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Let's say you are navigating through an image carousel and you're on a touch device.

Which navigation method do you prefer: prev/next buttons or swipe-left/right gesture?

I'm trying to convince my boss that in such cases a touch-detection library may not be necessary and navigation buttons require just a finger tap, but he insists that "a user wants to swipe."

  • Is it safe to assume by "touch device" you're referring to a modern smartphone or tablet (as opposed to a touch-screen kiosk)? – Kit Grose Jul 4 '14 at 7:58
  • Yes, I'm referring to a typical smartphone or tablet. – user852690 Jul 4 '14 at 11:39
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An important factor to consider is the audience of the application (or website). It seems that typically, many younger audiences (or those familiar with touch devices) are used to swiping across carousels. If you look core applications of iOS (and I'm assuming Android as well), you'll find that carousels support swiping to switch to the next image. However, older audiences might be more accustomed to click events which hearken back to a very mouse oriented approach of user experiences.

If you're considering programming for touch, I would think it would be a good idea to at least support swiping (I would offer both methods so you hit both the desktop base as well as the touch/tablet). Consider what the hand is already doing on a mobile device while navigating a page. The user is already used to swiping up or down to view content vertically, that is quite ingrained into everything we do. Now we have a situation where we have content "scrolling" horizontally. Typically, a natural response would be to swipe the content across the screen, just as if you had multiple pages of paper on your desk, and you wanted to slide one across the desk.

This brings up a topic of User Interface design that is making a lot of headway in my opinion. We are seeing devices try to work like how we work with real objects. Again, think about scrolling on a tablet, you touch a part of the page and drag up (which would push content up, just like you would push paper upwards). Apple has moved in this direction with their laptops as well with something called Natural Scrolling (it took a bit of getting used to, but it makes sense if you think about it).

So, to sum up. If you're asking which I prefer, I would prefer the swipe capability, but both options should be present. Depending on which library you're going to use and how careful you are on storage space, touch detection shouldn't add a huge difference in application performance. And having both features present (both click and swipe) would reach to a broader audience and satisfy both sides.

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  • Why is it typical for "younger" audiences to understand that they can use a swipe gesture? You are perpetuating the myth that age = technical usage/understanding. May want to check this out: nngroup.com/articles/college-students-on-the-web – erik_lev Jul 7 '14 at 4:39
  • Read the article, but I find that it doesn't go against what I have posted. It's probably safe to say that there are more young people (younger than 28) who use new technology (such as iPads or Galaxy Tabs) than older. So generally, the younger generation is more familiar with new user interfaces (such as swiping and carousels). As the article said, users skip over cumbersome actions. To someone who is generally familiar with swiping, finding and clicking a small button is more difficult than a simple swipe. This doesn't perpetuate any myth, but points out a general observation on UX use. – Andrew Jul 7 '14 at 14:16
  • You know that the largest tablet demographic skews older, right? marketingcharts.com/wp/online/… – erik_lev Jul 7 '14 at 16:28
  • Also, it is dangerous to assume that a younger generation is more familiar with new user interfaces. Just as the previous article stated, younger users (i.e., college aged) are frustrated when faced with new design patterns. – erik_lev Jul 7 '14 at 16:35
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    However, this debate is a tangent off the original intent of the post. If you would like to post a question to debate the use of touch interfaces and the age demographic of those users, that would be appropriate. The original intent of this answer was to state that with the varying experiences of UI, it would be a wise decision to include both types of scrolling patterns to reach a broader audience. – Andrew Jul 7 '14 at 16:45
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There's a lot to be said for the swipe idiom over buttons. It might seem like the physical action of a tap is quicker and easier than a swipe, but that assumption ignores Fitts's Law, or its touchscreen equivalent: the smaller a target is, the longer it will take for the user to hit it. You can do a swipe without looking, but to hit a button you have to mentally and physically position your finger, and this takes time and interrupts the flow of concentration.

Swiping is also a much richer interaction. The user can discover it by accident, and if they start a swipe without meaning to they can easily cancel it by reversing the action. Typically they can also "peek" at the next and previous items, even while looking at the current item. And of course, it uses no screen real estate at all.

However, if your users can't be relied on to know about swiping, you have to provide an alternative-- if even 1% of your users can't use the app at all, that's a failure.

Swiping might also cause accessibility problems. The action takes less motor control to perform, but also requires larger hand movements-- I wouldn't want to give detailed advice on this.

If you are aiming for a demographically broad audience, the latter two points suggest including both techniques, as Andrew suggests. But if you can justify it, I'd say go with swiping alone; it's a more elegant solution and you can use 100% of the view for content.

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  • If the action is always on the same position - as it is for the carousel - Fit's Law only applies for the first action. – Gustav Jul 4 '14 at 9:16

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