One of the most common anecdotes at tech conferences is the "child swipes TV" story. This is the gist of it: my infant offspring walked up to the television and tried to swipe the screen because they think it's an iPad. This "proves" that touch-screen interfaces are intuitive. Babies can use them!
Keyboard picture from Shutterstock
There are two problems with that story:
- Everyone tells it now. It has about as much impact as describing how big data let Target discover someone was pregnant yadda yadda yadda.
- It doesn't actually demonstrate that touch is intuitive. It demonstrates that your child has seen you incessantly swiping away at phones and tablets, and is copying you. Kids do that a lot.
So I'll give credit to Cisco SVP for global collaboration sales Snorre Kjesbu for coming up with a variant on the tale. During Cisco's APJC Collaboration Connection 2014 event in Macau, which I'm attending this week, Kjesbu described how his eight-year old daughter came in while he was working on a presentation on his PC. She swiped the screen, and then complained when the presentation didn't move to the next slide. He explained that you can do that using the PgDn (Page Down) key. Her response: "Why would you do that?"
Kjesbu's point was that enterprise tools need to be designed to allow for that mindset, where mobile OS interfaces have become dominant. "It can't be so you have great tools at home and old-fashioned clunky stuff at work," he said. "You need to work towards that home experience." (There's some quite impressive technology Cisco is working on in that area, and I'll write about that in more detail tomorrow.)
I wouldn't dispute that designing apps to take advantage of those options makes sense. What you need to avoid doing is eliminating or hampering the ability to use a keyboard at the same time. It's so easy to get caught up in designing a simplified interface that you cut out the code that lets you use a connected keyboard to do the same thing.
There's an obvious example out there in the wild: Windows 8. In its original version, it was manifestly a touch-first interface, to the point that using Modern apps with a keyboard (or mouse) was downright unpleasant. It wasn't until Windows 8.1 Update that Microsoft belatedly decided to make the interface more friendly for keyboard users. This was not a wise idea. Touch might be a future expectation, but the majority of Windows devices right now have a keyboard connected. Ignoring it was foolish, and didn't help the reception of Windows 8 one bit.
The bias is evident in more subtle ways too. Many current notebooks don't have PgUp and PgDn keys (think MacBook Air, or most Chromebook designs). There's usually a keyboard shortcut to do this — but if you become used to not seeing a PgUp or PgDn key, you may not go looking for it, or think to add support for it.
Designing software that will appeal to a new generation of users should not mean eliminating options that work well as it is. Technology can be accretive, not disruptive. Supporting everything is more helpful than supporting just one sub-audience.
When you want to type — when you want to work with text — a keyboard still wins. Learn how to use it to the full yourself, and don't abandon it when you're developing new tools for others. And maybe spend some time typing in front of your infant children.
Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to Macau as a guest of Cisco.