Thoughts on 3D Touch

Designing experiences with Apple’s 3D Touch technology will offer new challenges for developers

With Apple’s newly announced 3D Touch technology that ships with the new iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus, new “levels” of interaction have been made available to designers—quite literally.

3D Touch is essentially the same as Force Touch for the Apple Watch. Why Apple has decided to name them differently is rather confusing. However, in short, 3D Touch enables users to apply force to interactions on the display. For example, if you were to touch with more force than say, a standard tap, the hardware would recognize that event and the software would then respond appropriately. This is the perfect example of Apple’s hardware and software working in unison.

This really opens up a lot of options. I now see many different types of touch events, maybe three or four levels, including:

  1. Tap
  2. Long Press
  3. Force Touch (3D Touch)
  4. Strong Force Touch (3D Touch)

Four options could be confusing. While I personally have not spent any time with 3D Touch, I can only imagine that normal users will become confused and frustrated if developers do not promote usability over designing for 3D Touch.

I am not convinced that 3D Touch will offer many improvements to an end user’s experience. Users will be forced to understand an entirely new interaction paradigm—expectations and usability will be tested.

While not 3D Touch per se, I did get a chance to wear an Apple Watch for about a week a few months back and I can regrettably say that I consistently forgot about applying force when I touched the screen. Maybe this will take time, but I would suspect that developers will see user adoption to be very minimal.

Hidden interactions, such as 3D/Force Touch, generally offer lower levels of usability.

Designing for 3D Touch

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I do think that 3D Touch is fairly interesting and I believe that it will be best utilized for power-user features. For example, the “shortcuts” you can take on a home screen icon—which Apple demonstrates in their 3D Touch video—are the perfect example. Interactions like this only improve user experience, not diminish it.

This type of interaction requires developers to design for 3D Touch. So recall may become an issue. Only time will tell if users recall whether or not their favorite apps utilize a shortcut-type interaction.

As we should always be thinking about a user when designing with new technologies, my opinion holds that 3D Touch needs to be respected.

On that note, I think that this new interaction model will require designers and developers to focus—with great intent—on prototyping and testing designs more than ever.

Prototyping 3D Touch

As a quick exercise I wanted to reverse prototype such an interaction to show how powerful a tool like Pixate can be. While Pixate has not released a 3D Touch interaction (nor do I own an iPhone 6S) I’ve utilized a long press interaction—the closest parallel. As I’ve said in the past, prototyping is intended to help mimic the real feeling of a design so this workaround is okay in my eyes.

The design assets used in this prototype come from Meng To. You can get them from his iOS 9 GUI kit here.

Video of the prototype in action

A high-tier prototyping application like Pixate gives me the ability to design a fluid interaction like the one shown above. I’ve shared the prototype so that you can view it on your iPhone, just open this link on your device.

There is one small caveat with this prototype however, being that you cannot link interactions in Pixate. So, after long pressing on the Messages icon (top left) you’ll need to release and then drag again from that area. It’s not the most ideal solution, however until apps like Pixate release support for 3D Touch on the new iPhones, I believe this will have to make due.

If you’re interested in downloading the Pixate file and specific design assets to reconstruct on your own, visit this link here.

If you have another solution for getting around this in Pixate I’d love to hear it. You can always send me a Tweet.

It is yet to be seen if Apple’s 3D Touch technology in the new iPhone 6S models will be a success. Until that day comes I believe that it is ever more important for designers and developers to consider the pros and cons of utilizing 3D Touch interactions within their applications. I think that we will see some really unique, and inspiring, use-cases for 3D Touch. Yet I can only hope that usability is prioritized over implementing a shinny new piece of tech.

You can be sure that as we continue to push the design of our iOS app here at Wildcard forwards we will be prototyping and testing any designs that utilize 3D Touch.