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I am wondering if there has been any studies on the usability of trackpads in laptop computers because they have always seem rather awkward to use yet have become standard with laptops. It doesn't mimic the mechanics of using a mouse because the physical placement of the hand is different when using the trackpad. Why has it been designed this way and is there any ergonomic assessment to suggest it has actually been designed for ease-of-use?

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    To note that there are good trackpads and bad trackpads. – PhillipW Apr 22 '17 at 12:53
  • @PhillipW can you provide some examples? I have found them difficult to use and hence the question. I figured that there must be some design rationale behind them. – Michael Lai Apr 23 '17 at 2:28
  • I am just reflecting my own experiences of different trackpads. I use expensive Lenovo Thinkpads and have never had an issue with their trackpads. However cheaper laptops seem to have poorer quality trackpads which are harder to use. – PhillipW Apr 23 '17 at 6:04
  • @PhillipW I guess there's a lot of personal preference involved. I had a ThinkPad for over a year and loathed it's trackpad. My recent HP purchase has restored my love for them. It's larger, more responsive, more functional and most importantly, is positioned better so I don't interact with it accidentally while typing – Darren H Apr 23 '17 at 9:03
  • @MichaelLai From my limited personal experience, trackpads in Sony VAIO laptops have been very good (VAIO X11 and an earlier model that I can't remember). As well as simple "pointing", they were both excellent at registering left-button-drags, and double-clicks. They were also the only trackpads I've used where you could properly them to scroll: dragging up/down a narrow, vertical strip on the right-hand edge would act like a mouse's scroll wheel (I've seen others try to do this, but only the Sony worked so well that I never missed a mouse). – TripeHound Apr 26 '17 at 13:04
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A touchpad is indeed more awkward to use than a mouse:

MacKenzie IS, Kauppinen T, & Silferberg M, 2001. Accuracy measures for evaluating computer pointing devices. Proceedings of CHI, 3(1), 9-16.

…and MacKenzie et al. used a large-sized touchpad. The dinky ones on most (non-Apple) laptops are even worse. I know it pains me to watch a user shift between the back button and the scrollbar in a browser, a common move that takes multiple swipes at the touchpad each time. Personally, I use a small wireless mouse whenever I can.

So why have touchpads on laptops? Because sometimes you can't use a mouse. When literally on top of your lap, you can’t rely on there being a flat surface for a mouse. If no mouse, what else is there? A track ball is no better than a touchpad. A joystick is worse (ibid), and so is the trackpoint “eraser head” semi-isometric joystick seen on some older IBMs.

Sutter C, & Ziefle M, 2006. Psychomotor performance of input device users and optimized cursor control. Proceedings of the HFES 50th Annual Meeting, 742-746.

I suspect it was studies like Sutter & Ziefle that led to the extinction of the trackpoint, which was about the only serious competitor to the touchpad.

Touchscreen is certainly an alternative to a touchpad, as its performance rivals the mouse:

Forlines C, Wigdor D, Shen C, & Blakrishnan, R, 2007. Direct-touch vs. mouse input for tabletop displays. Proceedings of CHI, Mobile Interaction Techniques I, 647-656.

...but only for UI elements sized to deal with a fat finger, not necessarily for “classic” GUIs with small elements intended for mouse use. So, it’s probably good to have the touchpad as a backup to the touchscreen, although this burdens the user on deciding when to use one versus the other, and make the switch between them.

One advantage of the touchpad (and touchscreen) over the mouse is the support of gestures. There’s pinching, of course; how about a circular motion for scrolling? It may be better than the right margin swipe on some laptops:

Arthur K, Matic N, & Ausbeck P, 2008. Evaluating touch gestures for scrolling on notebook computers. Proceedings of CHI.

However, a mouse can make up for gestures by having auxiliary controls (e.g., the scroll wheel).

I don't know what you can do to make touchpads more usable. A larger pad helps, I suppose, maybe making them large enough to be like using an invisible mouse. However, there seems to be something about the tactile feedback of pushing a physical object like a mouse. With a large touchpad, maybe you could electromagnetically vary the surface of the pad to represent the windows and controls on screen, so users can literally feel window edges and buttons. That might make up for its deficits to the mouse (although you could do the same with a mouse by putting small height-varying "feet" on its bottom).

As an alternative to the touchpad, maybe we should be thinking about how to make a mouse work with a laptop on top of the lap. Maybe you can make a laptop with a slide-out mouse pad that's rigid enough for practical use. Might be worth it at least for the larger laptops.

Providing tactile feedback might help with tapping the touchpad to select:

MacKenzie IS, & Oniszczak A, 1998. A comparison of three selection techniques for touchpads. Proceedings of CHI, 336-343.

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The one bit of, in my view, poor UX is having 'tap' turned on by default.

Its the first thing I turn off on a new machine, and it requires that a user knows that it can be turned off, and where to go looking for the control to do it.

  • "[tap is] the first thing I turn off on a new machine" - why? I love it. I miss two-finger tap to right-click from my old toaster. – John Dvorak Apr 25 '17 at 12:06

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