wished they could reach through the screen and hold it in their hands.

I've always appreciated that comment because it exactly describes my own instinctive reaction when opening a beautiful website or software application: I don't simply want to look at it and use it: I want to grasp it and experience the sensation of actually holding that shimmering set of well ordered pixels.

It's an irrational desire of course: the beauty of a digital design can't be separated from its form. A good website works precisely as a website: it is pleasing and effective just because it is an effective expression of the virtues of its native medium. An attempt to translate it to analogue would destroy the very characteristics that make it work.

Even so, I think it's a useful thought experiment for digital designers to imagine their work in physical terms, to try to craft something so appealing that a user might feel a strange desire to grasp it and turn it in their hands. I'd suggest that's a sure indication of a successful design.

The beauty of books

All of this came to mind when I made a couple of trips to the Edinburgh Book Festival last week. Browsing the book tent reminded me, yet again, how much I love books as material objects in and of themselves, not just for their content.

I appreciate not just their frequently brilliant cover designs, interior illustrations and fine typefaces, but also for their tactility: the textures of the covers, bindings and pages. And of course that new book smell. Book cloths even have intriguing names: Arrestox, Italian Cialux, Library Buckram, Silk Moire…

That's why I still prefer physical books to ebooks. I certainly don't have anything against Kindles, smartphone readers et al, but I just like being able to take a well designed book down from the shelves simply to hold and leaf through it.

The evolution of touchscreen haptics

Our desire for tactility explains, of course, why touchscreen devices have proved so wildly popular. Most devices already have touch sensors, but forthcoming phones and tablets will offer a considerably greater degree of responsiveness.

Earlier this year there was speculation that the new iPad would feature emerging haptic feedback technology developed by the Finnish startup Senseg. As described in this interesting piece by Charles Arthur - iPad Touch? How Senseg's haptic system gives touchscreens texture - the technology enables the user to 'feel' textures such as ridges, sand and cloth through a flat touchscreen surface.

In the event the iPad launched without it. But new patents issued by Apple a couple of months later indicate that far from giving up on the idea they intend to push it even further. As Patently Apple reported in May Apple are developing 'multi-tiered haptic' technology that will allow iDevice displays to form actual shapes like buttons, arrows and maps, turning the flat screen into a three-dimensional surface.

One patent describes a possible use, asking us to imagine 'a geographical contour map, in which portions of the display are raised in accordance with corresponding elevation data. In some embodiments, any suitable contour, deformation, topology, or other suitable surface feature, or combination of features, may be formed on the display such as, for example, raised buttons, raised arrows, depressions, patterns, or moving features.' The idea is made crystal clear by the patent's illustration of a flat tactile surface versus a contoured display tactile surface.

Another obvious application of the technology would be the presentation to the user of a raised keyboard: imagine how much easier touchscreen typing would be if the edges and contours of keys could actually be felt.

So, all in all rather amazing, and a significant step towards investing digital experiences with some of the qualities of the physical world

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