Featured Society Technology

Digital native generations: analog peripherals versus touchscreen

Recently I talked to someone who is all in on touchscreens; in an amazing blind spot, it never occurred to me that accomplishing everything with touchscreen would be a goal. I assumed people were fine using touchscreens because they didn’t do things that needed a keyboard, not that they might prefer touchscreen. I hadn’t connected the dots between the ascendancy of smart devices and the transition from indirect to direct interaction. I am so embedded in the way I use tools, it didn’t occur to me that people who grew up using touchscreens might find those more intuitive and preferable to analog peripherals.

Within digital natives, I posit there is a difference between people who grew up with desktops and those who grew up with touchscreens. One learned to control devices with indirect, analog tools, while the other interacts directly with the device and content through digital controls. As an “elder Millennial,” I’m squarely in the desktop generation.

Arguably, direct input is a more intuitive way to work. When I got a Wacom Intuos tablet in 2003, it took several days get used to drawing in one place but watching the screen to see what I was creating. The tablet area maps directly to the screen rather than relatively, so you can’t pick it up and reposition like with a mouse; but if the ratio of the tablet doesn’t match your monitor it might be distorted, or you can map only the portion of the tablet that proportionally matches, leaving some tablet area unused. Even when proportionally synced, the drawing tablet is almost always smaller than the monitor. For a long time, this peripheral drawing tablet was the only affordable option for hobbyists; now, drawing directly on a screen is accessible to anyone who can afford an iPad, not just art professionals with the Cintiq.

However, imagining a world without analog keyboards horrifies me 😳 I could not write a 100,000 word book on a touchscreen keyboard; I’m a ludicrously slow touchscreen typist, never having adopted swipe digital keyboards — I’m a touchscreen hunt and pecker 😂 Predictive text seems offset from my speed of thinking; the correct word appears in the menu, but I’ll type one more letter in the time it takes me to notice the right autocomplete option, but that additional typed letter will change what word it predicts in the span of time it takes me to click it. I’m constantly clicking the wrong autocomplete word, then having to delete and retype it. I have to look at the digital keyboard as I type, which means I can’t watch what I’m typing. My typing speed and accuracy with an analog computer are both high; and on a touchscreen, both are low.

I generally find smartphones anti-intuitive and still narrate aloud what I’m doing half the time. Functionality feels limited due to lack of hover. I hate that I can’t use keyboard shortcuts and function keys. Switching from typing letters to characters requires multiple clicks each way. The digital keyboard constantly popping up and disappearing is annoying; it aggravates me that the keyboard covers half of my already small viewport. Limiting my viewport makes it harder for me to keep longer texts in my head as I write, so editing becomes more challenging. I can’t find where the hell my phone saves files, the file structure hidden and convoluted. I resent needing to download a specialized app to do any damn thing instead of using my browser to visit a website.

On a touchscreen device, I feel less in control than at my desktop with my peripheral keyboard, monitor, and mouse. I constantly feel constrained in what I’m able to do, at the mercy of my device; for me, touchscreens are primarily a device for consuming, not creating. But likewise, I wouldn’t be surprised if touchscreen natives feel that peripherals disconnect them from their work.

Some of my complaints about touchscreens are not inherent to the medium, while others are. On a tablet with a bigger screen, some of my complaints might be less of an issue than a smartphone. I’ll appreciate improved functionality on touchscreen devices, but wonder whether touchscreens can fully recreate functionality that desktop devices achieve with specialized input tools.

This perspective is, of course, rooted in my desktop-centric approach to work. I learned how to think about and approach digital work from the PC, and my framework remains anchored to it; touchscreens will always be an adaptation for me. It’s just as likely that desktop functionality won’t be replicated, but replaced by new approaches that take advantage of touchscreen capabilities instead.

Because tools affect the work we make and even the way we think, I’m curious to see how touchscreens influence society over time. After all, there was a pretty short window in which someone was likely to interact with a desktop before a touchscreen device — everyone from here on out will be a touchscreen native, or whatever comes next. It already seems that search functions have changed the way people conceptualize file organization.

Today, I have adapted my habits to take advantage of my smartphone’s poor (for me) usability by using it as my blogging device. My slower pace of touchscreen typing matches my ponderous thinking as I blog. I consider my desktop where I do work and get things done; my phone is for putzing about, which is often my blogging frame of mind.

I’m not saying desktop natives can’t learn to use touchscreens as comfortably and nimbly as touchscreen natives, but I wonder if we think of them the same way. Will I always consider touchscreens lesser devices, or will I embrace them as the world continues to shift that direction? How would my thinking need to change to see touchscreens not as deprivation of control, but a more direct form of control?

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *