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Almost 23 years ago, a wise man named Stanley Kirk Burrell penned the following words: So wave your hands in the air Bust a few moves Run your fingers through your hair Look, man - You either work hard or you might as well quit. You can't touch this!

From Tim Buesing, Creative Director at Reactive Photo: Tim Buesing

Almost 23 years ago, a wise man named Stanley Kirk Burrell penned the following words: So wave your hands in the air Bust a few moves Run your fingers through your hair Look, man - You either work hard or you might as well quit. You can't touch this!


At the time of his biggest hit 'U Can't Touch This' Stan, better known as MC Hammer, was right on the money. We couldn't touch him, his dazzling legwear or his dancing skills. The same was true for the web, invented only a year earlier. Back in 'Hammertime' you accessed digital web pages from a distance, via a proxy. We employed a boxy mouse that had been invented in 1963, a keyboard or alternatively a stylus plus a graphic tablet. And touching a screen during a creative review only led to annoyed glances from the art directors. After all who wanted to have their display full of smudges and fingerprints?


Fast forward to today and we are able touch, blink, talk, walk and bump our way through the same web. In some instances it suffices to merely hover over a screen, using so called 'air gestures'. And some of us are already experimenting with using brainwaves to navigate (1).

Initially we had imagined the web to be a 'better TV'. But instead it just continued to become a much better web (2). It became ubiquitous and something we now take for granted and consider a human right to access. We do access it whenever, wherever and for as long as we can. And a lot of our interactions now happen through touch.


Our world has embraced smart phones and tablets with unprecedented speed (3). By the end of 2014 we will have more mobile phones on this planet than humans (4). And through these devices we have learnt and integrated touch gestures into our lives.

We like to tap our mobile phone and tablet apps. And we prefer them over desktop computers and keyboards. Microsoft's Surface are hybrid computers that offer both keyboard and touch screen. But their users instinctively prefer to touch the display. They bypass the keyboard and grasp the screen like a tablet (5). This behaviour happens even when they have to perform more complicated tasks like filling out forms.

So evidently there's a strong appeal to 'just grab and touch'. Touch delivers a more gratifying experience of what's in front of us. Technology and the interface fade into the background. We can focus on the emotional quality of our activity. We emphatically flick, tap, swipe, pinch, nudge, punch and press. This is especially true for social media apps. Our thumbs flick through Twitter and Pinterest streams. And this casual gesture underscores our emotional state. We scan the abundance of content, let it float by, sometimes stop and double tap to open or 'Like' an item. And thus we feel more connected, more in touch with news from our friends and family. It's no wonder we feel closer to their content. Touch is a more intimate and direct gesture than clicking and dragging with a mouse.

Have you seen the video of a baby girl getting frustrated by a paper magazine (6) ? The one-year old is confused because she can't tap and swipe the pages like she would on a tablet. In a similar fashion, we adults get annoyed when a brand hasn't yet adapted their website to mobile. Its desktop sized site, images and copy shrinks to tiny proportions. It forces us to scroll, pinch and zoom. Honestly, who do these shmucks think they are? As Sir Ken Robinson observed, we are not a very patient species: "Come on, I don't have all minute!" (7).


So what consequences does this have for our profession and industry?

First, we have to learn a lot of new tricks. There is no way back. People won't return to liking a mouse or keyboard more. When given a choice people will prefer touching. That's why mobile expert Josh Clark states that 'every desktop UI should be designed for touch now' (8).

That means we definitely have to grow our skill sets to keep building great digital experiences. User Interface (UI), Interaction and User Experience (UX) design now require a prominent place in our teams. Because these skills address how customers solve problems, entertain themselves, shop and communicate with others. And so the rise of touch, and to lesser extent voice and gesture, changes what defines a good user and customer experience.

Do you know the average finger tip size in square pixels? Just look at it. Not sure? Even mobile touch screen manufacturers can't quite agree on how much space our fingers need to get working. Their interface recommendations range from 28 (Nokia) to 44 square pixels (Apple).

Or how about navigation items: would you place them at the top or at the bottom? Convention says you place them at the top, from left to right, in easy reach of a mouse. But tablet and phone users would prefer to see them at the bottom, where their hands come to rest.

Mouse users also don't tire as much when buttons are spread out across the screen. But touch screen users feel the pain - they like to tap within comfort zones. So remember that your branded app will only become a favourite if it doesn't force fingers into all kind of hooks and pretzels (9).

Second, we need to come up with ideas that work with this preference for touch. We know how to present a crisp image and a concise headline together. We know how to write a story that is bold and engaging. Those formats are key to expressing creative ideas. But now the audience wants to touch the content. And they want to do it on a wide range of gadgets and devices. Maybe you thought the new practice of responsive web design was going to take care of that? What you might have forgotten is that it moves the content around, rearranges, stacks and even crops images. If you aren't careful this might actually change the focus of our ideas. Not all creatives are aware of this. And so they might concentrate on a linear execution, checking it only on that perfect TV screen or wide-screen computer display. Yet their creative work will get displayed in a myriad of different layouts. And for all those it absolutely has to be 'built for touch'.

Third, we will only be successful working hand-in-hand with our clients. We agencies are able to react to this change in media use. But only when our clients understand the value and extra effort required. So the smarter agencies team up with clients, sketching and working on ideas together, owning the problem as much as its solution. Delivering a design on a client's personal phone or tablet can work miracles, creating a deeper bond with the work. And for us agencies it can be gratifying to see clients interact one-on-one with our ideas.


Despite all this new complexity, this is no time for hand-wringing. We just have to grasp how to both come up with as well as present a great idea for touch. Give it a shape that the audience can tap, touch, nudge and manipulate. Or speak to. Or gesture at. And sometimes it will be a combination of all these inputs, used in one consecutive session. After all, the same customer can interact with the same brand in various ways. This can depend on context, mood, time of day, whether alone or in company and where the customer is.

William Gibson once quipped: "The future is already here, it is just not very evenly distributed. (10)' So let's look at recent creative work that points in the right direction:

In my own practice I have used touch not only as an input method but also as a metaphor: WWF wanted to lobby attendees of the Copenhagen Climate Summit. We chose a mobile voting app in which WWF supporters could spin a virtual dynamo on their phone screens. With their fingers the users created enough energy to send their vote for action to Denmark, directly from their individual location (11).

Another fellow Creative Social agency B-reel and mobile phone company 3 produced web video conferences that used 'see-through' touch screens. The sales agents touched a screen in front of them, moved phones and features around. At the same time they would talk and interact live with the customers, responding to their requests.

The instant and simultaneous character led to a shared touch screen experience (12).

Audi has already transformed several showrooms in London, Berlin and Beijing into spaces where visitors' touch, movements and gestures define their experience. The 'built for touch' idea permeates these 'Audi Cities', right up to the final sales moment. (13)


Looking ahead, 'touch' will become the preferred interface for almost any real life situation involving computers and screens. So how can we create more brand videos that customers want to literally get their hands on? Or projections, apps and kiosk screens that entice punters to tap, touch and caress them?

MC Hammer again gives us a clue by rapping "either work hard or you might as well quit." Our CS friends from rehabstudio did just that and produced a concept for personalised window shopping. In their future vision punters will be able to casually flick through and try different looks right on the shop windows. Selecting and purchasing will go hand in hand with the always-on mobile phone.

So keep on working hard and 'think touch first':
picture the user with a tablet or phone, out and about or on the couch, swiping and tapping. Ask yourself whether your work would survive in this situation. Watch real people use a prototype of your idea. Keep on testing, interrogating, then improve and redeploy. If you work for a tech brand, try to get access to its engineering squad and prototypes. Tinker with the latest screens and input devices. And if you can afford the time, work with universities, start ups and publishers to gain a broader understanding of this new interface world. In the end we all want to prove Hammer wrong, standing tall with our phones and tablets in hand, and say that we can and will be able to touch this!