Touch Screen Laptops: Handy or Hands Off?

| May 19, 2015
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One of my favorite TV shows as a kid was Inspector Gadget. In the middle of all my notebooks, I had Penny’s computer book sketched out—I dreamed of the day when I would own a real computer book.

Fast forward 15 years and look how gadgets have evolved. Not only do we have more convenient computer books (aka tablets), we have driverless cars and smart watches, too! We’re on a fast track to create innovative technology that lets us use our time more efficiently.

But how often do we take a step back to understand how useful our design or creation is? Does it solve an existing problem? Was that new feature necessary and practical, or was it just an exciting concept?

Focusing on that last question, we wanted to see whether the incorporation of touch screens in laptops created a more positive experience for the user. We wanted to know how the user’s experience was impacted by the addition of a touchscreen. Is the touchscreen an example of feature creep or is it changing the way we interact with our laptops in a positive way?

The Research

To answer these questions we designed a usability study to understand how users typically interact with the touchscreen on their laptops. We recruited a panel of test participants that had recently purchased a Windows 8 touchscreen laptop.

To test out the usability of the touchscreen, we had participants navigate through the Windows Start screen and make some adjustments to their display settings in the control panel.

Additionally, we asked participants to browse an ecommerce site to find a pair of men’s size 9 black dress shoes. While shopping for shoes, participants were told to begin by using the touchscreen, but they could move back to the mouse or keyboard if needed.

Participants used their smartphones’ video recording feature to capture their touch screen interactions with the laptop.

Touch Screen Pros

Windows 8 Design

The new Windows 8 tile design was well received by participants while using the touchscreen. Many participants preferred to scroll through the tiles using the touch screen rather than scroll with the mouse.

Participants pointed out that it was primarily the size of the tiles that made scrolling through the start screen touch friendly. Alhough many participants appreciated the design of the Windows 8 start screen, one participant mentioned that the design wasn’t as intuitive for non-touchscreen laptops. The mobile-like scrolling was difficult to do with a horizontal scroll bar.

Online Browsing

Participants also appreciated online shopping and browsing with the touch screen functionality. Participants enjoyed being able to swipe through search results to find an item they were interested in. Swiping through the results seemed easier and more intuitive than using the vertical scroll bar.

Touch Screen Cons

Keyboard

When participants tapped on a text field using the touch screen, a touch screen keyboard would appear. This was the most disliked feature of the touch screen in our study. The angle of the screen made it difficult to use, and a bit unnecessary given that the laptop has an attached keyboard.

Also, the touch screen keyboard took up a majority of the screen and blocked the content. In one instance, a participant mentioned that if he could disable the touch screen keyboard so that it never popped up, he would enjoy the touch screen more.

Small Links and Buttons

Many participants had issues clicking on small links and buttons. For example, when participants were trying to find men’s size 9 black dress shoes, they had a hard time selecting the dress shoes category using the touchscreen. Often times they accidentally selected the wrong category and were required to go back and try again.

They found they made more errors using the touch screen to complete these tasks than if they had used a mouse. Because of the size of the links or buttons, participants noted that they wouldn’t usually use the touchscreen to perform these types of tasks.

Additionally, participants noticed some of the mouse functionality wasn’t available when using the touch screen. For example, with the mouse, participants were able to hover over the shoe to see zoomed in detail.

However, while using the touchscreen, participants tried to complete that same action with the typical two-finger zoom function, but they weren’t able to zoom in the same manner as they could with a mouse.

Conclusion

Overall, the touchscreen functionality didn’t seem to meet any necessary needs for participants. Although the ability to swipe while shopping online provided a quick and easy way to browse items, the touchscreen functionality ended there. Websites and apps designed for mobile were better received for touch screen than the standard layout. Participants found that though the combination of both touch screen and mouse would complete the task, it didn’t seem effective to switch between using the touchscreen and the mouse.

Before we jump the gun and create an Inspector Gadget, lets wait till there is an actual need for him.

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