Designing for the touch interface

Ever since I saw the Objectified movie, I was struck by this simple sentence, by Naoto Fukasawa

Design dissolving in behavior

Beautiful, isn’t it?

Think about it, what you design is not only transparent for the user of your object, but it also impels its user to behave with your design in a way that feels comfortable and meaningful, thus making your design dissolve. In the end, the user and the designed object interact in one intimate way.

When I think about touch interfaces, all of the above ideas make perfect sense. Sadly, when I use some of the available applications for tablets (and the iPad, these days, is still the tablet to refer to) I feel exactly the other way around.

All of us have used touch-based applications for some time now. Many of us have designed user interfaces for content on touch-based devices. Yet, there is still so much to be learned on this subject.

What I’ve learned so far

Allow me to start with a common, very used idea – it’s not print design and it’s not web design.

As much as this is a beaten sentence, an idea that sounds shallow, it has some truth inside it and we should focus, as we start, on that truth. If designing for a touch-based device is neither print or web design, than it is a ‘new’ thing. We must embrace this idea, all of us. Print and web designers must start their design thinking for these platforms with the knowledge that they don’t know everything about it. Really, we know very little about it. And that’s a very nice place to start!

So, what do we know about tablets? A couple of very important stuff actually. Taking the iPad as the reference let me share some of my thoughts about the device:

  • For reading, writing and interacting with it, on the lean back position it ‘asks’ of its users, the iPad is best handled horizontally.
  • As amazingly light as the device is, after spending a couple of hours holding it, your arms get tired.
  • With the last point in mind, because it is a touch-based device, the way you interact with it is done with, at least, one hand. This leads to the conclusion that, whenever you interact with it you’ll be holding it mostly with one hand.
  • The users hand, when touching the screen, will always cover a significant part of it.
  • The finger is a much larger and clumsier pointer for interaction when compared with a mouse pointer.
  • The thumbs are the user’s best friends for touch-based interactions.

With this kind of information (and there is a lot more you can get just by observing users and thinking about this subject) we can start to see some solutions for designing a friendly user interface for tablets.

For example, I can understand that whenever I ask a user to move his hand from holding the tablet position onto the screen to interact with the interface, it will affect the holding hand left on the device – by placing more weight on it.

If I cross that kind of behavior with small hotspots on my interface, I might be asking for the user to keep holding the device with just one hand for more time – since a smaller hotspot will be harder to hit and might lead to several tries until it is hit properly.

In the end, this two actions together will make our design less ‘dissolving’ since the usage of our interface will make the touching and interaction with our content less natural (remember that we are hopping for a transparent usage of the device, through your interface, to access your content).

Another example. If you observe a user interacting with a touch-based device on horizontal position, you will notice that only the users thumbs are upon the screen (that’s why I call them the users best friends!). If your content needs the user to swipe to access it, by designing your interface in a way that allows the users to use their thumbs without loosing the holding position of both hands, the experience will be more comfortable and less disrupting. The same applies for the placing of hotspots – designing solutions that enable users using their thumbs to hit the hotspots will allow the users to keep the two-hand hold of the tablet.

Last example. If the hand, as a pointer ‘device’ to access content by interacting with your interface, is so large compared with a mouse pointer on a computer and the screen of a tablet (one human hand covers approximately one third of the iPad screen), then the rewards you offer the user by interacting with your interface must be designed in order that those same rewards aren’t covered by the action you’ve ‘asked’ the user to perform.

Let me explain further this point imagine your content needs for you to create on your interface a three button solution. For each button tapped by your user, you give back one content ‘reward’. Whenever you design such an interface, always remember that the change on the screen that is going to happen because of the action you’ve asked should be visible immediately. If you design this in a way that the hand will cover the reaction to one action, users might think that the interface is not working – believe me, I’ve done this error and it happens!!

What I want to explain with these three examples is that when designing one interface for a touch-based device, the actual physics of the device and the way we use it have to be taken into account. Observing the way people hold and use tablets will tell you a lot about the way you should design interfaces for the device.

Actually, we’ve been also doing this when designing print and web interfaces for our content, but we’ve been doing it for so long that canons have been set and we no longer think about it (and we should) or we don’t even know why we design stuff using those canons (and again, we should know).

And what about content?

Content should always be the base of your interface design. There is no reason for designing one interface if it doesn’t solve the needs of the content it will display.

Also, we need to understand (as content producers) that tablets are fully digital devices and this means that content and the way we tell the content’s story must also evolve. Again, the way we produce our storytelling for print and web can give us some clues, but tablets and applications are a new medium of distributing our content and that also influences the way we must think and present our stories. I’ve written before about this subject on this blog, so I won’t add to the characters count by repeating myself. You can read the article here.

To help us further understand these questions of interface and designing applications for tablets, I’ve interviewed Joe Zeff, from Joe Zeff Design. Joe has just launched two iPad applications – ‘The Final Hours’ and  ‘Above & Beyond’ – that have gotten a good amount of press reviews and, most important, are also getting great reviews from the users that bought them on the App Store.

You can read the full interview here.


In the end, designing is not about creating one product or one interface. Designing is about finding answers to problems. Physical devices, with touch-base interfaces, present questions that weren’t previously existent and that must be answered in ways that we need to find out. We can do this by investigating, not only using what we’ve learned from previous practices (print and wed design), but also by acknowledging that the way the public use these devices will determine the way we design interfaces for our content on them.

2 Responses to “Designing for the touch interface”
  1. “Designing for the touch interface Digital Distribution” was in fact a remarkable article.
    If perhaps it included more photographs this would be perhaps even far better.

    Take care -Alica

  2. Melody says:

    “Designing for the touch interface | Digital Distribution” 99translations was in fact a good
    article and I actually was in fact truly joyful to read the
    blog. Thanks a lot-Antoine

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