Gestural Interfaces – Bad For Usability?

Question is whether this just seems awkward because it is a new way of doing things or whether it is truly a bad thing. In any case, the iPad certainly takes it’s knocks in this discussion:

In a recent column for Interactions (reference 2) Norman pointed out that the rush to develop gestural interfaces – “natural” they are sometimes called – well-tested and understood standards of interaction design were being overthrown, ignored, and violated. Yes, new technologies require new methods, but the refusal to follow well-tested, well-established principles leads to usability disaster.

Recently, Raluca Budui and Hoa Loranger from the Nielsen Norman group performed usability tests on Apple’s iPad (reference 1), reaching much the same conclusion. The new applications for gestural control in smart cellphones (notably the iPhone and the Android) and the coming arrival of larger screen devices built upon gestural operating systems (starting with Apple’s iPad) promise even more opportunities for well-intended developers to screw things up. Nielsen put it this way: “The first crop of iPad apps revived memories of Web designs from 1993, when Mosaic first introduced the image map that made it possible for any part of any picture to become a UI element. As a result, graphic designers went wild: anything they could draw could be a UI, whether it made sense or not. It’s the same with iPad apps: anything you can show and touch can be a UI on this device. There are no standards and no expectations.”

Why are we having trouble? Several reasons:

· The lack of established guidelines for gestural control

· The misguided insistence by companies (e.g., Apple and Google) to ignore established conventions and establish ill-conceived new ones.

· The developer community’s apparent ignorance of the long history and many findings of HCI research which results in their feeling of empowerment to unleash untested and unproven creative efforts upon the unwitting public.

After cataloging some of the issues with gestural interfaces in a bit more detail, the article attempts to conclude on a positive note on the ‘promise’ of GI. It comes off a bit mixed (if not mildly scolding):

The new devices are also fun to use: gestures add a welcome feeling of activity to the otherwise joyless ones of pointing and clicking.

But the lack of consistency, inability to discover operations, coupled with the ease of accidentally triggering actions from which there is no recovery threatens the viability of these systems.

We urgently need to return to our basics, developing usability guidelines for these systems that are based upon solid principles of interaction design, not on the whims of the company human interface guidelines and arbitrary ideas of developers.

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