Tactile Design: New tools let you create user experiences for the sense of touch

Cross-posted from LinkedIn.

UX is a key differentiator for intrepid brands testing the boundaries of what is possible in the mobile form factor. Now that mobile devices are central to people’s lives, consumer expectations have quickly evolved. No longer tolerant of disruption or poorly designed apps and ads, they expect high-quality, immersive experiences. At the same time, the attention span of a mobile device user is shorter than that of a goldfish. This creates an immense challenge for brands who want a piece of that attention span. Never before has it been more important to engage mobile users in ways they’re not likely to forget.

In the fight for eyeballs and brain cycles, the impetus is on designers and developers to use technology as effectively as possible to get their messages across. Today’s sophisticated mobile users expect technology to treat them like people, and touch is an excellent, if underappreciated, way of doing that. The sense of touch and the technologies that engage it, called haptics, are underutilized in their capacity to trigger a different effect on the brain than visual and audio – one that’s more emotional, intimate, memorable, and human.

A turning point as haptic tech comes of age

Designers who are already familiar with the power of human touch know well that the sense of touch can elevate their work by delivering a new depth and excitement to their designs. For example, industrial designers invest significant time and effort into engineering the feel of products in order to convey the values that the product embodies. However, until only recently, the domain of tactile design was limited to a few dimensions such as material selection and the weight and shape of physical objects. As far as digitally synthesized touch was concerned, the pace of innovation was slow and there were limited options. The tools and techniques available to sculpt tactile sensations in expressive and creative ways were unfamiliar, and there was not a long history of best practices and training to draw from.

There are a few reasons that this was the case. As mobile devices increased their capabilities, people were seduced by the idea of mobile video, which prompted focused investment in the development of high-resolution screens. Battery life was a persistent and practical concern. The desire to document and share life’s moments drove unprecedented investment in camera technologies. The result was that haptics was rarely the focus of the design cycle of consumer devices. Haptic technology, invented back in the 1940s, tended to be bulky, complicated, expensive, and often inconsistent. Tactile design was rarely seen as an efficient way to engage people.

But that’s now changing.

New tools for today’s generation of haptic designers

Only recently has haptic technology matured to the point where tactile design can be programmed into software, just like the audio and visual elements of our devices. New advanced haptic features such as tactile video, smart notifications, and tangible user interfaces require high-quality haptic tech in order to work, not the buzzy, low-quality haptic motors from the past era. High-definition actuators, the components inside devices that move to create haptic effects like textures and patterns, are proliferating. The V30 handset from LGE is an early example of a device that has haptics carefully incorporated into its design language. The L16, from innovative camera company Light, uses high-resolution haptics to make its devices both more user friendly and provide a premium product feel.

Moreover, there are advanced tools now that let designers play, experiment, iterate, and refine, using interfaces similar to those for editing graphics, audio, and video. Designers and developers can quickly create a rich texture, encode it, synchronize it to video or interaction events, and render it on any haptic endpoint. These tactile design tools are flexible and integrate with creative software suites, audio editors, video editors, and many other platforms designers are familiar with. This opens up countless possibilities for the integration of haptics into media, advertising, and even AR.

This trend, of treating tactile experience as just another part of the consumer experience that should be controlled and designed in an intentional way, is industry-wide, and the demand for tactile design will soon be on par with industrial design, visual design, and audio design as another dimension of great products and content. The time has never before been more ideal for the most innovative designers and developers to consider touch technology as a critical new element in their design process.

As haptic designers, one of the most important challenges is understanding how touch fits together with other modalities to create convincing user experiences. There are many technologies and design elements that fall under the umbrella of tactile design, from forces and vibrations that help gamers become immersed in virtual worlds, to social touch features that let people feel more connected with each other, to tactile tracks that synchronize with video. A good creative tool is something that provides enough degrees of freedom, and also enough constraints, so that people can improvise and experiment in a “clean sandbox.” The latest generation of tactile design tools do this very thing.

Creating the future of UX with haptics

There is no doubt that haptic technology is the biggest evolution in human computer interaction since the GUI. Touch is the missing element from almost all our digital advances. Microprocessors, display, and graphics enjoyed an enormous amount of investment and mindshare. But haptics is one of the next technologies that will change everything. It has been a dark horse, but not for much longer, and when it is more broadly understood and used by designers and developers, it will place them in a small but powerful group of professionals who can think multi-modally when it comes to content and product design.

I’m calling on these early adopters to think creatively about using touch tech in their work, to learn these early-stage tools and technologies, incorporate them into projects, and most importantly, take the time to play and ideate with haptics for heightened memorability, stronger emotional response, and better design. Early adopters of this new tech are at an advantage, helping lead the development of mobile experiences that define the future.