The touch screen is a radical change in the control of machines. For centuries, machines were operated by physical buttons. Perhaps the most important aspect of user experience for a physical device is the sense of touch. Because physical controls offer tactile feedback at all steps of the process, allowing the user to know when they are about to activate a function, when they are activating the function, and when they have finished activating it, a major cognitive load is removed from the conscious mind.

In layman's terms, you know when your finger is on the button. You know when your finger is pushing the button down. You know when the button is down all the way and the button's inherent function is activated. There's a sense of security in knowing that only with a conscious effort to depress a button or flip a switch, will a machine begin a function. The touch screen turns all of this on its head.

I can rest my fingers on a keyboard and know that the keyboard won't suddenly start typing letters. I can put my finger on the trigger of a gun and not worry that it will accidentally discharge. I can rest my foot on the gas pedal without wondering if the car will suddenly lurch forward into the sap in front of me. I cannot run my fingers across an iPad to feel for buttons.

In fact it's worse than simply not having the sense of touch to guide me to the right button. Because today's touch screens do not have pressure sensitivity, even the slightest contact between my finger and the screen could end up sending a dirty joke to my boss instead of my friend or dial someone's number at 3AM. And this is where the real issue lies. Is this combined lack of tactile feedback and hyper-sensitive control making me a nervous wreck?

We spend so much time holding and using our smartphones and tablet computers that they inevitably condition our behavior in the rest of our life. If I am spending hours a day constantly on edge gingerly making sure my fingers daintily dance across the finnicky screen lest I do something disastrous, is it subtly sapping my sense of physical assertiveness? Such a device won't let you hold it the way you'd hold an old school phone or a hammer or a Glock, all of which invite sturdy, assertive grips. I have to make sure the ball of my hand doesn't accidentally hit something. I have to twinklefinger all of the controls rather than mashing my fingers to the right buttons.

To put it another way, if you live in a creaky old building and you have to constantly tiptoe around the house to avoid disturbing roommates, that's absolutely going to have an effect on the way you comport yourself physically elsewhere. Where you may have once confidently strutted, you now tentatively mince around. And research absolutely bears out the fact that your body language affects your confidence and emotions (smiling makes you feel happy, standing in a space-occupying way boosts your confidence while curling up makes you feel weak). There's no way this isn't having a similar effect.

Is there research that vindicates this theory? I'd love to get some substantial statistics to counter what I see as a pernicious trend.

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    So when you want to select an icon on screen the ability to actually use your finger and touch that icon itself is less usable that having to hold a big soap-bar sized blob that is several feet away from the icon that moves a small arrow-sized item around on the screen and requires to to then press a piece of that soap-bar to register what you're interested in? – JonW Apr 2 '13 at 10:25
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    "I can put my finger on the trigger of a gun and not worry that it will accidentally discharge." I have to object to this example because it's endorsing something that you should never do. Putting your finger inside the trigger guard before you're ready to fire violates one of the most important rules of firearm safety. – Dan Is Fiddling By Firelight Apr 2 '13 at 15:02
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    If this had been posted yesterday I would have thought it was a joke. – aslum Apr 2 '13 at 15:41
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    Ah, yes, the edit shows the original post is merely a rant. Voting to close. – DA01 Apr 2 '13 at 16:02
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    @NicolasBarbulesco: Yes, I removed it intentionally in an attempt to salvage the question away from being an angry rant and into more of an answerable question. – JonW Apr 2 '13 at 16:03

The basic premise of the question lies in the fact that phones have changed (almost instantly) from the tactile monsters to touch beings and that brings about a drastic shift in how people interact with them and they suddenly require more attention (idea very nicely put in the question).

Phones used to be our usual machines with tactile feedback at the core of their functionality (in the form of keypads). Now does this have a psychological effect? I guess it does. People need to be more aware of what they are doing on their phones than they used to be (due to plethora of features these days and touch aspect) and consequently less focused towards other activities they are performing at the same time. They lose the benefit that a tactile feedback used to give them. They used to learn certain combination of key-presses and perform them almost unconsciously sometimes.

There was certain aspect of perfect, no-nonsense, confidence involved in those activities and they knew at all times what they were doing.

This is no longer so. They need to see the screen to know what they are actually doing, and the phone is suddenly taking 100% of their attention while they are working on it. The more they are into their phones, the less they are available for their surroundings. Can you imagine having a touch based brakes or accelerator in a car and what would that do to a driver's psyche even if both of those tools are directly in front of his eyes?

Human psyche is programmed to be inquisitive about tools, learn to handle those tools, expect some feedback from them, and almost do all that in a passive manner. We are not programmed to look into those tools all the while we are using them, rather look outside them and see what effect they are having. This is not to say that we cannot be programmed to be reliant on touch in the coming generations, we definitely could be but touch will have to prove to be as efficient, as unobtrusive, and as reliable a tool as were its tactile forefathers.

That is one of the primary reasons I think that even today, all the major platforms still have some kind of a one-stop tactile button (on the side or bottom or top) in their phones so that people know what they need to press & where they need to press when they really need to. That button is meant to give those people a (psychological) peace of mind.


There is little doubt that for most people a touch device has positive psychological effects. Watch a small child using a tablet vs a computer, or even better, watch an autistic person interact with a tablet. Watch their faces as it opens a new world to them, and you will be convinced.

Touch screens allow people to interact more naturally with devices as there is less of a separation between what you are seeing and what your interaction is. However there are some things that aren't as easy for advanced users to do on a touch screen than on a physical device. And that is pretty much anything for which tactile feedback is important.

It is likely that safety switches will remain as physical switches for a long time, as it is much harder to accidentally activate one. The same applies to keyboards where (for example) I type without looking at my keyboard, but I am slow and clumsy on a tablet screen keyboard as I have to look at it to see what I am typing.


Touch screens are really still at an early stage in the life and history of mobile devices, but touch (or haptic) feedback is at an even earlier stage of development (despite probably having been around for longer!), largely due to lack of funding, cost of prototyping and risk of non-widespread take up.

Rachel Hinman (currently at Nokia) is a thought leader in the world of mobile devices and natural user interfaces (NUIs), and she also mentions in her excellent book The Mobile Frontier that designers are much less proficient with touch/tactile feedback as a design language compared to say sight/sound as a design language.

There's certainly research going into haptics for mobile: Mobile hapticons - changing the surface of a smartphone to reflect emotions and, of course, in devices that do not even need touch at all like the Google Glass project - using voice as a NUI

We already have plenty of gestural input available and companies like Mitsubishi and Apple and others are researching detecting proximity of the digits without necessity for touch, to reintroduce hover to mobile devices, or interaction though other material layers, but again, it's still early days.

So there's no doubt that touch and tactile feedback is a desirable sensory input and that their introduction should help to improve interaction where it makes sense to do so.

But I don't think the current generation's interaction with flat glass is so frequent, long-lasting, or exclusive as to be conditioning or detrimental to human development and evolution (excepting the possibility of the rarest and most extreme of cases). Certainly I don't feel concerned having watched my own kids take to touch screens like ducks to water.

The larger question as to the effect of using mobile devices in a social environment and in preference to other tools, from a young age is however, quite a different matter, as outlined in an article in the New York Times a couple of days ago.


Starting with 'Direct Manipulation' a term coined in the 1980s by Shneiderman and then later redefined to be more appropriate for 'UX', states that DM's intention is to

Allow a user to directly manipulate objects presented to them, using actions that correspond at least loosely to the physical world.

This is made quite literal by the touch interfaces. You are touch the things you want to interact with, removing the cognitive overload of maneuvering peripherals like mouse and pointers and calibrating them. It is more natural, leading to the domain of NUI like Roger pointed out. I would not call the touch interface like tablets and phones NUI in the hardcore sense, but they are getting us a step closer.

John brought up an interesting point of autistic individuals using touch devices. I have spent quite some time with autistic individuals and can verify then interfaces like touch devices have the least amount of learning curve, again due to the implicit direct manipulation in the interaction.

I am not aware of any psychological implications/studies per se, but we can bring up the hardcore BB fanbase into consideration here. They are a group which prefer the hardware keyboard over the fancy touch keyboard, rendering it a question of choice rather than ability (on the other hand, people from the same group have migrated to touch devices and are happy too.)

And there is also the current movement going on for bringing haptic feedback to touch devices. The one pioneer whose work I like it Hiroshi Ishii from Media labs, he is the proponent of radical atoms movement. He is working on displays and interfaces which change in touch and feel, from soft and spongy to hard, etc. People will keep on working in different domains to keep exploring new modalities.

Touch tablets were first brought into academic circle by Mark Weiser and group at Xerox Parc in the 1989-1991, they introduced how we can use tablets and smart (phone) like devices. Going by that trajectory, you can imagine you will be using something radically different in the next 10 years :)


This psych effect is true, I have observed it… on me. I am reticent to having a touch screen phone, especially because my ear would touch it — the problems Apple had with its first iPhones prove me right. Sometimes, albeit rarely, my iPad clicks “on her own”. So now I am more careful — and more nervous — with my iPad. I hold it with keeping my fingers far from the screen…

This is without doubt a negative side-effect of the touch interface.

Touch user interfaces have to be designed specifically to counter this side-effect. This is the case of the iPad, to a certain extent. Touch user interfaces have to give more feedback, visual and audio, about the buttons and the actions. They have to respect even more the sacred rule of UI which says that any user action must be easily cancellable.

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    Individual people will have good and bad experiences, but I'd be wary of assuming that just because some individuals (yourself included) have issues thats means the same is true for a significant majority. Touch is a new technology in comparison with other interfaces, there will be teething problems, but that doesn't mean these issues are inherant in the whole premise. – JonW Apr 2 '13 at 15:50
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    "especially because my ear would touch it" = wut? – DA01 Apr 2 '13 at 15:56
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    @JonW — “A significant majority” ? ;-) – Nicolas Barbulesco Apr 2 '13 at 16:03
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    @NicolasBarbulesco I think the massive sales in touch devices would prove your assumption incorrect. – JohnGB Apr 2 '13 at 16:49
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    @John — That would not prove anything. There many products having negative psych effects and being sold successfully. Telephones, computers, drugs, alcohol… – Nicolas Barbulesco Apr 2 '13 at 20:14

I think it's indisputable that something is lost in eliminating tactile feedback completely; the market for tactile control surfaces for music-making and games testifies to this. When you use an on-screen keyboard or control pad, you're constantly expending a certain amount of cognitive effort to control the position of your hands, which would be reduced or eliminated by tactile feedback from physical controls. It's not unreasonable to assume that when you're making this effort, you can't engage quite as fluidly in the activity you're doing, and it may detract from how well you can perform that activity.

But then, if you want to perform a given activity at a virtuoso level, you can add the $20-$100 cost of the relevant peripheral to the cost of a tablet. There are lots of specialist peripherals designed with this in mind, and the reason those peripherals exist is because the iPad market is so big, which in turn is because it isn't specialised. It doesn't include any physical controls, but (unlike a notebook) it can do an entry-level impersonation of thousands of different physical controls, including ones that don't exist yet.

I do agree, though, that designers should be more mindful of the different physical reality of using a touchscreen. It's still extremely common to see apps with too-small controls, poor consideration of where the user's hands will be, and (on phones) design that requires two hands where one should suffice. An iPhone is still a physical object-- sometimes the problem is designers failing to understand that.


I was interested particularly on the effects on children and brain development. As you mentioned studies are hard to come by. Longitudinal studies take time and touch devices have only recently become commonly available.

The studies that have been done seem to vary in their responses. My understanding was overall research shows no significant benefit on children's development of using touch screen devices - and that they may take away time from other activities that have been shown to increase brain development.

Some potential benefits on development of touch/technology include:

  • Using technology to play learning games that can increase certain areas of cognitive development/learning.
  • Children grow up with familiarity with digital.
  • Can allow children to explore and develop their personality.

Some of the potential negative impacts include:

  • Taking time away from other tasks that have an positive developmental impact.
  • tactile touch/play/social interaction Effect on attention: Some games are created to encourage regular releases of dopamine, which could effect attention on tasks that do not have the same effect.
  • Effects on the perception focusing on a screen flat screen that has little tactile feedback.


  • "but those that played non-educational games had lower verbal test scores" Lower than who? Lower than those who played educ games? Lower than those who played no games at all? – Nicolas Barbulesco Feb 15 '16 at 16:27
  • Only evidence I can find in the article states: "compared to children who engaged in other types of touch screen device games." Although the exact definition of "other" isn't provided. – Sheff Feb 16 '16 at 12:13

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