Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

On 3D Touch

Jason Snell isn’t exactly enamoured with 3D Touch:

Although Apple’s proud of the peek/pop interface that it unveiled with the iPhone 6s, I’m skeptical of its utility. Most of the time, when I accidentally initiate a “peek” of the content behind whatever I’m pressing on, it’s content I was already trying to see by tapping. Loading a “peek” doesn’t really take any more time than actually tapping on an item and loading the result, and returning back to the previous screen seems a lot less work than holding your finger on the glass while you peruse a “peek” to see if it’s worth opening the rest of the way.

In other words, most of the time I don’t see any benefit to using 3D Touch to reveal content in apps over just tapping to reveal that content the usual way. It’s a solution to a problem we didn’t have. And this says a lot about the problem with the way Apple has deployed 3D Touch in iOS.

John Gruber agrees, and adds:

The gimmicky nature of peek/pop is alarming. I never got into “peeking” while using my 6S — like Jason argues, it solves a problem we didn’t have. It’s not any faster than just tapping whatever it is you want to see, and worse, it’s harder to read because your thumb is still there covering the display. It’s a demo feature, not a real feature, and I find that deeply worrisome.

I’m not sure I agree with these two esteemed writers. The peek gesture works surprisingly well in a lot of cases: peeking on an unfamiliar Instagram profile or a Twitter account from within Tweetbot has become second-nature for me. Instead of loading an entire timeline or photo stream, I see only very recent stuff, but I get to see their bio and full name, which is what I often care about. Similarly, peeking on a Mail message is great for previewing it but not marking it as read.

Where the peek gesture does get frustrating is when it needs to transfer significant data over an average internet connection. Peeking on a web page is almost always pointless because most pages are far too large and take a long time to load.

Both Snell and Gruber call 3D Touch problematic for this reason, but this is only a single component of it. I think the app icon shortcuts are wonderfully implemented in lots of apps — in Transit, for example, I can instantly create a route home or to work using the shortcuts on the home screen. Even selecting an appropriate Messages conversation or opening a new Safari tab from the home screen feels right.

I use the multitasking shortcut a lot, too, and the keyboard-as-cursor gesture even more. None of these things feel gimmicky or like demo features to me; they’re all practical.

Snell summed it up well, I think:

This is, I realize, [one] of the reasons I stopped using 3D Touch so much. It seemed like so many places I attempted to use the gesture resulted in a whole lot of nothing. After a while, I gave up. 3D Touch needs to be pervasive. It needs to be a gesture that works all over the place, so that using it becomes second nature.

This is absolutely true. Peek is an occasionally superfluous and frustrating gesture due to slow load times, but if it didn’t work for links in Safari, you’d think it was missing. In that sense, 3D Touch gestures need to appear in far more places, including those suggested by Snell. I certainly try it in every app that I use

As he also notes, experiences vary from person-to-person. It’s fine that neither writer ever got into peeking on anything. But to consider 3D Touch broken because of it is, I think, stretching. At worst, Apple’s implementation of these gestures is messy and inconsistent.

I’m surprised that both of them have pretty much stopped using it — Snell because he just doesn’t use 3D Touch, and Gruber because he’s using an iPhone SE. It needs refinement, but I know I use it a lot because every time I use my iPad, I try it there. I’m sure many of you are the same.

Update: Jonas Wisser:

TBH I think a lot of it comes down to discoverability and consistency. 3D Touch has neither.

As I’ve written previously, I think we’ve entered a new age of experimental and “fuzzy” interfaces. The limitations of virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa, and new interface paradigms like 3D Touch are only discoverable if they behave consistently. All of these commenters are right: 3D Touch lacks that consistency, so it becomes a game of trying its functionality blindly and hoping for the best.

In a sense, we’ve now generally embraced mystery meat navigation. As a result, the consistency in its implementation needs to be stepped up before it feels “right”.