12:53 PM

Touch Me: Do Users Really Want Touch-Responsive Computers?

Touching the screen on a tablet is different from using a laptop with a keyboard. Intel's market research shows that despite tired arms ('gorilla arms') users like to touch.

By Intel Free Press

Touch on vertical screens, such as laptops, has been thought to result in so-called "gorilla arm," a term engineers have coined to describe what happens when people use touch interfaces for lengthy periods.

"Touchscreen on the display is ergonomically terrible for longer interactions," Avi Greengart of Current Analysis said to Wired in 2010. In user testing conducted by Intel in Brazil, China, Italy and the United States, however, people embraced touch on laptop displays.

"People told me that touch on the laptop was intuitive, fun, immersive and freed them from the mouse and trackpad, especially when they discovered actions like flicking the screen to scroll up or down and navigate between tasks," said Daria Loi, a user experience manager at Intel.

In testing Loi found that people spent 77 percent of the time touching the laptop screen while running through a variety of tasks such as surfing the Web, watching online video, viewing and editing photos and adjusting the laptop's setting.

"Ninety percent found touch on a laptop screen intuitive," she said.

For tests with consumers, Loi used an off-the-shelf touchscreen laptop running a simulated Windows 8 Metro-style operating system and applications such as PowerPoint. Although the prototype was not fully optimized with a touch operating system, many users said the touch experience transformed the notebook from a work to a play device.

"One person even compared the addition of touch as like having a laptop with an extra gear," she said.

Loi says that the study results debunked another industry concern. "Many thought that hinges holding screens in place wouldn't withstand the forcible pokes and pinches for very long," she said. "But we saw people very gently touching, even caressing the screen."

In her testing, she observed people tilting back the laptop screen and using their thumbs to touch both sides of the screen, similar to how people hold a tablet or smartphone. She also noticed a range of additional informal postures, such as resting one elbow on the table or armrest while touching the screen with the other hand or fluidly switching between right and left hand to navigate via touch.

Loi said that participants strongly expressed that they did not want the keyboard to go away. "Many gave practical or emotional reasons for liking the physical keyboard, such as the way it feels or sounds when pressing down on the different keys. Most participants did not like interacting with the virtual keyboard, even when touch was their favorite input modality."

Daria Loi uses an Intel reference design Ultrabook with multi-touchscreen functionality. Loi conducted user tests and found that people spent 77 percent of the time touching the laptop screen while running through a variety of tasks such as surfing the Web, watching online video, viewing and editing photos and adjusting the laptop's setting.

Strong Desires, High Expectations for Touch

Multi-touch screens are prevalent today on tablet and smartphone devices, and they're even available on desktop computers. But Loi said that with the advent of Windows 8, Microsoft's touch-optimized operating system, she wanted to know if people really did or did not want touch on their laptop.

Loi noted that in her testing people didn't see touch on a vertical surface as a challenge or novelty. "Instead," she said, "they described touch as something that enriched their experience, and something they believed would inevitably come to laptops."

To participants who said they'd like to have touch and the keyboard on one device, Loi asked if they would consider replacing their laptop with a powerful tablet and wireless keyboard. "People said, 'no way, the tablet has its purpose but I still need a laptop. I just want you to add touch,'" Loi said.

Testing occurred before Loi's team revealed the first touchscreen Ultrabook systems this year at the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and CeBIT in Germany.

"While Windows 8 will help convince consumers to buy a touch-enabled laptop, it will come down to software and apps that use touch in a real way -- a way that feels natural and simplifies the interaction," said Josh Smith, a reviewer at Notebooks.com.

Hundreds of millions of people have become accustomed to responsive touch experiences they're getting on smartphones and tablets. Smith said this has created high expectations for fast and smooth experiences on any touchscreen device. He points to recent Microsoft research aimed at improving average touchscreen reaction time of a 100-millisecond delay down to 1 millisecond over the next decade.

"I think that once this delay issue is overcome, we will see a better user experience and faster adoption," Smith said.

"If I did this study 8 or 10 years ago, I don't think I'd get the same results," Loi said. "In the past few years, people have been exposed to touch through new personal devices and public interactions with ATMs or airport check-in machines. Overall, touchscreens are increasingly becoming smoother and more responsive than ever before. The user interfaces are now optimized for touch."