3D Touch And The Promise Of A Living Surface

More than a channel or a new medium, mobile is a behavior. This now familiar adage is among the wisest I know. Understanding mobility as a new set of emerging, and unpredictable, modes of use and ritual is a way of framing and conceptualizing this channel that avoids a multitude of sins. Most importantly, it advises against mistaking mobile screens as mere extensions of the desktop that preceded it and forces forward the parameter of context, location, new use cases and habits.

Arguably, all mass media of the last 150 years gained their economic power only when the medium and their respective audiences changed in tandem to shape new rituals. Newspapers, film, radio, TV and the Web offered us such compelling, novel experiences that as a culture we did what is very hard and rare for cultures to do -- craft new shared habits. Prime time, seeded by radio in the 1930s and 40s, entrenched by the late 1950s, is the defining example, of course, of a new mass behavior forming around a marriage of technology and content. But weekend theatergoing, morning and evening newspaper-reading, drive-time radio -- all are other examples of mass media consumption rituals evolving with technologies.



But this phenomenon of changing behaviors is as rare as it is powerful. Many, many startups of the Internet era made the grave error of believing that people would change their everyday habits in order to enjoy some of the minor conveniences digitization offered. For every Google, Netflix and Uber (around which some people have modified their behaviors), there have been hundreds of failed and forgotten schemes that depended on all of us moving some aspect of our lives into the cloud or to remember to go to a specific site in a specific circumstance. If we have (re)learned anything from the digital revolution, it is that behaviors are hard to change. Generally the proposition needs to have a very high payoff in savings or convenience, and the process needs to be exceptionally simple to execute, close at hand and easy to remember.

All of this is preamble to exploring prospects for Apple’s introduction of 3D Touch in its latest generation of iPhones. I have been using the 6s Plus now for a couple of months with a special mission of leveraging 3D Touch and haptic feedback. Conceptually, I think 3D Touch has massive potential mainly because it adds a dimension of interactivity to the touchscreen interface, which devices sorely needed to match the functionality of the desktop. Although I resist this notion that mobile screens are mere extensions of the Desktop, the idea is true enough in some key ways. Our reliance on devices is contingent on their productivity, so anything that helps us extend the Desktop to devices (speed, larger screens, cross-device synchronization, e-commerce, multimedia, etc.) deepens their role in our lives and our use of them in the digital economy.

At its simplest, 3D Touch adds a right-click to the touchscreen and so surfaces additional functionality that does not require wasted clickthroughs and page loads. This shortcut function lets you make a post directly to social networks like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram directly from the app icon. For commercial apps like Amazon, users like me can directly drop into the item scan function, for instance. All of this is well and good. It streamlines the mobile experience.

But it is the peek and pop functionality that potentially has great power. A medium press on a headline link in email or on most mobile Web pages pops up a preview of the linked page, which a deeper press can pop into full view. This small move does a few cool things to the typical speed browse through a mobile feed. First, it adds an intermediary glance -- another level of attention to the media that is somewhere between light browsing and a commitment to the page.

This little move makes for a remarkably efficient way to absorb a lot of content all at once. Two things have to make the most of this new medium depth of browsing. Publishers need to format their content so that more detail is revealed in the pop-up screen. Right now a lot of links bring up a preview of a mobile page that is filled mainly with a splash image and an ad. At least one aggregation app, News360, pops up a news summary when you medium-press on a story. Having this medium payer allows the publisher to make the top layer (the news feed itself) a lighter, image-filled scroll, because more substance is lying just beneath the surface.

The other thing that needs to change is user habit. This is a tougher nut to crack. I often forget that I have 3D Touch available in email or on Instagram. Getting the media formatting and individual behavior to evolve in tandem is a steep climb. But ultimately, 3D Touch could and should lead to much richer and more efficient media experiences.

Even better, it makes the touchscreen feel more like a contextually responsive surface rather than a screen. This new dimension to the touchscreen could help further evolve the metaphor of the screen itself. With multiple levels of depth to the content and haptic feedback, the screen begins to feel like a live and responsive surface rather than a media delivery screen. This seems to me like it could be a big deal. This idea that information comes closer to the surface and toward the user, rather than something we “drill down” into plays into the larger evolving idea that devices are responsive, personalized, push mechanisms.

As 3D Touch becomes more contextually aware, then the menus, underlying content and function shortcuts can respond to current circumstances. Apps can anticipate what you need from them based on location, ambient circumstances, and your past behaviors. The device is less of a screen than a surface where the tools you most need come naturally to the top.


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