Reach out and Touchscreen

Touchscreen are now becoming ubiquitous on smart phones and other gadgets, and new computer Operating Systems are now start to include touchscreen options as standard. So how useful are they for your office computer systems?

Using a touch screen as a “user interface” has a lot going for it. It is intuitive, you literally point at what you see, and it can be more ergonomic than various other methods. The previous downsides of high price and low responsiveness have been largely removed by cheaper high quality touchscreens: decent 15 & 17 inch screens can be bought for around £150 and slightly more for 19 inch.

So how well does it actually work in a real office. We first ran a trial in an office on the reception computer. The reasons for this location were: (a) More members of staff used the machine in question than other workstations, meaning more people testing it; (b) this location made more use of mouse and less use of the keyboard that secretarial workstations; (c) it allowed a test of how well this helped interaction with the public while using the machine (as no need to look down to mouse/keyboard on lower desk).

We used the existing computer, deliberately not high spec, running MS Windows XP and equipped with wireless keyboard and mouse; we simply replaced the existing main monitor with a touchscreen monitor, and installed the supplied drivers. The first discovery was that the touch function did not play well with additional non-touch screens, giving an offset between the actual point where touched and where this registered on the screen desktop. This was not a major issue, simply a matter of disconnecting a secondary monitor and likely adjusting hardware (making all screens touchscreens) or software (new drivers or a more modern Operating System) would fix this.1

Once the system was set up, all the users were familiarised with the setup, and left to start using it, giving feedback about how they found it.

The first point was that the standard configuration of Windows was found too small for using fingers. In particular scroll bars and the “close” button in the corner of windows required pinkie fingers rather than index fingers for accurate use. However, the instinctive move for users was to use their index finger, so settings were adjusted to make buttons and scroll bars fatter.

The second point was that users preferred to use fingers over a pen on the touchscreen.2 This would support the ergonomic and intuitiveness aspects. However, the majority of staff in fact preferred most of all to continue using the mouse.

This was particularly interesting, as the whole point of touchscreens is to be easier and better than using a mouse. It seems that the staff were so habituated by years of mouse use to automatically reach for the mouse for tasks rather than the screen! This was confirmed when someone attending for work experience took to the touchscreen immediately and had no problems at all with it; since everything was new there was no habit of mouse using to break.

As rate of use of mouse versus use of touchscreen rose, to continue the trial we took the step of actually removing the mouse for a couple of weeks (which was grudgingly accepted with grumbles). At the end of this time we took a poll of who wanted to retain the touchscreen and who wanted to revert to mouse, and only one staff member preferred the touchscreen. This was despite timings indicating that in the actual work environment most tasks were completed in either the same time, or quicker using the touchscreen.

As the screen was on the counter, using the touchscreen did allow interaction with clients to be less interrupted by looking away to the lower desk where mouse and keyboard were situated.  Incidentally those clients with a particular interest in technology did consider the use of touchscreen as “cool”, whereas the bulk of clients simply considered that’s what computers do these days.

The next test was using the same touchscreen at a secretarial workstation, being used by a single member of staff. The difference here was noticeable, in that use of the touchscreen actually increased times compared with using a mouse. The reason was quickly established: a secretary touch-typing has visual focus on the screen, but mental focus on the keyboard; first option to control functions would be keyboard shortcuts, secondly shifting the right hand along a lateral plane a few inches past the keyboard to the mouse sitting there, then back to the keyboard. Use of the touchscreen required lifting the hand upward and forward from the keyboard to the screen and considerable more shift of hand/finger position. This involved more physical work, and some additional arm tiredness was reported by the end of the  day.

The third test was with a fee-earner. Here the touchscreen was quickly adopted as the preferred interface. One point noted was that the fee-earner and the one member of staff who preferred the touchscreen in reception were both using laptops with touchpads as their main computer; presumably the use of a touchpad more easily translates to touchscreen. Also the fee-earner had a bigger sphere of body movement than the secretary; the fee-earner would look and reach from from keyboard to screen, to files or papers and telephone, as opposed to the secretary working primarily in a horizontal plane over the desk.3

So in all this was an extremely useful exercise, with some interesting implications with new hardware and Operating Systems coming out. Just because new systems have the option of touchscreen, or even encourage them, that doesn’t mean you can bin the mouse yet.

For reception changing systems will require staff to change existing habits, but doing so can make them slightly more efficient.  An intermediate step might be to switch them to touchpads.

For secretarial staff, a standard touchscreen is in the wrong geometrical plane. A nearly horizontal screen might be useful, providing issues of light reflection could be dealt with, but the standard vertically aligned screen interrupts the workflow.  Another option might be a horizonal secondary touchscreen beside the keyboard purely as an interactive controller.

For Fee-earners, a switch to touchscreen may pose no problems mainly due to their job being less focussed around the computer. If however you do your own typing in place of having a secretary, you may want to “try before you buy” to see how it works for you.

Specialist programs optimised to touchscreen use may be helpful, but are not essential as existing standard programs can do just fine subject possibly to a little tweaking.

So there may be benefits to buying touch screens in place of ordinary monitors in the course of your usual replacement of equipment, but there is no need yet to go out and buy them all for the sake of it – just remember that if some salesman trying to get you onto the latest and greatest Operating System wants you to spend a fortune on new equipment to run it. Who knows, you might want to wait until touch tables become a reasonable price.

1. As an aside, we also installed the same screen on Linux machines, and have no particular problems there either.
2. Don’t forget lots of antibacterial screen wipes.
3. This of course gives alerts to prospects of RSI, and emphasises the need for secretarial staff during their breaks to get up and do things outwith the planar movement. It also explains why swivelling secretarial chairs make the job more comfortable.


2 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    A blog from our friend Highland Lawyer on how staff dealt with a trial of touchscreen computing.

  2. Just a note on the use of tablets for doing a lot of writing. I did this last year, doing a substantial body of work on an iPad. Because I am used to a normal keyboard, which has keys that give under pressure when you strike them, I found I was hitting the on-screen keyboard too heavily. This led to pains in the right-hand and arm.

    I recommend a Bluetooth keyboard if doing a lot of writing on a tablet.

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