Microsoft is now more innovative than Apple. A year ago that would have sounded as ludicrous as, say… president Donald Trump. But after both tech giants unveiled their new devices for professionals this October, the tide has turned. Journalists and techies proclaimed Surface Studio a bolder, more innovative, and more complete product than the new MacBook Pro.
But the truth is that both companies made bets on new interfaces for professionals: Apple with the Touch Bar and Microsoft with the Surface Dial. And they represent opposite approaches. Is Microsoft’s better? It’s certainly more opinionated, which indeed might be key to winning over pros on the UX front.
A high bar
I have reservations about Apple’s Touch Bar, but the commonly raised issues completely miss the point.
The moment Apple unveiled the Touch Bar, people started asking why the company won’t just release a touchscreen laptop. Then came the question of ergonomics: the bar requires you to look down on your keyboard, it’s awkwardly positioned right below the screen, and there is nowhere to rest your wrist. That’s a whole lot of concerns… and faulty logic.
First, Touch Bar was never meant as a substitute for a full-sized touchscreen and the company made it very clear. And as welcome as a touch-enabled iMac would be, I can get behind the reluctance to introduce a touchscreen MacBook. A 2-in-1 laptop is an idea that looks great on paper but I’m yet to find someone who has one and says it’s useful.
The Touch Bar is a replacement for the function keys and it’s very much in line with other design decisions at Apple. In the previous update to MacBook Pro, they introduced the Force Touch Trackpad, a glass pane using haptic feedback to mimic the feel of a click. Then Apple removed the physical home button from the iPhone 7 and replaced it with the same technology as in the Force Touch Trackpad. The Touch Bar is just another step on the path of removing mechanical, moving parts.
The ergonomics blunders were exaggerated as well. Tapping on the bar is not that different from clicking the function buttons it replaced. But the bar gives designers something the function keys never could: a way to empower users with contextual controls. A well-executed Touch Bar integration can adapt to the user’s needs and be a button, a slider, a timeline, or all at once. Mock it all you want with your funny tweets, but it’s a powerful interface.
What’s wrong, then?
There are some minor annoyances like the lack of haptic feedback that makes getting used to not having mechanical keys a bit harder. But your muscle memory will get over that soon enough. The real usability issues, like redundant controls or convoluted menu navigation pointed out by The Verge, are not problems with the bar itself, but with the way it’s integrated into apps. It’s about software, not hardware design.
This shows a big obstacle for the Touch Bar. It’s a tricky interface, easy to clutter with redundancy. What seems like an advantage – the infinite options it gives designers – can turn out to be the biggest hindrance instead. While Apple gives developers and designers good advice on integrating the Touch Bar, things like context-awareness, glanceability, and responsiveness are much easier said than done. Their own software proves that. All OS X built-in apps come with Touch Bar support and the thing that users have been happiest about so far is the emoji picker. A hard sell for professionals.
There are early examples showing how to do UX for the Touch Bar right, like 1Password and Drop, but there’s few of them and we might not see many more soon, because Apple will struggle with putting the bar in front of users. It’s not only that not many have the new MacBooks yet. Professionals like their external displays and wireless keyboards. It’s a setup so much more comfortable than being hunched over a laptop that the bar can’t beat it no matter how many usability tweaks it introduces. And if there are no users, there is no incentive for developers and designers to integrate the Touch Bar into their apps.
The natural step to help adoption would be a new Magic Keyboard with the Touch Bar. But so far we’ve only seen speculation and no actual hints from Apple that such a product is in the works.
Resurfacing the Surface
Microsoft’s Surface Dial is the opposite of Touch Bar on many levels. While Apple keeps removing mechanical parts from their devices, Microsoft added a detachable, puck-sized knob. It’s a contrarian choice after decades of digital interfaces disposing of dials, levers, and switches. But the Surface Dial is not an ordinary knob. What in one app may work as volume control, will let you rotate pictures in another, and rewind video in yet another. You can also switch between different modes within a single app. And it’s more precise than other input methods. The mother of all knobs, really.
The dial is also much more opinionated than the Touch Bar. Microsoft sends a clear signal that it’s a tool for creatives and professionals. They highlight that it’s best used with Surface Studio and the Surface Pen. Also, it’s a $99 add-on to your computer and let’s be honest: you’re not gonna buy it if you don’t work in a job that requires a lot of precise rotating, zooming, adjusting, scaling, scrolling, and such. Because what else for – tuning the volume in Spotify?
Another advantage the Surface Dial has over the Touch Bar is that a knob feels as natural as a piece of technology can. We use knobs to control the oven, the lights, the car’s radio. Turning the Dial to adjust volume, zoom, or any other setting feels almost like it’s always been there. And being able to switch between modes with a press and hold gesture makes it versatile despite the limiting form factor. That’s terrific news for interaction designers. The Dial is so obvious they don’t need to figure out how to think about it. Microsoft has done most of the work for them.
Finally, unlike the Touch Bar that’s limited to two devices, Surface Dial works with all Windows 10 machines.
How come Apple didn’t think of that?
It’s up to UX and UI designers to make the most of Touch Bar and Surface Dial. In the end it’s third party apps that will prove which company took the better approach. And as much as I like the concept behind Touch Bar and find most of the criticism unwarranted, I can’t help the feeling that the execution wasn’t thought through. The bar has great potential for making interactions smoother and more contextual but even in some of Apple’s own apps it’s sometimes redundant and confusing. And with very few people using computers with the Touch Bar, developers and designers don’t have a reason to experiment and come up with the best practices.
Surface Dial seems like it was designed with an answer for every question about the bar. Yes, it’s next to useless for a casual user and no, it doesn’t have an emoji picker. But it’s laser-focused on professionals and creatives and comes with a clear idea of how to make their work more comfortable. It does great at what it was designed to do and doesn’t pretend to be anything else.
Iain Thomson from The Register came up with the best summary of Surface Dial when he wrote that it looks like the kind of thing Apple should have come up with.