Form Versus Function: Can’t They Just Make Up!

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.

3 Replies to “Form Versus Function: Can’t They Just Make Up!”

  1. Thanks for sharing this.

    “Form vs Function” is something I struggle with as well. I’m in complete agreement that clean, simple and inviting form can easily trump over function provided the function is really well understood and invisibly integrated underneath the form.

    I work with some ground breaking technology where we are still trying to define and understand the functional requirements of the interface. I’ve observed that it’s super critical that you need the right form which complements the function.

    That said, I realize you decided to avoid talking about the software and hardward. I would love to hear about those as well. It is my belief that the hardware/software can completely make or break a touch interface regardless of how awesome and perfect the design is. If you don’t have any of the following, your experience is drastically degraded..
    – Confidence at any level of touch pressure. The system needs to register a touch event everytime your brain senses touch regardless of how much pressure you apply.
    – Feedback response time needs to be close to instantaneous. There should be close to zero lag between a touch gesture performed and the system reaction to it. Moving an object by touching it should not chase your touch position, but stick to it.
    – High enough refresh rate. The system needs to perform smoothly. 60 fps seems to be the rate which almost all users.

    I’d love to hear on how the system scored on these specific aspects and how they affected your neice’s interaction. If any of them did fall short, what was the reaction from your neice. i.e. did it take her longer to adjust to any shortcoming, etc?

    1. Shammi,

      I decided to leave the hardware and software out of it because I didn’t want to distract from the form vs. function argument. But since you mentioned it…

      The touch screen was not as responsive as it could have been. I had to touch the objects more than once to get them to open and close. I don’t know if this was a calibration issue or not. I can’t speak to the refresh rate but the animation seemed very smooth.

      My niece wasn’t interested in playing with the interface. She’s 16—you know—much too cool for that! I was so engrossed I can’t tell you if eye-rolling happened, but it’s a possibility.

      The interface mimicked the opened mini-interfaces floating on the water’s surface. At times it was a bit too realistic. The mini-interfaces would float away unless you dragged them back into place. They would also float over the top of each other making them difficult to read. I don’t know what purpose either of these “features” served but I found them annoying. If I had designed it the mini-interface would have floated within a small zone (no more than 1″ invisible border all the way around) and the other interfaces would have rebounded instead of overlapping.

      1. Ah, this is clearly a very good form vs function situation.
        You say that you would have contained the mini-interfaces and also made them not overlap. Completely makes sense. However, the form given here was playfulness (you need to almost play a game to keep the interfaces in view and also move them around to find the ones you wanted). Interestingly, it complements the functionality of discovering. i.e. it makes the process of discovery a little more fun. The only bit thats a little off is the patience required to wait for them to float by you. I’m sure with a little more phsychological research and tweaking with the values of the speed, you could optimize it to the average attention span for users in such a scenario.

        Too bad to hear on the touch interface implementation. Trying to touch multiple times to register an input reduces confidence and comfort with using the interface.

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.