Why I hate the MacBook Pro Touchbar

Why I hate the MacBook Pro Touchbar

The Touchbar that Apple added to the MacBook Pro is one of those relatively-rare instances in which they have apparently struck the wrong balance between form and function. The line between “elegant design” and “design for its own sake” is one that they frequently dance on the edge of, and occasionally fall over. But they get it right often enough that it’s worth sitting with things for a while to see if the initial gut reaction is really accurate.

I hated the Touchbar pretty much right away, and I generally haven’t warmed up to it at all over the last 6 months. Even though I’ve been living with it for a while, I have only recently really figured out why I don’t like it.

What does the Touchbar do?

One of the functions of the Touchbar, of course, is serving as a replacement for the mechanical function keys at the top of the keyboard. It can also do other things, like acting as a slider control for brightness, or quickly allowing you to quickly select elements from a list. Interestingly, it’s the “replacement for function keys” part of the functionality that gets most of the ire, and I think this is useful for figuring out where the design fails.

What is a “button” on a screen, anyway?

Back in the dark ages of the 1980s, when the world was just getting used to the idea of the Graphical User Interface, the industry gradually settled on a series of interactions, largely based on the conventions of the Macintosh UI. Among other things, this means “push buttons” that highlight when you click the mouse button on them, but don’t actually take an action until you release the mouse button. If you’ve used a GUI that’s takes actions immediately on mouse-down, you might have noticed that they feel a bit “jumpy”, and one reason the Mac, and Windows, and iOS (mostly)  perform actions on release is exactly because action on mouse-down feels “bad”.

Why action on release is good:

Feedback — When you mouse-down, or press with your finger, you can see what control is being activated. This is really important to give your brain context for what happens next. If there’s any kind of delay before the action completes, you will see that the button is “pressed”, and know that your input was accepted. This reduces both user anxiety, and double-presses.

Cancelability — In a mouse-and-pointer GUI, you can press a button, change your mind, and move the mouse off before releasing to avoid the action. Similar functionality exits on iOS, by moving your finger before lifting it. Even if you hardly ever use this gesture, it’s there, and it promotes a feeling of being in control.

Both of these interaction choices were made to make the on-screen “buttons” feel and act more like real buttons in the physical world. In the case of physical buttons or keyswitches, the feedback and the cancelability are mostly provided by the mechanical motion of the switch. You can rest your finger on a switch, look at which switch it is, and then decide that you’d rather do something else and take your finger off, with no harm done. The interaction with a GUI button isn’t exactly the same, but it provides for “breathing space” in your interaction with the machine, which is the important thing.

The Touchbar is (mostly) action on finger-down

With a very few exceptions [maybe worth exploring those more?], the Touchbar is designed to launch actions on finger-down. This is inconsistent with the rest of the user experience, and it puts a very high price on having your finger slip off of a key at the top of the keyboard. This is exacerbated by bad decisions made by third-party developers like Microsoft, who ridiculously put the “send” function in Outlook on the Touchbar, because if there was ever anything I wanted to make easier, it’s sending an email before I’m quite finished with it.

How did it end up working that way?

I’m not sure why the designers at Apple decided to make things work that way, given their previous experience with GUI design on both the Mac and iOS. If I had to take a guess, the logic might have gone something like this:

The Touchbar is, essentially, a replacement for the top row of keys on the keyboard. Given that the majority of computer users are touch-typists, then it makes sense to have the Touchbar buttons take effect immediately, in the same way that the physical keyswitches do. Since the user won’t be looking at the Touchbar anyway, there’s no need to provide the kind of selection feedback and cancelability that the main UI does.

There are a couple of places where this logic goes horribly wrong. First off, a whole lot of people are not touch typists, so that’s not necessarily the the right angle to come at this from. Even if they were, part of the whole selling point of the Touchbar is that it can change, in response to the requirements of the app. So you’re going to have to look at it some of the time, unless you’ve decide to lock it into “function key only” mode. In which case, it’s a strictly-worse replacement for the keys that used to be there, and you’re not getting the benefits of the reconfigurability.

Even if you were going to use the Touchbar strictly as an F-key replacement, it still doesn’t have the key edges to let you know whether you’re about to hit one key or two, so you’ll want to look at what you’re doing anyway. I know there are people out there who use the function keys without looking at them, but the functions there are rarely-enough used that I suspect the vast majority of users end up having to look at the keyboard anyway, in order to figure out which one is the “volume up” key, or at least the keyboard-brightness controls.

How can Apple fix this?

First, and primarily, make it less-likely for users to accidentally activate functions on the Touchbar. I think that some amount of vertical relief could make this failure mode less-likely, though I’m not sure if the Touchbar should be higher or lower than it is now. I have even considered trying to fabricate a thin divider to stick to the keyboard to keep my finger away from accidentally activating the “escape” key, which is my personal pet-peeve with the touch bar.

A better solution to that problem is probably to include some amount of pressure-sensitivity and haptic feedback. The haptic home button on the iPhone 7 does a really good job of providing satisfying feedback without any visuals, so we know thiscan work well. Failing that, at least some way to bail out of hitting the Touchbar icons would be worth pursuing – possibly making them less senstive to grazing contact, though that would increase the cases where you didn’t activate a button while actually trying to.

Another option would be bringing back the physical function keys. This doesn’t necessarily mean killing the Touchbar, but maybe just moving it away from the rest of the keyboard a bit. This pretty much kills the “you can use it without taking your eyes off the screen or your hands off the home row” argument, but I’m really not convinced that’s at all realistic, unless you only ever use one application.

So, is Apple going to do anything to address these issues?

Honestly? You can never tell with them. Apple’s history of pushing customers forward against their will (see above) argues that they’ll pursue this for a good while, even if it’s clearly a bad idea. On the other hand, the pressure-sensitivity option seems like the kind of thing they might easily decide to add all by themselves. In the meantime, I’ll be working out my Stick On Escape Key Guard…

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