Decoding Design

Welcome to the gesture wars

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With gesture-based controls for smart phones, tablets, PCs, and game consoles on the rise, confusion and chaos is likely to result because of a lack of standardization, argues Donald A. Norman, a respected product-design advisor, author, and academic.

With gesture-based controls becoming more common in everything from smart phones to tablet computers to video game consoles, common sense suggests that manipulating our devices is about to get more instinctive. Perhaps not, suggests Donald A. Norman, a former Apple vice president, current IDEO Fellow, and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, which advises corporations on product design.

Donald A. Norman, product-design advisor

In a column titled "Gesture Wars," published recently on the design Web site Core77, Norman argues that because the major technology companies who are creating new gesture-based devices and platforms (Apple, Microsoft, Google, etc.) are "patent happy," they are increasingly designing gesture-based controls that are inconsistent and will cause confusion.

Why? There is a lack of standardization with gesture-based controls and actions. So users have to remember different styles of tapping or swiping screens with various combinations of finger and thumb movements to issue commands for each device they own. This can be bothersome as they move, say, between a company-issued Android phone and a Mac or PC at work, to an iPad or Samsung Galaxy tablet purchased for entertainment at home.

"We are back to the days of command-line interfaces where everything had to be memorized, or looked up in a manual," Norman wrote on Core77.

He defends what might seem to some readers like "anti-gesture" statements by putting the gesture wars in historical context: "some confusion is to be expected when old habits must be retrained." However, he adds that "much of the confusion today represents inappropriate business and marketing decisions rather than design decisions. The customer is ill served."

In the column, Norman, who is also a well-respected author and academic who has taught at Harvard, Northwestern University, and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Seoul, offers a few predictions on gesture computing worth noting:

  • Scrollbars will disappear as control devices.
  • In the case of Apple's decision to change the default model of gesture-based scrolling ("one moves the material up, not the window down") in its latest operating system (OS 10.7, or Lion), Apple's customers will be confused because "their long-tuned habits have been violated." However, Norman envisions that "people will find that in a few hours, perhaps a few days, it all will seem natural again."
  • Because Apple's gestures differ from those of Microsoft and Google, "in the end, we are going to need standard sets of gestures."
  • The way to determine gesture consistency, ideally, will be to reflect what is experienced and "measured in the mind, not the world." In other words, standard gestures need to reflect how people naturally think and move, rather than reflect patented actions.

Will designers, engineers, marketers, and consumers also agree and argue for gesture standards? From Norman's point of view, what seems clear about the gesture wars today is that they have only just begun.

Photo: Peter Belanger

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure