Apple’s new touch bar is a usability disaster
Apple opened its “Hello Again” event yesterday with a video on accessibility features on iOS and macOS for the disabled. Ironically, the highlight of the event was the introduction of a new piece of hardware on their Macbook Pros — the touch bar, which reduces accessibility for the visually impaired on Apple’s latest portable professional machines.
One of my favourite features of macOS is Mission Control. Introduced back in 2011 when Apple combined Expose and Spaces on OS X, it is a feature I use heavily on my Macbook for effective window management, which is one of the most important usability features on a 15 inch screen. If you are like me, this hardware F3 key can be a life saver whenever you have a bunch of different windows open while working on your laptop. With the new touch bar, this feature is at best a swipe and a tap away. At least from the demos, it looks like Mission Control won’t be available at all from within certain apps. While you will most likely be able to remap Mission Control to another keystroke, removing a single-button key to invoke this function is a huge step backwards in terms of usability.
Demo time! I would like to first point out how ridiculous Craig Federighi looked while he was demo-ing the new Macbook Pros. He was looking down at the keyboard the entire time just to interact with the touch bar, which replicated buttons already available on the screen.
Apple first introduced the capacitive touchscreen in 2007 on the iPhone and it has since changed the way we interact with our mobile devices. This makes sense on a smartphone because it allows users to interact directly with the screen of the device without having to look away. Apple’s implementation of the touch bar on the Macbook Pro is a reversal of this because it essentially introduces a second screen placed perpendicular to the display, forcing users to have to constantly shift their visual focus away from the screen. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of reasons why I believe the touch bar is a huge step backwards on the Macbook Pro:
1. It needlessly shifts the cognitive load from touch to sight
The hardware keyboard is something that the majority of us have learnt to navigate solely by touch over the years. Without providing any haptic feedback (which in itself is inferior to physical keys), the touch bar offloads this interaction to our eyes, which are already occupied by on-screen content. Ever had to reference a physical document on your desk while using your computer? You would be familiar with the annoyance of having to constantly look down from the screen onto a different surface. Welcome to your life with the new touch bar.
2. Any function key available on the touch bar should already be visible on-screen.
There is a ton of writing by now about how hiding functional buttons is bad UI design (see: VSCO app for an example of poorly designed UI). Since not even all macOS devices have the touch bar, having on-screen buttons becomes a matter of necessity. Any buttons on the touch bar can only be a replication of what is already available on-screen in some form. Sure, there might be that one time you simply have to have a full screen video or photo while editing it and it’s nice to have the touch bar available. But I’m willing to bet that it will at best be a rarely used feature for the majority of professional users, if not a downright annoyance.
3. While it remains to be tested, the small touch area will likely not be accurate enough for most use-cases
Watching some of the hands-on videos from the major tech outlets, it made me laugh how often even these tech-savvy reporters missed the hit targets on the touch bar. With the mere height of the function row on a laptop sized keyboard, it is questionable just how accurate you can be on the touch bar. A physical key, on the other hand, is hard to miss even without having to look at the keyboard. Imagine missing the hit target even with your eyes on the touch bar. Talk about frustration.
4. The touch bar is not placed thoughtfully, making its use an additional unwarranted effort (see point 2.)
Let’s ignore for a moment all my arguments above and pretend that the touch bar actually is useful to your workflow. You are editing a full screen video and you need to scrub to a different time. You take your hand from the keyboard or trackpad and move it to the the touch bar. Now you have to shift your gaze down to the keyboard. Ok, fingers on the right position at the touch bar. Now shift your gaze back up again to the video while your finger scrubs along the touch bar. All this while, your palm has to hover above the keyboard so as not to hit any other keys. Does that sound like an ideal workflow? I don’t know about you I’m tired just from imagining all that work. This could have been mitigated had the touch bar been placed at the top of your trackpad for example. Did the industrial designer responsible for this even spend a minute to think about the usability of this new hardware element?
The new Macbook Pros are possibly the most thoughtless and forced product update from Apple that I can remember in the last 10 years. Despite the fact that the entire lineup is still using Intel’s last generation processors, we’re looking at a $200 price bump on the base 13 inch model. It’s hard not to see this as a money grab by Apple, recognizing the market’s pent up demand for new MacBooks. While historically some of Apple’s products have just been “not for me”, I am concerned about what Apple’s visions of its products look like if this is the most significant hardware innovation on portable PCs they could come up with in the last four years. If this is the future of Apple’s innovations, I want no part of it.