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Have you noticed the alarming lack of touch stimuli in current technologies? The word “touch” is in the word “touchscreen,” but tapping and swiping a cold flat piece of matter basically neglects the sense of touch. You are capable of experiencing only a fraction of what your sense of touch allows you to during the long hours of manipulation with touchscreens.

As a designer and also as a human I felt an urge to write an article which aims to consider using more touch and motor skills when designing products. I came up with the idea based on my very own working experience. I was pretty frustrated by sitting behind the screen for a whole day...

Designing
For The Tactile Experience

The focus of digital technology in the last few decades has neglected human hands and bodies to a large extent. Our thoughts and feelings are strongly connected to the gestures, postures, and actions we perform. I aim to push you— as a designer — to think outside of the zone of screens.

I’d also like to ask you to start thinking critically about current technologies; touch and motor skills need to be taken into consideration when designing your very next product. Allow me to explain why.

 

Less Haptic Stimuli, Less Experience

 

According to Finnish neurophysiologist Matti Bergström, quoted in a lecture of Sofia Svanteson:

“The density of nerve endings in our fingertips is enormous. Their discrimination is almost as good as that of our eyes. If we don’t use our fingers during childhood or youth, we become “fingerblind,” this rich network of nerves is impoverished — which represents a huge loss to the brain and thwarts the individual's development as a whole. Such damage may be likened to blindness itself. Perhaps worse, while a blind person may simply not be able to find this or that object, the fingerblind cannot understand its inner meaning and value”.

 

HOLD, PUSH, SWIPE, TAP

If you end up as a typical white-collar worker, you’ll probably spend a significant part of your day looking at your screen, without any possibility of physically touching the things you work with. How much time do you spend on your computer at work? How much time do you spend on your phone afterwards. What about during your spare time: What do you do during those hours? Hold, push, swipe, tap.

The word “touch” is in the word “touchscreen,” but tapping and swiping a cold flat piece of matter basically neglects the sense of touch. You are capable of experiencing only a fraction of what your sense of touch allows you to during the long hours of manipulation with touchscreens.

 

What actions do you physically perform with your body? Perhaps you are not a very active person. What posture are you usually in? What kind of impact can sitting over the screen of a mobile phone or computer all day have on a person? Pablo Briñol, Richard E. Petty and Benjamin Wagner claim in their research article that your body posture can shape your mind.

“… We argue that any postures associated with confidence (e.g., pushing one’s chest out) should magnify the effect of anything that is currently available in people’s minds relative to postures associated with doubt (e.g., slouching forward with one’s back curved).”

As the theory of embodied cognition states, your body affects your behavior.

 

TACTILE FEEDBACK

Many tangible things are disappearing from our surroundings and reappearing in digital form. They are improved upon and enriched with new functions that would not be possible in the material world. A few examples are maps, calendars, notebooks and pens, printed photos, music players, calculators and compasses. However, with the loss of their material form comes also the loss of the sensations and experiences that only physical interaction with objects can give us. The “… disembodied brain could not experience the world in the same ways that we do, because our experience of the world is intimately tied to the ways in which we act in it,” writes Paul Dourish in his book Where the Action Is.

 

Fingers are able to sense the progress of a book (Image: on Unsplash)

DIFFERENT ACTIVITIES, DIFFERENT MOVEMENTS

 

Consider some actions we perform in the physical world:

 

I pay for a ticket. I pull my wallet out of my bag. I open it and take out banknotes. While holding the notes in one hand, I draw some coins with my other hand. I give the money to the salesperson.

 

I confess love. I sit or stand opposite to the person. I look into their eyes. I blush. I say, “You know, I love you.” I am kissed.

 

I look for a recipe. I choose a cookbook from the shelf. I take the book. I flip a few pages, forwardsbackwards. I find a recipe.

 

Whereas in the world of screens:

 

I pay for a ticket. I fill text fields. I hit a button.

I confess love. I fill a text field. I hit a button.

 

I look for a recipe. I fill a text field. I hit a button.

 

(Image: Jeremy Paige on Unsplash)

The environment surrounding us, the activities we perform and the things we come into contact with help us to perceive situations more intensely and meaningful. Phenomenologists such as Husserl, Schutz, Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty have already explored the relationship between embodied action and meaning. “For them, the source of meaning (and meaningfulness) is not a collection of abstract, idealized entities; instead, it is to be found in the world in which we act, and which acts upon us. This world is already filled with meaning. Its meaning is to be found in the way in which it reveals itself to us as being available for our actions. It is only through those actions, and the possibility for actions that the world affords us, that we can come to find the world, in both its physical and social manifestations, meaningful.” Another quote from above-mentioned book by Paul Dourish.

 

Because so many different activities are being carried out in the same manner in the digital world, their value is becoming less clear. I believe that haptic sense has something to do, for instance, with the perception of paying by “real” or by virtual currency — that feeling of something tangible in your hand that you are giving to someone else, compared to just tapping a flat surface to confirm that the number on the screen will be deducted from your account.

 

Try a simple task. Suppose you want to remember something. Write it down and see how it affects your brain. Professor Anne Mangen, who studies the impact of digital technologies on reading and writing, has shown that writing helps your brain process information and remember it much better. Physical sensorimotor activities create a stronger connection to performed tasks. That’s probably one of the reasons why paper planners are seeing a rise in sales. Sales of paper books are also rising. Giving a digital book as a gift is much less impressive than giving its paper equivalent. This points to an interesting phenomenon. Physical presents just “feel” much better. There is a trend of returning to “tangible music”, which caused an increase in vinyl sales. But are those returns to “old forms” enough? Or can we act also from the current opportunities?

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