The design value of haptics: usability, industrial design and branding

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This is a guest post written by David Birnbaum, who’s the UX design manager at Immersion Corporation.   

The spotlight on haptic technology is intensifying as touch screens and touch surfaces without screens start to populate every day household items. Haptics was included in JWT’s list of 100 Things to Watch in 2014, and we are seeing a number of innovative new products come out with haptics, such as Ringly or the Solid bike.

Why has interest in haptics increased? The simple answer is that as smart, connected devices proliferate, the ones that engage your sense of touch are more effective than the ones that don’t.  

Across many products, user interfaces are designed to be clean, flat, and uncluttered. Too often, however, minimal product designs mean you lose the ability to use your sense of touch to guide yourself through interacting with the product. In the place of dependable tactile surfaces and buttons, is a flat, featureless surface or screen, forcing a greater reliance on visual and audio cues. Which doesn’t work too well when you’re driving, for example, and your visual attention should be fixed on the road, and your ears might be listening to music or a passenger.

As a result, we see that in cars, where digital interfaces have moved away from physical buttons and towards touch screens and touch surfaces, haptic feedback is becoming a key element of driver safety by increasing interaction efficiency and reducing glance time.

When a product uses audio feedback, it announces what it has to say to everyone in the room. When haptics takes the place of audio, feedback from devices can be private, immediate, and less socially disruptive.  Haptic feedback sends an unmistakable message precisely targeted at the person interacting with it. In addition, haptics is able to grab your attention unlike any other modality. While you can ignore or miss visual or audio cues if you’re distracted, it’s much harder to miss haptic cues because they demand your attention. As such, haptics are well suited for communicating critical information quickly.

Haptics also allows designers to create programmable tactile effects that can display non-visual and non-auditory data to users. Design tools allow you to precisely control tactile parameters such as magnitude, envelope, frequency, and pattern. Going beyond the usability and industrial design advantages it provides, haptics also allows the tactile experience of a product to be branded in a way that was not possible before. For example, an appliance company whose brand emphasizes elegant design can make its touchscreen buttons feel sleek and crisp. Another appliance company whose brand emphasizes dependability can make its big touch surface buttons feel rugged and pronounced.

Haptics is becoming a powerful tool for designing broad range of products and experiences. I expect the trends toward designs that emphasize minimalism, interactivity, and delight to continue into the foreseeable future. Utilizing “tactile design” techniques, designers can follow these trends to make better user interfaces and industrial designs. Because our sense of touch is so central to our everyday experience in the real world, extending the possibilities for design into the tactile domain can make products and experiences more intuitive, practical and usable.

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