Reactable_MultitouchWe’ve covered several types of interfaces here on the Nelson-Miller blog, but one that we’ve yet to discuss is a tangible user interface. Granted, they aren’t as popular or widely used as human machine interfaces (HMI) or graphical user interfaces (GUI), but they still play an important role in the function of many businesses. So, what is a tangible user interface and how do they work?

Let’s first break down the term and its meaning. “Tangible,” as you may already know, refers to something that can be touched. And “user interface” refers to an input device and/or software that allows a human operator to control a machine or device.  Based on this information alone, it’s safe to assume that a tangible user interface is an input device and/or software that can be touched.

Wikipedia provides a pretty accurate description of tangible user interfaces, saying it’s a a user interface that allows an operator to interact “with digital information through the physical environment.” Also known as a “graspable user interface” — a term that is rarely used today — it’s primary purpose is to empower collaboration, learning and design through the use of physical elements. The general idea is that by integrating physical elements into a user interface, it promotes greater satisfaction and ease of use.

In order for a user interface to be classified as a tangible, it must possesses the following characteristics:

  • Space-multiplex for input and output
  • Concurrent access and manipulation of interface components
  • Strong specific devices
  • Spatially aware computational devices
  • Spatial re-configurability of devices

You might be wondering what, if any, benefits there are to using a tangible user interface. Well, there are several “potential” benefits associated with tangible user interfaces, but they vary depending on how and when it’s being used. With that said, tangible user interfaces have been shown to improve learning performance through multimodal feedback. Perhaps this is because users can feel the interface, which improves engagement and satisfaction.

There are also some disadvantages associated with tangible user interfaces, however, one of which is greater wear and tear. Because they can be felt, these interfaces tend to see greater wear and tear over the years. It’s doubtful that a tangible user interface will break down after just a few uses, but constant use can and will degrade the interface. So if you’re looking for a strong, rugged user interface that’s designed to withstand constant use, perhaps you should choose a different model.