Interacting with a touchscreen?

Subject: Interacting with a touchscreen?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: Technical Writing <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, "Boudreaux, Madelyn (GE Healthcare, consultant)" <MadelynBoudreaux -at- ge -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 30 Dec 2008 10:05:09 -0500

Madelyn Boudreaux wondered: <<I'm trying to institute using unique and
appropriate verbs for interacting with different input devices in
documents: press a key, click an on-screen button, etc., so that a
user never has to wonder which device is being referenced when she
sees a given verb.>>

"Appropriate" is good; both examples you have given are good examples
of appropriate choices. "Unique" isn't so good. Yes, we should use
only a single verb for each action, but in no way does that mean we
should invent a whole new verb for the same action on a different
device unless the action on that device is qualitatively different.
It's more consistent, thus more usable, to use the same verb on all

If the user doesn't know which device you're referring to, there's a
much larger problem than verb choice: you've failed to clearly
establish the context. Establish the context clearly, and readers will
never wonder what you mean. Fail to establish that context and you'll
leave them guessing no matter how "unique" your word choice may be.

<<Unfortunately, we have some devices that have certain buttons on a
touchscreen, and we can't come to a consensus of the best word.>>

Why overcomplicate things? One of the enduring standards is that we
"press" keys on a keyboard, and either "press" or "click" buttons.
It's useful to distinguish between times when we type ("type the
following command"), when we use a chorded keyboard shortcut ("press
the following six keys simultaneously"), and when we use a button
("press the X button"). Note that "click" has become almost
universally used for mouse buttons, and should not be used where you
are pressing something with your finger. Here is where a different
verb is necessary because the action is qualitatively different:
pressing a mouse button versus pressing the screen.

<<My first choice, "tap" can't be used because it refers (somewhat
colloquially but in an ingrained manner) to a procedure using a foot
switch, so it can't be used.>>

In a broader context, that's nonsense. "Tap" is used for any action
where you touch something rapidly and then withdraw your hand, and
it's a common choice for touchscreens in my experience. Even if your
specific context (medical devices?) uses "tap" only for a foot switch,
this does not mean you should avoid using the word for the
touchscreen. There's little risk that when you say "Tap the Enter
button on the screen", and the context is interacting with the
touchscreen, readers will reflexively reach for the foot pedal. If
there's any risk of that happening, the foot pedal should be disabled
or ignored in the context of the current task (i.e., it should not
trigger any actions unrelated to the current task). That's just good

<<"Touch," is, in the words of one person, "creepy." There are no more
good touches, only bad ones, I guess.>>

This person needs some serious psych counselling. <g> But the broader
point is valid: "touching" something does not convey the connotation
of activating any feature of the product. The problem with the word is
not that it's creepy, but rather that it doesn't communicate what
action must be performed by the touch: pinch to zoom in (as on the
iPhone), press (for any button), slide a slider, or type on an
onscreen keyboard? Note that each of the verbs I used is much stronger
than "touch" by virtue of being specific.

<<"Select" and "choose" were both floated, but those both strike me as
useful only in the case of an actual choice among equal options,
although not everyone agreed.>>

Standard usage for these words, both in English and in computerese,
means to make a selection (e.g., highlight a checkbox), not to take
any action on that selection. You should not use either word to mean
"take an action" unless that action is to highlight something.

Geoff Hart (
ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca / geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com
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Interacting with a touchscreen: From: Boudreaux, Madelyn (GE Healthcare, consultant)

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