The value of Tangibility in Digital Products

Technology has taken over multiple facets of our life. Starting with desktops, we were introduced to internet browsers, and further taken to tablets, and then Touch-Screen smartphones. Further we are moving into smartwatches and Internet of Things environments.

Do you see a pattern of evolution here? Progressively, we have moved towards devices where our interaction with our services or apps is getting closer and closer to us, the user. Why do you think this is the case?

We may have invented various kinds of technologies but our core values remain the same. Unless we are able to touch and feel something we are buying, we do not trust it. Although this has changed over time with the advent of e-commerce, many people still prefer to have a feel of things before they invest their money into it.

To interact with software, we always needed to use an external device until Touch Screen interfaces were introduced. But even those interactions were curated such that users needed to learn how to use their devices. On the other hand, many simple physical devices, or toys make interactions with them extremely easy and intuitive, such that even 2 year olds can pick up and start using them. With smartphones and tablets, we are near to emulating this experience.

“If you need an instruction manual, it’s not intuitive enough”.

This brings us to “tangibility” as a concept. The ability to touch and feel physical devices that cause changes in the digital realm.

Two great examples of this are:

  1. 3-D touch in iPhone 6S: The user gets a feeling of how hard he is pressing the screen, and that redefines the type of interactions that are possible for a phone.
  2. The round bezel display in Samsung Gear Smartwatch: With each movement of the bezel, you can feel a small tick, which acts as a haptic feedback to your movement. Making the process more intuitive for the user to know how to proceed.

Various companies have tried to experiment with tangible interactions. Vibrational haptic feedback on smartphones is a very common example of this.

Even academic researchers have experimented with different kinds of tangible devices to give way to new interaction techniques. A very famous example is the inForm project by MIT Media Lab.

I personally feel that we are in the nascent stages of defining new tangible interactions. There is a long way to go; and the opportunities are endless. The products that can actually encash on this opportunity can go a long way!