Haptics in Communication: A Revolution in Usability Studies

Communication through Haptics

Wired magazine saw 2001 as the beginning of the haptic feedback revolution. The article on haptics in communication portrayed that within five years, manipulating holograms with haptic gloves would be the norm. But almost two decades later, that vision of haptics hasn’t come to fruition. While we may be on our 20th rendition of the Star Wars movies with no real life hologram in sight, haptics in communication have become something truly amazing. Haptics are more widespread and common than our turn-of-the-millennium selves could have ever imagined.

Haptics in communication: A brief history

What is haptic feedback? Haptic feedback, or in short- haptics, is the subtle vibrations that a device uses to communicate with its users. In the past, these communications were often LED blinking lights or small auditory noises. What once started as just another notification system has turned into an augmented user experience, a revolution in usability. Haptics’ ultimate goal is to make working with devices feel more lifelike and intuitive.

Using haptics in communication began to take center stage in the 90’s. The beginning versions of haptics were not much more than a one-speed vibration but revolutionary for the time.  In 1994, the first interactive vest was introduced, which vlogger Techquickie puts it best as “a glorified subwoofer taped to your chest” [1]Haptics fully made their way into entertainment with the introduction of the 1997 rumble pack for the Nintendo 64 controller. Entertainment was forever changed. Every iteration of controller since has made haptic feedback a mainstay in gaming, with mimicked collisions and augmented playing.

While haptic advancements are most evident in the realm of entertainment, they’ve seeped into most of our technology today. Thanks to relatively simple and cheap hardware, haptics in communication are now an intricate part of numerous areas of our daily life. From our cell phones, smart watches, fitness trackers and laptops and we will continue to see expansion and improvement. Haptics have opened the door to creating an entire experience for the user.

What haptics in communication means for market research

Usability, which is already a whole segment of market research, asks the question, “how can our devices be handled effortlessly and intuitively?” Haptics is part of that solution. Haptic feedback is more than a flashing light, it’s true communication with the user. We are far more likely to respond to a vibration than we are to a small print instruction manual.

Think that’s an exaggerated statement?

According to Geek.com, 64% of males do not even read the instructions before calling tech support.[2] Good use of haptics in communication reduces error, reduces stress, and increases overall satisfaction with devices. Whether from the first try to daily use, haptic communication makes sense in product design. Tech companies should develop research around testing the effectiveness and addition of haptics to devices, but more importantly the intuitive meaning behind haptics.

One of the guiding principles of haptics in communication is to create haptics that are natural. Simply ask the masters of haptics – Apple – who created a comprehensive set of guidelines for strong haptic design. [3]Not only does strength and duration of a tactile notification matter, but also the frequency, visual and auditory experience that accompanies it. If the user turns off the haptics setting, does the device still work? Does it still communicate the same story and user features? Haptics should never stand alone but should augment the experience, help add to the message.

As far away as hologram manipulation with haptic gloves may be, it’s clear that haptics in communication are here to stay and will only continue to become a mainstream asset in our daily lives. As haptics become second nature to us as a culture, market research should continue to focus on haptics to improve device usability through research.

[1] (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUuFn0urnTM).

[2] . (https://www.geek.com/news/study-says-64-of-men-dont-even-read-the-manual-before-calling-tech-support-969371/

[3] https://developer.apple.com/design/human-interface-guidelines/ios/user-interaction/feedback/