Touch Bars, Interfaces, and Us
Michael J. Blum
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I think you’re completely missing the boat here, and it’s due to an arrogant misunderstanding of the target audience of the MBP. Yes, there are MBP users who exclusively use keyboard shortcuts. Shortcuts which they have remembered over the years, because these aren’t intuitive to learn at all. No matter if it’s shortcuts in Photoshop or FCPX or Xcode—they aren’t intuitive, they aren’t obvious, and you are only going to learn them if you really have to and spend an extreme amount of time in these apps. And yes, some users are also going to plug the MBP into external monitors and keyboards and mice.

Yes, the MBP is indeed for these users. And all of their shortcuts continue to work just fine. The Touchbar doesn’t replace any of that, it merely replaces the function-keys-turned-multimedia-keys.

But the MBP is also for everybody else who wants a fast notebook. Apple has never ever catered exclusively to these so-called “pro” elites; it has always primarily targeted A) consumers and B) prosumers, or amateur enthusiasts. Final Cut Pro itself started out as a video editor “for the rest of us”, for ambitious, yet ordinary people. It wasn’t for Steven Spielberg; it was for the person who might turn out to be the next Steven Spielberg.

And if you look at them, then you not only see a much larger group (which doesn’t even conflict with the other group), but you see a group that’s more flexible. That isn’t limited to the one workflow they’ve used for years. And crucially, you see a group that hasn’t memorized specific functions on cryptic keys. Ask people what keyboard shortcuts they use, ask them if they use the traditional setting of their function keys (rather than the multimedia functions); heck, ask them when they last used one of those weird “home” or “pg” buttons on a full-size keyboard. Most of them will be able to type words (semi-) blindly; but go ask them whether they can navigate the symbol keys blindly. Ask them to blindly navigate to F5 or F9 or whatever. I sure can’t! To most people, these parts of the keyboard are deserted territory. They’re Tchernobyl. They’re technically there, but nobody goes there.

So first, go take these people as your benchmark.

What is UI? Navigation, menus, drop-downs, links, error messages, banner ads, swipe animations, clicking, scrolling, checkboxes, updates, and alerts. What is UX? People, happiness, problem-solving, needs, love efficiency, joy. “Somewhere along the way,” writes Krishna, “we confused the two.”
One of the core principles of TBIINI is to “leverage computers instead of serving them.” The significance of this principle can be illustrated — albeit negatively — in the curious case of Apple’s touch bar.

Scenario 1: you’ve got a keyboard with a variety of keys that you never use. There are a handful of actions that you would like to execute. The manual or some tutorials might tell you that you could press CMD+something to do this or that. In the end, you memorize two or three keyboard shortcuts, and the rest you do via mouse cursor.

Scenario 2: You’ve got a keyboard with the Touchbar. There are a handful of actions that you would like to execute. They are the most-used, so the Touchbar of your MBP displays distinct buttons for them. They are clearly labelled and easy to find.

Now tell me: in which of these scenarios is the user leveraging their computer, and in which is the user serving it? In which of these scenarios does the user solve their problem easier, more intuitively, and probably happier because they didn’t have to read a tutorial to understand which button does what?

Some users might roll their eyes at this and be like, “of course I know my shortcuts! I NEVER look at the keyboard!” Well, if you only ever use the same programs, this might be manageable. But try out a new app, and suddenly you’re just like everyone else.

The MBP is like the iPad Pro: it’s a pro because it’s got the best and most expensive tech inside. But it’s for everybody who wants it, it’s not tailored specifically for “pros” in specialized jobs. Apple’s pricing might be elitist, but their design is like Coke: it’s for everyone, no matter if you are a photographer, student, President, or app developer. And their products are designed in a way that should be intuitive and obvious for everyone. That’s good design in my book. After all, it was Don Norman who in The Design of Everyday Things wrote:

“Two of the most important characteristics of good design are discoverability and understanding. Discoverability: Is is possible to even figure out what actions are possible and where and how to perform them? Understanding: What does it all mean? How is the product supposed to be used? What do all the different controls and settings mean?” (page 33)

Please re-read the last sentence: “what do all the different controls and settings mean”. What does F1, F2, F9 mean? In contrast, what could “Archive” and “Reply” in Mail.app possibly mean? There once was a terrific TED talk, in which the presenter asked: what’s the caps lock key? Why is it there? Do I even want it in my house?! Unfortunately I forgot who it was. The point is, I never asked for essentially unlabelled function buttons on my keyboard.

And it remains conspicuous in even the most casual of situations: as Lisa Gade mentions in her written review, the simplest commands (such as dimming the screen or raising the volume) are made more difficult and demand a greater number of keystrokes and swipes than they would normally.

This is not true. I don’t have the MBP, but I’ve read repeatedly that you can tap on the volume or brightness button, hold it and then slide your finger. Apparently your finger won’t be visually aligned to the slider, but it will translate your finger’s movement relatively. This makes it just one continuous and rather easy gesture.

For all the responsiveness of the touch bar’s digital interface, in actual practice, we are the ones who have to accommodate ourselves to it. Our experience, in this case, is only further complicated; the interface only becomes an impediment to where we want to go and what we want to accomplish.

This would possibly be true if the Touchbar was mandatory for the use of apps. It’s just as optional as keyboard shortcuts are. The Touchbar replaces cryptic buttons from a cold-war era and replaces them with an easier to understand interface; its very concept is about the computer accommodating to the user. Rather than asking the user to memorize functions, it shows her what’s available.

Sorry for the long and possibly verbose comment; as they say, “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

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