UX designers typically don’t give the average user much credit. In fact, one of the cornerstone rules of UX design is to “appeal to the low hanging fruit.” If you can do that, everyone will be able to use your product.
This was the theory behind the original Macintosh Interface Guidelines. Have one method of accomplishing a given action. Why? It’s easier to teach users, and software created for that platform will be more consistent.
On September 9th, 2015 Apple introduced 3D Touch - a user interface feature for the new iPhones. Like Force Touch on the Apple Watch, 3D Touch on the iPhone senses the force that users put on the screen. Pressing harder on the camera icon, rather than tapping, gives users shortcuts to take a selfie or a picture. Pressing on an email message brings up a preview of the message (like a website lightbox or popup), and pressing a little harder “pops” the message into full view.
Essentially, 3D touch introduces a touch-based version of keyboard shortcuts or a right click. Rather than using the right mouse button, you just press a little harder on the screen. So what is the advantage to this “third dimension” of user interaction? According to Apple, 3D Touch eliminates the need to go “in and out” of app screens. 3D Touch introduces a new level of convenience.
The downside to 3D Touch will be teaching everyone how to use it. Tapping icons and buttons have predictable outcomes for users. Selecting an icon opens an app. They know that if they tap on an email message, the full message will be revealed. Double tapping the home button brings up multitasking. Holding down the home button launches Siri. Even swiping back and forth through Safari web pages or emails is teachable because the swipe actions replicate the actions of onscreen buttons.
It will be difficult for Apple to train users on 3D Touch because there is no longer an obvious outcome. How does one know what to press? Where will 3D Touch work and where will it not? Users won’t know what a press does until they try it, unless they read walkthrough for each app. In fact, Force Touch on the Apple Watch has resulted in similar usability problems, as noted by Raluca Budiu at the Neilson Norman Group because it’s very unfamiliar to iOS users.
The force touch is a gesture with no perceived signifier— that is, with no visual indication as to when the gesture can be used. This gesture is fairly unfamiliar to iPhone users (long presses or touch-and-hold gestures are far from common on iOS). If used consistently by apps, its familiarity may increase and it could become a viable gesture for other touch interfaces. However, history teaches us that the lack of visual signifiers or cues for that gesture is likely to slow down its adoption.
Andrew Cunningham, writing for Ars Technica, notes similar problems with 3D Touch.
Based on reader comments and Twitter questions I’ve seen, people already have trouble distinguishing a 3D Touch (pressing down harder) from a long-press (pressing down longer), and both interactions are still available in iOS 9. It was something I had trouble with while adjusting to the Apple Watch—the iPhone and iPad had trained me to use long presses in many places where WatchOS actually wanted Force Touches.
The upside to 3D Touch is that users who don’t make use of the feature aren’t losing anything except some convenience. Also, it signifies a new era where Apple is finally giving power users a reason to adopt iOS - not unlike OS X. Unlike right click on Windows or Mac, where users almost need to use it, 3D Touch is more superfluous.
3D Touch might also signify a shift for Apple’s mobile strategy more broadly. These little app “previews” (or “peeks” and “pops”), and the ability to jump in and out of apps (especially multitasking) unbundles apps from being silos. 3D Touch plus the Extensibility features from last year (like app sharing) shows that Apple is increasingly willing to open up iOS. These small tweaks allow what is essentially a “mobile first” OS to be something much greater - a platform for creation and productivity. Right now the iPhone and iPad are designed to use one app at a time. But if 3D Touch can facilitate switching between these apps, interactions will become more fluid. Such a change could make iOS devices less frustrating substitutes for traditional laptops.
If Apple is able to train users to embrace 3D Touch, it will have succeeded in creating a gestural OS that rivals Android. One possibility is that this could signal the elimination of the Home Button. Already the iPad has adopted multi-digit gestures to swipe between apps. The only barrier is the fingerprint sensor and accessing Siri (without voice commands).
3D Touch, while a potentially unintuitive user interface feature, might be a sign of bigger changes to come for Apple’s most important OS.