Under Pressure: Exploring 3D Touch for iPhone

| October 20, 2015
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Do you remember the iPhone 3G?!…Neither do I.

Do you remember what the big buzz was during its release? Me either.

My point is that with each succession of Apple’s eagerly anticipated iPhones, we adopt (or reject) its terminology, commands, and features and incorporate them into the larger framework of how we think about our relationship to our technology. What was novel and strange at first becomes routine.

3D Touch, introduced in the iPhone 6s and 6s Plus last month, is one such novel and strange technology that has people talking. For the first time, the iPhone screen acts as a pressure sensitive surface, making way for an additional “dimension” of interaction beyond swiping, pinching, and tapping. Users can now apply different amounts of pressure to initiate different types of  interaction on their phone.

The study

We recruited eight (6 iPhone 6s and 2 6s Plus) test participants from our panel to give us their feedback on this shiny, new feature. The participants  explored the Quick Actions from the homescreen, the “Peek” and “Pop” gestures in a dummy email inbox, and the keyboard-turned-trackpad in Notes. All participants had already played around with their new phones, so they all had some degree of familiarity with 3D Touch or “Force Touch” prior to the study. We also asked that participants hold the phone in their hand, instead of placing it on a flat surface, so that they could explain what the haptic feedback (or “taptic” as Apple calls it) felt like.

Old habits die hard

Although participants had played around with 3D Touch previously, the majority admitted that they were still getting used to the feature. Many felt they’d need to break their old habits from prior iPhones before they could  take full advantage of the 3D Touch.

We have to break the mold of us being used to the old generations of iPhones and getting used to the new 3D Touch pressure-sensitive aspect. – Male participant, 23, USA

Under pressure

The majority of participants encountered some trouble in applying the right amount of pressure. At times, participants had to make their selection multiple times because they weren’t pressing hard enough. In other instances, too much pressure was applied, catapulting them unwittingly from Peek into Pop.

During the study, participants who had done their homework ahead of time on the technology were surprised to discover elements they hadn’t known about. One participant was taken aback to discover the difference between Peek and Pop in his inbox while another was excited to find out that you could preview an address. Two participants wanted to see some type of tutorial for 3D Touch to help them better understand how to correctly apply the different amounts of pressure. They recognized the potential for all that could be done with this new surface, and were frustrated to find out that they were not even using it to its full extent!

A smoother interaction

Even without mastery with 3D Touch, participants acknowledged that this new system allowed for smoother transitions from one interaction to another, and it saved them time by cutting out multiple steps in an action. For example, one participant appreciated the ability to select what type of photo to take directly from the home screen, instead of having to take the additional step of opening up the camera application first. It was only one step! But that one step saved one second, and participants appreciated saving even that one second. These Quick Actions from the homescreen cut out the “middle man” and provided a more direct route to where they wanted to go.

It’s much simpler and faster than having to open up the app and dig down through the menus…to be able to do it directly from this screen is, I find it quite amazing. – Male participant, 31, Canada

In particular, participants were delighted by the precision afforded by the keyboard-turned-trackpad. Several participants showcased the difficulties they had manipulating the cursor in the past and how this compounded their frustration when trying to type a note.

Participants sought to describe this new type of experience in various ways. One participant likened the 3D Touch to an advanced right click while several other participants admired the additional “layer” or “depth” of navigation that it allowed. The haptic feedback, described by most as a “vibration” or a small “shudder” or “pop” helped the interaction feel even more secure as participants were given a confirmation of their command. Since the 3D Touch is currently limited to native Apple apps and a few third- party apps, such as Instagram, participants were eager to see this technology spread to other apps.

Final thoughts

More than anything else, the novelty of this technology stuck with participants as they worked to get used to the 3D Touch. When we asked participants to choose adjectives to describe the technology, a majority chose words like, “inventive,” “impressive,” “creative,” and “fun.” Not only did these adjectives reflect an overall positive experience, but it emphasized how fresh the experience was for them. Terms like “Pop” and “Peek” are not quite part of how participants normally think about interaction with their phone; but that could change soon.

As of this writing, Facebook has announced support for 3D Touch’s Quick Actions, signaling the adoption of 3D Touch by some of our favorite apps. Only time will tell if  3D Touch will usher in the next era of human-computer interaction—and if Peek and Pop will become a part of your technical routine.