I am neither an industry analyst nor a developer. Yet I feel confident in saying that with the 3D touch, Apple has launched one of its biggest innovations in the post-Jobs era.
While the most common reaction to the September 9th event in which Apple announced the iPhone 6S and the 6S+ was one of disappointment, there was a set of very smart and influential people who felt very differently. Developers, in particular, reported feeling giddy with excitement about the 3D touch. Georg Petschnigg, CEO of FiftyThree (the founder of the popular ‘Paper’ App) reports ‘having his head in the clouds’, as did the makers of the award-winning game Mindvalley.
So why was the reaction of the general public muted?
Because, practically speaking, the changes seem to be ‘nice’ rather than revolutionary.
Peek and Pop are handy features. Also, it’s awesome that you can finally copy the text on your phone without aching for a good-old mouse, find out the meaning of a word without having to first hold it and then click ‘Definition’. Live Photos are definitely cute
But consumer expectations from the next iPhone are always so high that ‘nice’ just doesn’t cut it.
Why the 3D really matters:
Let’s look explore the different ways a user can interact with his smartphone touchscreen. For the purpose of this post, I shall refer to them as dimensions
Dimensions for User Interaction in Touch-Screens
Similar to how the number of dimensions in the physical world constraints our motion, the number of dimensions in the touch screen constraints our interaction with it.
The first touch-screens could be considered one-dimensional because there was only one input the device understood- the location of your touch. The earliest screens could only sense a single point of contact on the surface.
Multi-touch Technology is an integral part of the smartphone as we use it today, and it exponentially improved the ease and efficiency of the interaction a user can have with their smartphone. Let’s call this the 2nd Dimension (The order in which the dimensions have been named is of no significance, so don’t read any meaning into that!)
The third dimension was the duration of your touch, best exemplified by Android’s (and Apple’s) Long-touch.
However, it’s impact was not as revolutionary as multi-touch, because there were fundamental limits to this. You couldn’t, for instance, ask the users to press for any longer than 2–3 seconds, and that meant there were only two (or at the most three) segments of actions you could create with this.
For a long time, mobile computing has improved the experience within these three dimensions. We’ve spent the past decade familiarizing gestures, so that pinch to zoom, swipe to unlock and swipe right became ‘intuitive’. There were landmark applications such as Flipboard, Monument Valley and Tinder that pushed the boundaries of UI/UX.
And now, we have the fourth dimension- Force.
And this opens a whole new number of ways for a user to interact with his or her smartphone screen.
Wait, why has so little changed then?
Apple wants it that way. And for good reason.
Firstly, the 3D touch has only been introduced on the iPhone 6S and 6S+. To take care of users on other, non-3D touch-enabled devices, both Apple and Developers need to make sure that no action can be completed using just the 3D touch feature. This fundamentally limits what developers can do with the 3D touch.
Secondly, the 3D touch will take some getting used too, just like with previous gestures that we now call ‘intuitive’. Perhaps even more in this case, because force is less easily quantifiable than time and certainly less than location. (However, it can be more easily ‘segmented’ than time).
In its own applications, Apple has limited the segments to three- peek, pop and normal touch, and curtailed what developers can do with peek and pop.
That seems to be a smart strategy to get the population used to the nuances of force and pressure while developers experiment with how to create truly transformative ‘3-D’ experiences on a smartphone.
Here’s an article detailing the current uses of 3D Touch.
The matrix below created by Rian Van Der Merwe is a useful way of looking at the different ways 3D touch can operate
Rian defines shortcut actions as actions that use 3D Touch as a method to let users skip a few steps, or avoid unnecessary steps in a process, whereas Dynamic Actions are more nuanced actions that rely on the amount of pressure applied to signal a variety of actions.
I think the matrix is an excellent way of thinking about 3D touch. However, the main difference I see between shortcut actions and dynamic actions is that shortcut actions simplify the actions that users are already completing (in most cases, completing multiple times) while using your application. These actions are already a part of the core UI/UX of your app, and it’s a method of simplification and an improvement in this existing process itself.
Dynamic Actions, on the other hand, are actions that a user was either completing only rarely or not completing at all. This could because of the overly complicated nature of these actions, or the fact that the functionality for these actions did not exist at all.
Let’s take a look at Canva- one of my favorite products, which despite all its brilliance, has been not able to remove my dependence on my designer. One of its major limitations (for me personally, this might not exist for you!) is the inability to really play with the colors of a template.
Canva rightly does not use the color wheel- it’s intimidating and useless to amateur designers such as me. But what if their mobile application allows a user to play with the different shades/tints of color by using 3D Touch? This would be fairly intuitive- the harder you press, the darker the shade.
The limitation in this would be the human inability to quantify force the same way we can quantify time. A user can never be expected to press with a force of 2 N to produce a specific action. It might have to be along a spectrum- the user increases pressure on his touch, leading to the shade getting progressively darker. Reducing the pressure to get a lighter tint does not seem as intuitive an action, so that’s another limitation.
There is now an opportunity for developers to allow users to engage with their applications in deeper and better ways than before. It would be difficult at this point to identify the sweet point where 3D touch technology would meet intuitiveness, functionality, and habit, but certain applications, particularly in Gaming and Music have been quick to add this extra layer of functionality.
So here’s to another upcoming transformation in mobile computing. Let’s see where this one takes us!