How the Smartphone Changed Our Expectations

Walk into a computer retailer and observe how people interact with the devices on display. You’ll notice a striking phenomenon. People of all ages will reach out and touch the screens in front of them. “The zombie hands,” as it’s been referred to on the Internet, is this gesture people will make to attempt to touch the screens around them, even though many don’t yet support touch features. People are expecting all of our devices to behave the same way — touch is expected everywhere.

I can’t help but remember Scotty from Star Trek: The Voyage Home as he is asked to use a Macintosh. Puzzled by how he should use the machine, Scotty falls on the familiar and tries to talk to it. We are supposed to laugh, but ironically a lot of people already can relate to Scotty in their everyday life as they struggle to use the computers around them. Scotty expected computers to be voice operated. Today, many of us expect computers to be touch responsive.

This behavior extends to other ways we interact with our devices. Take touch typing, for example. It’s a dying skill. Touch typing, for all you millennials out there, is a skill that allows you to type on a keyboard without having to look at the keys beneath your fingers. As I type this blog entry, I am not touch typing. Sometimes I will peer down at the keys, but I can’t say with confidence that I will hit every key without looking. And in today’s world, touch typing has become more of a hindrance than a skill. Most of our devices that we interact with every day make this skill useless. I am of course referring to touch screens.

Touch screens have created this new paradigm. They are not tactile, meaning you cannot determine where you fingers are touching by how the surface feels. On a tablet or a smartphone the whole surface feels uniform and smooth. We have all abandoned touch typing for the convenience of smartphones and tablets. Even as I type on a tablet with a detachable keyboard, I refuse to learn the method that would benefit me most on this physical keyboard.

The smartphone, a device that dynamically changes its interface to adjust to the task at hand, has completely changed our expectations of how a computer should behave. And for many people a touch screen is the only personal computer they have ever used.

Because digital keyboards on touch displays are not limited in dimension and arrangement by physical keys, they can be changed to fit whatever the current task on screen requires. Are you typing an email address into a form? The on-screen keyboard can automatically surface the @ symbol required by the field in the form. In all other situations, like typing a blog post, the @ symbol does not need to be surfaced at all times. Not every typing situation requires an @ symbol. Another example: why does a keyboard need to display capital letters all of the time regardless of whether you are typing upper or lower case characters? On an on-screen keyboard the keys can dynamically shift between upper and lower case keys as you tap the Shift keys and the Caps Lock key.

And this has consequences. People now expect their device to adapt to their needs. Do you need to type numbers? Numbers should automatically display instead of letters on the keyboard. Do you need to type symbols? Find the symbols in the symbols keyboard, only one tap away. There is no need to use hidden shortcuts to shift physical keys to alternate secret characters.

Ask enough people to type their email address on a physical keyboard and you might find they will struggle to find the @ symbol — sometimes typing a “2” instead. And of course they will. For isn’t there an @ on the same key that primarily features the number 2? Physical keys don’t obey the same behavior as a software on-screen keyboard. What you see is not necessarily what you get when you put finger to key cap. If you don’t believe me, ask only a few people and I can guarantee you’ll see this happen at least once. And don’t even get me started with international keyboards where you might have to type 3 keys simultaneously to get to the @ symbol.

Software really does make our lives easier, but the effects it has on people can be seen in the most curious ways. And one day when digital assistants are navigating these interfaces for us, typing on a screen will seem as foreign to us as using an abacus.

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