Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Gestural Control: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Excerpts from my essay, published for my "Influencer" column on LinkedIn

I await the day when gestures become standardized. When systems combine the best of all worlds: gestures, voice, and menus, keyboards, and pointing devices. But before we can do this, we have a simple task to do: reform the patent system.

Gestural control of our consumer electronics is now commonplace. We use gestures on phones and tablets, screens and laptops, games and special environments. They now appear on watches and more specialized items, such as navigation systems. They are starting to be deployed on commercial and industrial equipment.

The Good

There are lots of good things about gestures. They are pleasurable and enjoyable. ...

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The Bad

Yes gestures are fun. I enjoy them. And yes, some gestures are natural. But how many? I would say a handful -- around five. How learnable are the non-natural gestures? More importantly, how many different gestures can you easily learn, retain, and use appropriately. Answer: Far fewer than is required even today, while gestures are still in their infancy.

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gestures are the new form of command-line interfaces. They have to be memorized. Worse, they lack the power of the old command lines. We went from far too many alternatives and commands of menu-based systems to the highly oversimplified capabilities of today's gesture systems.

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The Ugly

It is war time folks, patent wars, that is. Beware of collateral damage, where it is the innocent bystander who is hurt the most.

... companies are rushing to patent gestures. This means that every company's products are forced to use different gestures to mean the same things (either that or pay licensing fees). ...

The Future

... every method of controlling devices has strengths and weaknesses Good old-fashioned levers, knobs, and buttons are often the best way to control physical devices. Mice, menus, and keyboards have their virtues, as do pen-based and gestural systems. In the ideal world we would have a choice of methods. 

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I await the day when gestures become standardized. When systems combine the best of all worlds: gestures, both in the air and on surfaces, voice commands where appropriate, and menus, keyboards, and pointing devices where appropriate. The most powerful systems will give us the choice to use whatever is best suited for the job. But before we can do this, we have a simple task to do: reform the patent system.

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