My touch screen interface work for the past four years has been about e-commerce and function over form. As a formally-trained fine artist, the form versus function argument rankles a bit. I chafe at giving up one over the other. Why can’t you have form and function!
A few weeks ago I had a different kind of touch screen experience. Form definitely ruled here. I took my niece to the Kimball Art Museum in Fort Worth to see the Fiery Pool: The Maya and the Mythic Sea exhibit. They had a large touch screen laying flat with an oval border over the top creating the appearance of a pool. There was room for eight or more people to interact with the pool simultaneously. Talk about multi-touch!
The screen displayed a rippling pool with animal silhouettes swimming through the water. Touching one of the silhouettes caused an interface to open up and float on the surface of the water. The interface displayed images of all the exhibit pieces that referenced that animal and text about the symbolism of the animal in Mayan culture.
I could critique the hardware and software but I’m not going to do that here. I want to focus on my user experience. Museums can be stodgy places where you can’t touch anything (as I was reminded by one of the guards). To find this unadvertised gem near the end of the exhibit made my day. I felt like a kid delighted in exploring something new.
The experience was communal and engrossing. I struck up conversations with the other patrons. We shared tips on how to interact with the interface. I spent almost as much time at the pool as I did viewing the whole exhibit. A large dose of patience was required while waiting for all of the animal shapes to swim within range.
Function will still rule over most business touch screens but the exhibit was a powerful reminder of what form can do beautifully and subtly. This pool brought a group of strangers together to learn in an interactive and entertaining way. There was no neon sign that said, “Learning – this way.” Just a table glowing seductively in a darkened room that whispered, “You can touch me and no alarms will go off. Play as long as you want.”
The whole experience has motivated me to advocate even more for form in functional e-commerce applications. (Some would say I’m already over the top as an advocate. Like that’s possible!) There must be a place in society for beauty and delight in new finds. If not then the iPad and iPhone would just be also rans in their niches and eight mature adults wouldn’t have huddled around a touch screen to poke at animal silhouettes just to see what would happen.
FYI—The exhibit closes January 02, 2011 at which point the below link probably won’t work anymore.