How the  Watch Should Copy Restroom Faucets.

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By Josh Adams

Picture this: you’re about to wash your hands in a public restroom. You approach the sink briskly, eager to escape to the outside world. Then you notice the faucet. It lacks handles, knobs, or buttons. Nor is there the rare foot pedal beneath the sink. What do you do next?

If you’re like most of us, the lack of visible controls tells you that the faucet is touchless. An infrared sensor turns it on and off. You mutter a prayer to find the sweet spot where the faucet will turn on as you thrust your hands down into sink.

Your hands purified and dripping water, you turn to the hand towel dispenser. There is no paper towel protruding from it to grasp. There is no crank or button. You realize that this device is also touchless.

In a hurry, you wave your hands through the air below the dispenser. Today fortune smiles on you. Your ceremony induces the paper towel gods to reward the sacrifice of your dignity.

Now, ask yourself a question. Would you have even tried hand waving if the faucet also had knobs and the towel dispenser also had a crank? Of course not. It was the utter lack of affordances in both cases that suggested touchless use.

An affordance is when an object’s appearance suggests its intended use. The shape of a knob on a faucet invites a human hand to twist it. A paper towel dispenser with a crank begs you to rotate it.

A hypothetical hybrid faucet with knobs and a sensor would be a user experience failure. Sure, some restroom fixtures have visible sensors. But even the most ardent germaphobe won’t look past the obvious knobs to notice the sensors. That’s the power of affordances.

Thus a typical restroom fixture doesn’t have some controls with affordances and some without. The controls without affordances would not be noticed. Unfortunately the  Watch is like that imaginary hybrid faucet.

The  Watch has a physical side button that users know they can press. It has the Digital Crown which users know they can spin or press. The Watch screen displays virtual buttons and icons that users know to tap. The problem is the Force Touch gesture.

Force Touch on the  Watch is remarkable. A hard press performed anywhere on the screen brings up context-specific options. Apple has masterfully integrated the gesture with haptic feedback that makes it delightful.

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Here’s the Force Touch screen for an individual email in the Mail app.

Yet there is no visual cue that a certain screen will respond to a Force Touch. There are many other physical and virtual controls on the Watch with clear affordances. This relegates Force Touch to a last resort–if it isn’t forgotten altogether.

After the user has failed to perform a task with the obvious controls they may remember to try Force Touch. Sophisticated users might even have a procedure of trying Force Touch on every screen. There is a “flex and bounce back” animation shown when a screen that doesn’t support it is Force Touched.

Worse still is inconsistent app support for Force Touch. Some apps have no Force Touch support at all. Other apps, like Mail, support Force Touch for a non-obvious subset of screens.

I am always discovering Force Touch functionality that I didn’t know about. And I am an advanced user. I didn’t know that Force Touching a text snippet in Messages would let you choose other languages. I also found that Force Touching the 3D emoji in Messages would change their color.

A Force Touch Icon?

How can a screen show that it handles Force Touch? The easy thing would be showing another colored dot at the top of the screen like the red notifications dot. Or adding an icon that represents Force Touch like the “can’t connect to iPhone” icon that exists now.

The problem is lack of screen real estate. App names, headers, and navigational buttons are already at the top of the Watch screen. There just isn’t any extra room. The afore-mentioned “can’t connect to iPhone icon ” is already too small to distinguish. A good solution needs to not further clutter the tiny screen or cause eye strain.

Tiny Red "Cant Conmect to iPhone icon
The “Can’t connect to iPhone” icon is too small.

Force Touch Dissected

Before I pitch my solution, I must first describe how the user experiences Force Touch.

Executing a Force Touch creates a well-choreographed illusion. It looks like the screen moves down from the display surface and gets covered by a new layer of content. The user pushes hard on the Watch display. The screen content gets smaller as its edges animate inward from the display’s edges. It seems to be moving downward and away from the surface of the Watch display.

Next, the Force Touch buttons come in from the edges of the Watch display and move toward the center. They cover the original screen. The Force Touch screen has transparency so that a blurry hint of the previous screen can seep through. This adds to the user’s perception that the original screen is just beneath the Force Touch view.

Haptic feedback enhances the effect. It makes it feel like your finger pushed the screen content down from the display surface. This vibration affects the wrist and the finger.

Transitional Animation With Haptic Feedback

Here’s how I think Force Touch discoverability can improve.

A screen tells the user that it responds to Force Touch when it first appears. It does this by animating toward the apparent surface of the Watch display from a distance to remind the user that it can move along the z-axis. Simultaneous haptic vibration makes it echo the user’s experience of performing a Force Touch.

The screen animation would look like a partial Force Touch animation in reverse. The haptic vibration would likely be identical to that of a Force Touch.

Here’s a standard app launch. Contrast that with this:

Keep in mind that there would also be accompanying haptic feedback to make the user recall Force Touch.

This whole process needs to be snappy or it will annoy users. It must also be precisely executed to summon the user’s memory of the Force Touch illusion. It will be easy to get wrong. Anything less than a perfect implementation would strip the meaning for the user. But I believe Apple’s deep talent can pull it off.

This sort of cue won’t solve Force Touch discoverability for everyone. If the user doesn’t know what a Force Touch is, or has never seen it, then it will be useless.

Objections

Here are some typical objections to my proposal.

Force Touch is like a right click on a computer. Right-clicking is a convention that doesn’t need visual cues.

The problem is that Force Touch isn’t exactly like the context menu from a right mouse click. On a Mac or PC a right click doesn’t have any on-screen visual indicator. But a right-click is almost always one of several ways to get at functionality. The classic example is cut/copy/paste.

Sure, you can right click on selected text to do those things, but there are also menu or toolbar items for them. Not so on the  Watch. Often a Force Touch is the only way to do something.

This is particularly egregious when that task is the sole reason for the app’s existence. The Alarms app only allows new alarm creation via a Force Touch.

This proposal wouldn’t work with 3D Touch on the iPhone, so don’t do it on the  Watch.

True, this doesn’t make sense on the iPhone. Yet, I don’t think this is a good reason to avoid this idea on the Watch.

Force Touch and 3D Touch are quite similar and use the same technology but there is a key difference. Force Touch brings up the same options no matter where on the screen the user applies pressure. But with 3D Touch the screen location where the user presses matters.

On the iPhone there are conventions around the types of content that can be 3D Touched. App icons and links often react to a hard press. There is less need to call visual attention to this on iOS.

Both “hard press” gestures already diverge in ways appropriate for their platform. My proposal is in keeping with that.

In watchOS 2 haptic feedback is always accompanied with audio playing. A sound effect playing on a screen launch is annoying.

Indeed, Apple has constrained the use of haptic feedback in watchOS 2. Developers must choose from predefined haptic patterns bundled with sound. Apple has also carefully articulated the circumstances for each haptic’s use.

Fortunately, I don’t see this as a problem for my proposed solution. This solution would exist in watchOS itself. That would allow uniform transitional animations and haptic feedback with no developer effort.

There are already at least two places where watchOS plays haptic feedback without audio. Force Touching the Watch face and long pressing the Digital Crown produce silent taps. So a built-in haptic cue for Force Touch needs no link to a sound effect.

A “reverse Force Touch animation” works fine for the initial screen of an app that is launched. But what about navigations within an app that slide in from the rightmost edge of the screen?

On the Watch a forward navigation slides the screen off to the left exposing the new screen below it. This can be tweaked to be in keeping with the sort of animation I have already shown.

More challenging would be the animation to navigate back. I lack the animation chops and tooling to put together a great demo animation of this. I see no reason why the previous screen can’t slide in from the left and move “up” to the surface.

I’m open to the fact that I could be wrong on this point.

Conclusion

Force Touch is an excellent way to provide more options within an app that is running on a miniature screen. Apple’s superb execution makes it an exceptional solution for the diminutive Watch platform. It delights users.

Making Force Touch more obvious is its biggest area for improvement. It’s time to stop having actions without visual cues mixed with actions that have clear cues. Force Touch needs an affordance so it will be easily recalled.

The Watch display has no more free space. Thus a transitional animation and haptic would be a nice cue to the user that a screen responds to a Force Touch. It’s time for the  Watch to have consistent visual affordances–like most restroom fixtures.

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