A Touch of Touch

Included in the recently-released iOS 12.1.1 update are enhancements specifically for iPhone XR users. They can now change how long they must tap and hold on something for the Haptic Touch gesture to be invoked; and, iPhone XR users can now display the detailed view of a notification by touching and holding on one from the lock screen or Notification Centre.

Benjamin Mayo, 9to5Mac:

Prior to this release, a third-party developer could perfectly copy the Haptic Touch experience in their own apps by setting up a long press gesture recognizer, that concludes with a haptic vibration. However, now that users can adjust the duration in this new Haptic Touch menu, a third-party app will not be able to stay in sync with the user’s preferences.

The supported API for 3D Touch allows apps to inherit the exact same behavior (including changes to 3D Touch Sensitivity) as Apple’s 3D Touch implementations, but an analogous system for Haptic Touch does not currently exist. We’ll be on the lookout to see if Apple adds a formal Haptic Touch developer API in the future.

I get why the iPhone XR has an LCD display, a single camera, and uses aluminum instead of stainless steel — all of these attributes seem like reasonable differences compared to the X and the XS line. But withholding 3D Touch is a confusing compromise.

3D Touch is far from ideal. It is horribly inconsistent and undiscoverable. Even Apple can’t seem to decide what it should do uniquely, per the iOS HIG:

Don’t make peek the only way to perform item actions. Not every device supports peek and pop, and some people may turn off 3D Touch. Your app should provide other ways to trigger item actions in situations like these. For example, your app could mirror a peek’s quick actions in a view that appears while touching and holding an item.

It is worth asking: if the same action is invoked by using 3D Touch as it is when the user simply taps and holds, then what is the clear and direct intent of 3D Touch?

However, I think it’s a feature that is made worse by its exclusion on the iPhone XR, where it is sort of replaced with Haptic Touch. Haptic Touch is like 3D Touch, except for all of the ways in which it is not. It works for the flashlight and camera buttons on the lock screen, invokes a trackpad from the onscreen keyboard’s space bar, and, as mentioned earlier, on notification bubbles. But it does not work in every place 3D Touch does: an app’s icon on the home screen does not display a menu when the user touches and holds on it, and the peek and pop gestures are unseen. It also does not have a specific developer API, meaning that there’s no way to target it specifically.

Stranger still, Haptic Touch is a feature that Apple is uncharacteristically shy about. It is mentioned only once in the iPhone XR press release, and not at all in the iPhone user guide, iPhone XR marketing pages, or in its tech specs. Maybe that’s because it feels less clever, and more like a half-baked imitation. It’s the La Croix of 3D Touch.

All of this means that Haptic Touch is perhaps even less discoverable than 3D Touch, and has very little in common with it.

For whatever reason 3D Touch was eliminated from the iPhone XR, the current lineup of iPhone products is quite strange: it is obviously present on the flagship XS and XS Max models, but even the 7 and 8 models that Apple is still selling sport 3D Touch displays. And it’s not just the iPhone that has suffered from poor uptake of depth-sensing features: recent versions of WatchOS have scaled back its use of Force Touch, and the iPad has never received anything like 3D Touch, despite having some touch-and-hold features without haptic feedback.

I’ve long been a staunch defender of 3D Touch — I use its features all the time, and it now feels strange to me when an iPhone does not have it. I would rather see continued investment on that front to establish consist guidelines for its use, and make it a more obvious part of the system. But if 3D Touch is truly on its way out, it should be a clean kill across the board. A piecemeal approach with a similar-but-not-quite-the-same feature on just one product is a confusing distraction.