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It seems to me that devices (such as navigation systems) that use a stylus for touchscreen interaction have become out of of favor. Instead most new devices are intended (i. e. larger buttons etc.) to use a finger (sometimes combined with multitouch) on the touchscreen.

I'd like to know the reason why the stylus became out of favor for this interaction. Is the reason that Apple designed the iPhone to be used by finger multitouch and anybody copied this design? Or is the reason that styluses tend to get lost (but it should not be a problem to buy some auxiliary styluses if you have such a tendency)? Is using fingers instead of stylus just a temporary fashion or is there some deeper reason behind why the stylus became out of favor?

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They haven't falling completely out of favor. I chose my current phone (Samsung Galaxy Note II) specifically because it has a stylus. A very well functioning one at that. Great for when I need to run remote desktop from my phone, or make a diagram of something. –  Grant May 2 at 1:10
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Nintendo devices are still stylus-driven as well...and given the popularity of styli for products like the iPad, I don't know that I'd agree they've gone out of style. –  DA01 May 2 at 6:14
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It's partly a resistive vs capacitive touchscreen issue: capacitive screen (which open up the possibility of multitouch) are better at locating the centre of where you touch than resistive, which require pressure. Making precision more important. Also the older resistive devices tended to do a lot on a small screen, meaning that buttons had to be small (or go through multiple levels of menus) if you wanted anything other than buttons on the screen. I actually liked the UI in PalmOS, it looks horribly cramped and dated but once you got used to it was quick to use. –  Chris H May 2 at 10:36
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While I don't think styluses have entirely fallen out of favour, or that finger input is always preferrable, why of all devices should navigation systems (used especially in very mobile and dynamic contexts, with limited possibility to unpack anything such as a stylus) rely on a stylus? –  O. R. Mapper May 2 at 11:13
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Galaxy Note and LG Optimus devices are immensely popular stylus devices. –  enthdegree May 2 at 23:03

11 Answers 11

up vote 15 down vote accepted

I would say Apple has to do with it, but they're certainly not the only reason.

Why use styluses in the first place?

Remember the good ol' PDAs?

An acer PDA with Windows Mobile

UI-Design:

You can instantly see why styluses were used with devices like these: You had no choice! How would somebody possibly touch the UI-elements on this screen with a finger? UI-Design was more dependant on lists as we know them from PCs, than on Grid-Views and nice huge tiles. The touch-interface that came closest to this was the Desktop of Windows XP touch versions, and those were just to heavy to use on a serious basis.

Blackberry did their own thing with a mini touchpad, which outlived the classic stylus by a huge mark, but even they go down eventually.

Palm did really nice in the UI-regard, they could have probably switched to sole finger interaction if it only depended on a good User Interface but still they had the same problem as everyone else:

Technology:

Capacitive touchscreens as we know them today were either really expensive, heavy or extremely inaccurate, adding to the inaccuracy of fingers over styluses. It just wasn't practical to build them into small mobile devices.

So we now know why styluses were used previously, and they really were a good choice for the time. But time moves on and so does touch input.

The fall of the stylus.

Impracticality:

As you said, a stylus was doomed to be lost. Replacements were of course not very expensive, given the passive nature of the stylus, but in the end it was always kind of a bummer and some people just resembled to stop using styluses at all, and tapped the screens with their fingernails.

Most users didn't even bother, they just went with regular feature phones. You don't have to learn anything new.

And this was not the only reason. The Stylus is kind of an oddity: It was needed to use your device, but it doesn't really belong to it. A touchpad is built in, using it is direct interaction with the device. Same for keys, they belong to your device. The stylus is a tool. And most users don't use tools, they want their devices to "just work". And even though the other methods are more direct, they still are not as direct as using your finger to touch the screen.

Rise of the iPhone:

And this is where Apple stepped their foot in the door and did exactly that. A device that just works and that closed the gap between the usability of a feature phone and the feature richness and connectivity of a PDA. Users loved it. Press loved it. Everyone loved its simplicity, something were PDAs were certainly NOT strong. They were feature packed machines for professionals, used by only those that really, really needed it. (And tech-nerds, of course.)

The iPhone was intuitive, and it was most importantly useable! It isn't hard to explain , and if you got the basic principle, it isn't hard to use, because the input is so direct and so optimized for your fingertips.

And then: nothing.

Suddenly, the PDA market broke down. Nobody bought those things with the sticks anymore, companies tried to copy the iPhone and its huge success, and the only one who stood strong was Blackberry, because they had mail backends that companies integrated into their systems for years.

In the end, it's the consumers "fault". They didn't demand any devices with styluses, they demanded more devices with one huge screen and not more than 7 buttons. And that's what they got: They voted with their wallets, and still do. Capacitive touch-pen replacements for people that wanted the Stylus back were made, and are useable.

TL;DR So why don't we get our mighty stylus back?

Short answer: Because nobody needs them anymore.

Long answer: you do. There are devices that still use the stylus, apart from graphic tablets, that have their place in the consumer market.

Dell Venue Pro 8

The Dell Venue Pro 8 or the Microsoft Surface Pro both use digitizers and active pens to allow for high precision.

And this is the keyword in my eyes: Precision.

We now have decent precision on our capacitive touchscreens, so we don't need the precise stylus anymore.

We now have UI designed for the use with fingers, so we don't need the precise stylus anymore.

If you need a precise stylus, there are some niche devices that got you covered.

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Yeah, we have UI designed for use with fingers. Read: we have exactly what the Windows PDAs were, but three times larger. Good job, technology. –  Lightness Races in Orbit May 2 at 12:32
    
@LightnessRacesinOrbit I wouldn't be so sure about that. The surface area of the tiles should be roughly the same, only the aspect ratio was changed. –  iFreilicht May 2 at 12:57
    
That's obviously false. The size of a tile on a Win8 tablet is quite blatantly a lot larger than a button on a WinMob5 PDA. –  Lightness Races in Orbit May 2 at 13:03
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Ah right. Yeah, see, smartphones are guilty of it too, though not as much as tablets of course. Win8 wastes so much screen space when you think about it, just so we can use "styluses" that are about 10 times less precise than the old metal/plastic ones. –  Lightness Races in Orbit May 2 at 13:30
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It is used for more than just precision also. Without a niche device, you can use paintbrush stylus to paint on apps like FreshPaint that you can get on Windows 8. In fact the app is also free and it works very well with a paint brush. The stylus is still around, but now it is meant to simplify some things, not necessarily used for precision. –  Francis Pelland May 2 at 17:07

Your question seems to suppose that styluses (at least as the primary method of input) were once in favour. I don't necessarily agree that that's true.

Styluses solve the problem of using an interface designed around precise targeting of elements (e.g. designed for use with a mouse) without requiring substantial changes to the interface itself. In this way, the same interface can be marketed for use in traditional mouse-and-keyboard scenarios and in mobile/touch-screen applications. This is the model that traditional Windows Tablet PCs applied:

Early Windows Tablet
Image taken from Wikipedia

This concept was only really useful for three things: taking handwritten notes, drawing and portability. Unfortunately for the concept, powering a large-screen mobile device meant having an equally large battery, and so the units were never particularly easy to hold or carry. Add to that a distinct lack of purpose-built third-party software for the form-factor and most users not necessarily needing or wanting to take notes by hand or draw on their computers and the experiment failed.

The real innovation of touchscreen devices designed for use with a finger is the overhaul of the UI to put that form of interaction first. Using a tablet PC for anything other than sketching or annotating always felt like a compromise and that you'd be more productive with a mouse and keyboard. Using an iPad with a mouse-and-keyboard (as in the iOS Simulator Apple makes available for developers) is a real chore: the interface is designed from the very beginning to be used with a finger.

Add to that the ability for users who do wish to use a stylus to be able to do so (albeit with fairly crude accuracy, at least for now), and there are few users who are better supported by a stylus-first design model.

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I don't agree with this at all. There was an entire generation of small form hardware - Palm devices, original Windows smartphones and others - that used a stylus effectively, without feeling like a compromise. –  Matt Thrower May 2 at 8:13
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@MattThrower Fair point. The common factor in those devices was the lack of a workable on-screen keyboard that could be operated by touch (without a fine targeting device like a stylus). Multitouch certainly helps keyboard performance on touch-screen devices, but processing power for intelligent predictive/corrective text input is no doubt a big factor too. Nevertheless, my point stands: people didn't prefer the stylus, they were just the only feasible option for input. –  Kit Grose May 2 at 8:20
    
Ah, I see. Thanks for clarifying your point, which I think I'd misunderstood. While I still think your examples could be better, it's a solid argument. –  Matt Thrower May 2 at 8:54
    
I don't agree with you. On resistive touchscreens, styluses work better because it is less convenient to use a finger to operate. See my answer. –  Alvin Wong May 2 at 13:39
    
@AlvinWong you're not wrong; resistive touch screens are easier to use with styluses than fingers (at least for operations that require dragging), but that doesn't mean styluses were ever in favour. They were always used to overcome technical restrictions that made using a finger impractical. Capacitive screens were chosen (in small screen devices) at least in part because they didn't require a stylus for complex operations, because styluses were never seen as the ideal input device. –  Kit Grose May 3 at 3:02

To really answer your question, we need to consider why people need a stylus in the first place.

1. Stylus for resistive touchscreens (past -> present)

You can't operate a resistive touchscreen with your finger, at least not like a capacity touchscreen. Resistive touchscreens pretty much need hard objects in order to work correctly, which means your fingernail or a stylus. It won't work nicely with the flesh on your finger tip.

If you can use your fingernail, why use a stylus? Because tapping and dragging with fingernails aren't nice things to do, especially if one has recently clipped his/her fingernail.

Therefore, devices with resistive touchscreens pretty much all comes with a stylus for your convenience. Even the recent Nintendo 3DSLL and Wii U gamepad still comes with a stylus.

2. Stylus for capacitive touchscreens...? (present)

IIRC, stylus for capacitive touchscreens didn't even exist when capacitive touchscreens first came out [citation needed]. Most current styluses are not more accurate than finger tips, which makes them mostly redundant. Also because of this, the UI design has become adapted to using finger tips, so the need for high precision has greatly reduced. Also, styluses for capacitive touchscreens have special designs, which means more expensive than those for resistive touchscreens, which is simply a piece of plastic.

3. Stylus for drawing pads

Accuracy. Pretty much every drawing pad needs a stylus. Some even has pressure sensors to control the line thickness. So there's really nothing to say here.

4. Stylus on current smartphones?

Do note that some current smartphones or tablet devices also provide a stylus. However, the stylus uses a different technology than the touchscreen itself. The touchscreen is still capacitive, which makes it the same as #2. On the other hand, the stylus uses a technology similar to that on drawing pads. The use of stylus is usually for taking hand notes or drawing, which requires high precision.

The need of extra hardware to enable high-precision styluses means extra money, therefore, smartphones and tablet devices with this kind of styluses are usually more expensive than those without.

Conclusion

From the UX point of view, the stylus was there because it makes it easier to use (dragging with stylus instead of fingernail). The stylus is abandoned in the mainstream market since it means extra cost, and there isn't really a need on modern devices with capacitive touchscreens anymore.

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It's much faster and easier to use a finger than to have to pull out a stylus every time because not only do you have to pull the stylus out, you then have to use two hands to interact with the device if you're moving or don't have a surface to place your device on.

Hands on the other hand (pun intended) let you operate your device with 1 hand (hold in hand, use thumb to interact) and you can hold it in two hands and use two thumbs for typing. A stylus very little versatility and user control in that regard.

Also multi touch functions such as resizing a picture or the screen with two fingers would be very hard to design for a stylus.

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Even if all other factors were equal, a stylus has two distinct disadvantages:

  1. The stylus must be stored somewhere (typically in a slot in the device), making the device slightly larger and heavier than it would be without a stylus.

  2. The stylus is easy to lose (it can fall out of the storage slot if the slot gets loose over time, the user can drop it, etc). Users don't like the inconvenience of being unable to use the device when the stylus gets lost or the or the expense of replacing it periodically. Sometimes this is worked-around with an ugly, motion-limiting tether (such as on signature pads).

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Put simply, I think stylus' extinction was due to the creation of the iPhone. Steve Jobs believed that the human finger is the ideal tool for manipulating a touchscreen device. With the immense popularity that the iPhone had generated, many other manufacturers decided to follow along with the same concept. Therefore, this chain reaction eventually led to the end of the stylus.

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You've pointed it out in your question, that the stylus isn't as capable as fingers. Multi touch is one great benefit of using your finger and chances are you won't be able to lose your fingers either!

The stylus though isn't dead. It has now evolved and is used for more precision. In fact I tend to use one on a daily basis to write my notes. It may just be Microsoft that is bringing them back through Windows 8, but I find it incredibly useful in software like OneNote. There are some devices, like the Surface 2 Pro that have a stylus included.

Another application where they are useful is for artists. Currently they are using a USB hooked up tablet to draw. These days with improved touch displays, you see the artists with various types of stylus drawing on their display. You can buy anything from thin pens to paint brushes that all work as you'd expect them to in these art software.

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Yes, I actually really like the stylus on the surface pro. It's not just a mouse pointer, it detects how hard you are pressing too. Very nice if you have any kind of graphics package installed, as you can sketch directly onto the tablet. –  Franchesca May 2 at 7:32

This puzzles me as well. I personally love styluses, and I always have a Wacom attached to any computer I use.

I think styluses failed to replace mice for desktop computing because the best stylus-on-screen devices (Wacom's) are simply too expensive for the average user. Wacom's cheapest (smallest) screen with pen input is around $1000. The large ones go for over $2000. I don't know of any other brands that sell pen-on-screen devices. So it seems most computer users won't go that far out of their way for pen input. Using pen input as a peripheral (not on screen) is challenging to get used to, but not so bad once you get used to it (but there is a definite learning curve).

Touchscreens are coming in at a much cheaper price point -- and from many different manufacturers. It's intuitive and easy to get used to. Adding Touch to your screen costs only $100-$200 more, so I suppose people are more likely to use it.

So my personal opinion is that it is a price point issue.

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Touchscreen devices were always an interesting concept, but fell short when it came to accuracy without a stylus.

When the iPhone emerged with its capacitive touchscreen, doubters instantly recognised its lack of stylus.

However, capacitive technology opened the door to using multiple fingers, allowing the user to zoom, which in turn solved the problem of inaccuracy.

Before long, styluses were seen as dated tech and only recently are making a slight comeback. Samsung's Galaxy range (namely the Note and Tab) support a specially-designed stylus that works very well on their capacitive touchscreens, and even supports hovering - a concept that many assumed would stay exclusive to mouse input.

But since the vast majority of apps are designed for finger input, most users would find styluses gimmicky, redundant and possibly even geeky!

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Using a stylus hurts

An aspect that has not been addressed is that the aging population using smartphones are increasingly unable to hold a stylus due to repetitive strain injury (RSI). This usually begins with carpal tunnel syndrome and may progress to peripheral neuropathy.

With peripheral neuropathy, holding any object for more than a few seconds produces numbness(i.e. loss of surface tactile sensation) in the fingertips that quickly spreads to the hand, wrist, and on up the arm. As each new muscle group goes numb, the prior group starts feeling deep pressure that progresses to pain. Over the years, the condition may worsen to impair motor function as well. Releasing the object or any movement that relaxes the muscles, stops the pain and restores normal function.

Having fought with this for many years, one of the most interesting aspects I've found is that pressing buttons does not bring on the symptoms. Similarly, light pressure on a touch screen is symptom-free unless the wrist or arm is under pressure. However, attempting to use a stylus becomes painful in seconds.

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Doesn't the RSI problem also exist with using a mouse mice? Or is this kind of problem stronger when using a stylus than when using a mouse? –  Nubok May 3 at 23:03
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I've found a trackball to be the most comfortable. The mouse is worse than a keyboard but I don't know about mouse vs. stylus. A big factor seems to be how the weight of the arm is supported, usually by the wrist resting on something. I've used trackballs with gel wrist-rests for years. The kind with the ball under the thumb is most comforatable for me but they are getting harder to find. –  DocSalvage May 5 at 10:57

You might be interested in some of the Kickstarter projects (search digital pen or stylus) or even the upcoming Adobe offering: http://xd.adobe.com/mighty/notify.html

I would argue that there are certainly cases where there are differences between finger and interaction, but there are many aspects to why this is the case:

  1. Interface design - if the interface is designed for precision rather than affordance for the fingers, then you'll probably find it less frustrating to use the stylus. But I would argue that it is the interface rather than the stylus that determines the usability.
  2. Device design - since we can't redesign the hand (i.e. evolve it quickly enough), the onus is on a better design for the stylus. I think a bit more love and care from UX or industrial designers will lead to a much better user experience for the stylus in the future.
  3. Physical limitations and economic constraints - I think the proliferation of devices with various technologies and dimensions is making the design of a stylus that will cater for every type of user almost practically impossible. Users probably shouldn't expect too much until they can control their expectations a little bit better.
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