Get in Touch with Your Inner User Interface

Thursday, July 15th, 2010 by Ville-Veikko Helppi

Touchscreens have gone from fad to “must have” seemingly overnight. The rapid growth of touchscreen user interfaces in mobile phones, media players, navigation systems, point-of-sale, and various other devices has changed the landscape in a number of vertical markets. In fact, original device manufacturers (ODMs) see the touchscreen as a way to differentiate their devices and compete against one another in an ever-expanding marketplace. But ODMs take note – a touchscreen alone will not solve the problem of delivering a fantastic user experience. If the underlying user interface is not up to snuff, the most amazing whiz-bang touchscreen won’t save you.

Touchscreens have come a long way from the early 90’s applications where they were used in primitive sales kiosks and public information displays. These devices were not cutting-edge masterpieces, but they did help jump-start the industry and expose large audiences (and potential future users) to the possibilities of what this type of technology might offer. It wasn’t until a decade later before consumers saw the major introduction of touchscreens – and the reason for this was pretty simple: the hardware was just too big and too expensive. Touchscreens became more usable and more pervasive only after the size of hardware reduced significantly.

Today there are a host of options in touchscreen technology. These include resistive, projected-capacitive, surface-capacitive, surface acoustic wave, and infrared to name a few. According to DisplaySearch, a display market research organization, resistive displays now occupy 50 percent of the market due to its cost-effectiveness, consistency, and durable performance; while projected-capacitive has 31 percent of the market. In total, there were more than 600 million touchscreens shipped in 2009. DisplaySearch also forecasts that projected-capacitive touchscreens will soon pass resistive screens as the number one touchscreen technology (measured by revenues) because the Apple iPad utilizes projected-capacitive touchscreen technology. And finally, according to Gartner, the projected-capacitive touchscreen segment is estimated to hit 1.3 billion units by 2012, which means a 44 percent compounded annual growth rate. These estimates indicate serious growth potential in the touchscreen technology sector.

However, growth ultimately hinges on customer demand. Some of the devices, such as safety and mission-critical systems, are still not utilizing the capabilities found in touchscreens. This is because with mission-critical systems, there is very little room for input mistakes made by the user. In many cases, touchscreens are considered a more fault-sensitive input method when compared to the old-fashioned button- and glitch-based input mechanisms. For some companies, the concern is not about faulty user inputs, but cost; adding a $30 touchscreen is not an option when it won’t add any value to the product’s price point.

So what drives touchscreen adoption? Adoption is mainly driven by

  1. Lowering the cost of the hardware
  2. Testing and validating new types of touchscreen technologies in the consumer space, and then pushing those technologies into other vertical markets
  3. A touchscreen provides an aesthetic and ease-of-use appeal – a sexier device gains more attention over its not so sexy non-touchscreen cousin.

This is true regardless of the type of device, whether it’s a juice blender, glucose monitor, or infotainment system in that snazzy new BMW.

The second part in this four-part series explores the paradigm shift in user interfaces that touchscreens are causing.


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