Universal Design Principles in the Macbook Keyboard

If Norman was correct, then the touchbar is yet another attempt in moving away from good perceived affordances towards cultural conventions as an approach to designing UI’s. The keyboard has physical characteristics that give it certain user benefits in terms of universal design principles. The letter keys are in the center, an affordance to be manipulated by the index finger and the middle fingers of both hands. The physical characteristics of keys influence the way they function and are likely to be used (Lidwell et. al., 20). Its buttons provide feedback in the form of keystroke sounds that give us a sense of completion on stroking the keys, signaling that the key was indeed struck well. Of course the more direct feedback is from the screen cursor moving along. All the command keys such as ‘return’, ‘caps lock’, ‘shift’, etc are provided on the side and are larger than other keys to enable larger surface areas to tap without looking. In fact, the QWERTY design of the keyboard layout exists so that we do not need to constantly keep looking at the keyboard while we type. If the function of the UI is to be as transparent as it can while it facilitates our interaction with the computer, then the Macbook Touchbar is definitely working in the opposite direction.

If we are to understand technologies and societies not as groupings of isolated, independent parts, but as a complex system of relationships, then we must look at technology as undergoing, what Brian Arthur calls, combinatorial evolution (Arthur, 7; Irvine, 1).

The touchbar replaces the top row of the keyboard which contained function keys F1-F9. Over the years these keys have lost their original relevance as terminal keys and began serving as keys for other functions within the mac ecosystem. F1  increased brightness, F2 decreased brightness, F3 launched “Mission Control” (a form of multi screen display in macs), F4 launched the application menu, and so on. Though these keys relied on convention i.e. one had to learn the commands and practice it over time to remember, most users who grew up using these keyboards were familiar with them. This meant there was no need to divert attention from the screen while typing. The touchbar introduced by the Macbook in 2020 evolves from the predictive texting feature in iPhone, a feature that is useful when the keyboard is seamlessly attached to the screen. But that is not the case with Macbook, where the keyboard is at right angles with the screen. Only recently one could seamlessly move the fingers over to the F2 to decrease brightness, one now has to look at the various symbols open it up and scroll along a display.

Though there are many constraints designed into the touchbar to help us focus (for example, other icons disappear when one of the icons is tapped), it overall is going through the same historical issue that Norman mentions in his design of everyday things: “Each time a new technology comes along, new designers make the same horrible mistakes as their predecessors. Technologists are not noted for learning from the errors of the past. They look forward, not behind, so they repeat the same problems over and over again” (Norman, xv) and adding OLED touchbars is just that.


References –

Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. Excerpts from chapters 1, 2, 4.

Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002. Excerpts from Preface and Chap. 1.

Martin Irvine, Introduction to Design Thinking: Systems and Architectures

William Lidwell, Kritina Holden, and Jill ButlerUniversal Principles of Design. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2010. Excerpts.