Why You Need to Really Care About Touchscreens

I read a book a while back called “Close to the Machine.” Honestly, it wasn’t all that great. The writing was clunky, the main point of the book was pretty slow in coming, and it relied way too much on the author’s personal experience. But, it was a really good look inside the minds of people who were working deep in technology. The book was published in 1997, so this was really pretty early on, when not everyone was spending all of their time with a computer.

The one thing that I took away from the book (and still think about) was an underlying theme that is really summarized in the title itself: people who have really adopted technology want to be just that – “close to the machine.” That is, people tend to get frustrated by the limitations of the tools that we need to manipulate the technology and power inside a computer. We want to do away with mice and keyboards and drawing tables and whatever else we need to get our ideas out of our heads and into the machine. We want to be close.

That was a concept held only by a minority of people back in 1997, but it was prescient. As more people used more computers, we all got that feeling. And just in time, the technology has really begun to allow for that, thanks to the proliferation of touchscreen technology.

This rise is due, in part, because most of the patents for touchscreen technology have expired, meaning that manufacturers don’t have to worry about paying royalties or license fees. Additionally, of course, processor power has become advanced enough and powerful enough to handle the inputs from touchscreens.

But no matter what the reason, touchscreens have taken off, and marketers using interactive technology to communicate with consumers need to start thinking of what this might mean.

Touchscreens: More than Half of All Devices

Millennial Media (a mobile advertising platform) publishes a regular report on the mobile market place. Among the many gems (seriously) inside of its report is a breakdown of traffic by input device type. As of July, 54 percent of devices had touchscreens. In second place were QWERTY devices with just 26 percent. Considering that iPad traffic has been growing at 300 percent month over month, we are beginning to see that a new generation of trafficking is emerging.

This appears to be a pretty good thing. It seems that people using the iPad, in particular, are extraordinarily engaged and represent a significant opportunity for engagement. According to data from Mobclix (another mobile platform), ads on the iPad that use video have 10.7 times higher click-through rate than regular iPad ads. Anecdotally, we hear that ads in general on the iPad perform way better than traditional ads.

Of course, there’s a really good reason to believe that this has more to do with novelty than with actual usefulness: people who have touchscreens are into the fact that they have touchscreens, so they are willing to play with anything. But that’s a mistake. We’re used to expecting new things to spike and then fade. That’s not the case with touchscreens.

But the proliferation of the devices will not. Apple seems to be doubling down on its touchscreen investments with a mouse and a trackpad that use touch technology to drive desktops. And we are destined to see more tablets this year from BlackBerry, HP, Dell, and more. By next year, we should expect that – like mobile phones – regular old websites will be getting tons of traffic and interaction from touchscreens. According to Gartner, within four years, 90 percent of computers sold will have touchscreens.

Preparing for the Touch Future

The most important development that touchscreens enable is simplicity. Whether it be in a website, an application, or an ad, there is a constant struggle between getting all of the information across and keeping things nice and simple. People want simplicity. Businesses want to tell everyone everything. The solution, of course, lies in the interface and an experienced design department to create buttons and sliders and other things that people can manipulate with their mouses.

Touchscreen technology gives us the chance to start pulling away from that and into a new level of design, simply by removing the tool (mouse) from the equation. Personally, I have always wanted to have display ads be more like magazine ads. I know – that is fairly sacrilegious to say. You can’t deny, though, that great magazine ads provide a compelling and arresting image that captures the consumer, and then provides more information and a call to action. All of those elements are on the same page at the same time.

I think we need to start exploring this approach as well within the design of interactive marketing materials. Right now, we can do that, but need all the buttons and menus around it. Now, the image (or the video or animation) can simply present itself and invite a touch, since touching is such a simple thing to do. We don’t need to try to figure out how to do it. Touching something interesting is a natural thing to do. Using a mouse isn’t.

Touchscreens, then, are really the most welcome of all technologies, in that they don’t make things more complex or force us to try to learn how to use them. Instead, they make something easier and more natural. Because of that, I don’t really think the initial spike in interactions and click-throughs is much of an aberration. I think it is a natural result of allowing people to finally feel close to the machine.

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