Commentary

Scratching The Surface of Touch

The touch interface is turning out to be a more critical turning point for mobile platforms and for media in general than I think many of us supposed. The tablet platforms are really bringing home an insight that we gleaned from the iPhone/Android interface, but I think become more apparent and important when writ large (literally). Touch appears to be one reason behind the high engagement levels publishers are reporting from their mobile media.

Chris Wilkins, vice president of digital aditions and audience Development at Hearst Magazines Digital Media told me the other day that across their mobile and iPad apps they are seeing an hour or more of engagement on average, compared to ten to fifteen minutes a month on the magazines' Web sites.

Clearly, there are design attributes at work in this disparity, and the use cases are different. But the deeper involvement that touch brings to media probably seems apparent to anyone who peruses content on an iPad. The research remains to be done on this, but the tactile interaction with media has some effect on our level of focus and involvement, I am sure.

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The simple process of picture browsing is downright addictive on touch interfaces. For instance, the daily galleries in the news and lifestyle sections of the excellent USAToday iPad app have become evening rituals for me. The New York Post wisely created an app dedicated to images only in its Pix app for iPad. On the Web, I find Time, Inc's revival of the Life brand at Life.com a bit cluttered and tedious to use. It is not on my round of daily browses. But on the iPhone, the images are nicely triaged and compact. The brand gets me on the iPhone but not on the Web.

Aside from page and image flipping, the use of touch in editorial has been scant. The magazines have been trying. Wired includes in each issue animations that you can move backward and forward by dragging your finger inside the frame. The idea is solid, but the execution is still awkward. The animations tend to advance too quickly. Still, it is a start in the right direction.

A number of magazine apps are making an otherwise static page dynamic by letting the user poke at an editorial element to bring up a richer description or change the view of a window. Again, these are good innovations but the implementation is different across publishers.

As the magazine apps evolve from issue to issue, publishers are starting to differentiate the properties from print more visually, with on-screen cues that invite touch interaction. The latest issues of Wired and Sports Illustrated, for instance have more visible icons to indicate opportunities for interaction. As the content providers get more accustomed to the smart phone and tablet interfaces, I hope we will see these brands morph away from the digitized paper mindset and toward something new and more interactive/tactile.

Too many publishers have been too intent on replicating their print models in apps (especially on the iPad) to appreciate that at least one Web element should port well to touch interfaces: games. When it comes to touch, gaming is at the leading edge of understanding the different ways in which tapping, dragging, and swiping access our engagement on different levels. The magnificent "Angry Birds" franchise is a great example. The simple act of pulling back on the slingshot that launches your pissed off bird activates a user's sense of physical engagement more effectively I think than the same maneuver made with a mouse on a desktop. There is an opportunity here for publishers to engage (or play with) a user's sense of physics.

Another issue is placement. I am a bit puzzled that publishers aren't leveraging the touch interface in order to allow for more personalization through arrangement. Touch interfaces are just begging for drag-and-drop personalization. And why aren't there simple bucket icons on pages that let me save an article or an image simply by dragging and dropping? Changing the visual landscape is a compelling activity. A wonderful new iPhone game, "Helsing's Fire," illustrates this principle. You drag a light source around the playing field to illuminate and blast a collection of rats. The entire visual plane is transformed as you drag a fingertip across the screen.

This level of basic physical involvement with the digital scene is uniquely absorbing. Developers should also be looking to the Nintendo DS for some tactile design inspiration as well. The Zelda series uses connect-the-dots motifs and object manipulation challenges that involve the player on a whole new level. Touch interface can pull the user into creating causes that have entertaining effects.

Touch interfaces are a kind of 3D for digital content. They add a physical dimension to the media experience and activate the user/viewer/participant's senses on a different plane. My hope is that it gets publishers and marketers to think anew about how to touch the user in new and better ways.

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