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Usability spotter #5- HP laptop touch pads with scroll zones- absence of tactile cue

Summary
The issue with HP laptops that have a touch pad with a scroll zone contained it (as shown in image A) is that they do not provide a tactile cue for the user to help interpret what section of the touch pad the finger is positioned at. In the absence of a tactile cue, it is difficult for the user to determine whether the finger is on touch pad or the scroll zone without looking at it, resulting in the accidental scrolling on the screen when actually the user simply wants to move the cursor. The issue and multiple solutions are discussed ahead.

The issue with HP laptop touchpads with scoll zones- Absence of a tactile cue

HP laptop touch pad with scroll zone
(Image A)

To be more precise, the issue described in this post refers to HP laptops and all other laptops that have touch pads with ‘scroll zones’ similar to the image (of the HP 6510B model) above.

Illustrating the usability issue with HP laptop touch pad with scroll zone

In the above illustration of the touch pad, you can see that the top view provides the user a visual cue to differentiate the mouse area and scroll zone. The side view however, illustrates the absence of relief to translate the visual cue to a tactile cue.

The users will receive the same consistent tactile feedback whether the finger is on the mouse area or the scroll zone. It is this absence of a tactile cue that reduces chances of error free operation of the touch pad without the aid of visual feedback (the user looking at the touch pad).

While the user can estimate the position of their finger in the touch pad’s horizontal space by either orienting through visual feedback or by tactile feedback alone (by feeling the edges of the sunken touch pad to get an idea of the width of the entire touch pad), relying upon the user to do so correctly in all situations is a design compromise. Especially when the user is working in a hurry or busy, there is not much attention the user can allocate to such a task when concentrating on accomplishing an important goal. Error in touch pad operation at this time will understandably be more frustrating for the user.

Error criticality in this case might not be significant but frequency of the issue definitely is. Considering that Image A is a picture of an HP business laptop (6510B), and the fact that business laptops are all about increasing productivity, this should be a valid case for HP to work upon the stated touch pad usability issue.

Solution- Introduction of a tactile cue in the touch pad

A logical solution to the issue is to providing a tactile cue will allow the user to operate the touch pad in an error free manner with the tactile cue acting as an effective indicator of the different sections contained in the touch pad. This will allow the user to only rely on their finger to determine accurately where the finger is on the touch pad without having to resort to utilizing to their sense of sight which should be focussed towards the monitor.

What would be an effective tactile cue? The solutions described below describe two different concepts to building a tactile cue in with the common goal of helping the user effectively determine which section is the finger placed upon. through tactile feedback alone.

1. Using a tactile cue to notifying the user of zone boundaries

Illustrating solution three of the usability issue with HP laptop touch pad with scroll zone

The above illustration elevated the surface along a line to create a ridge to serve as a demarcation. This ridge acts as an effective tactile cue for the user to interpret whether the finger is upon the mouse area or scroll zone.

2. Tactile differentiation

Tactile patterns can be used to provide differentiated tactile feedback for the different touch pad sections.

2.1 Tactile differentiation through utilization of a horizontal line tactile pattern

Illustrating solution one of the usability issue with HP laptop touch pad with scroll zone

This solution uses the visual marking (see Image A) to form a tactile cue. The visual cue (horizontal lines) is converted to a tactile cue, that is- the horizontal lines are converted to low relief. This might be done by using an ink that creates a low relief when printing the horizontal lines. It is important that the relief be extremely low and just enough for the user to sense differentiation in texture from the smooth mouse area.

2.2 Tactile differentiation through application of a solid-rough tactile pattern

Illustrating solution three of the usability issue with HP laptop touch pad with scroll zone

A solid-rough tactile pattern or otherwise may be used to create extremely low relief on the existing touch pad surface that will allow the user to differentiate the scroll zone from the mouse area’s smooth surface.

Your thoughts?

What are your thoughts on such touch pads without tactile cues? Have you used a laptop with such a touch pad? Was it easy to use, tough or frustrating? I would like to know.

  • Great post. I have seen some touchpads (a Lenovo, for instance) that had a different texture on the side. An of course many have visual markings but no texture difference.

    Overall, I think it’s a good idea because it helps people locate the zone, as you say. There are a few complications, but these are probably outweighed by the benefits:
    – Users can adjust the width of the zone in the control panel, so the texture won’t always match the real zone.
    – Having the scroll zone demarcated might give users the false impression that they can’t use this area for pointing (when in fact they can — it’s only vertical motion that is interpreted as scrolling in the scroll zone). This effectively reduces the size of the touchpad for some users and could be off-putting.
    – Touchpads have horizontal scroll zones too, but marking that as well might look cluttered.
    – A more important texture cue is at the edges of the touchpad. There has to be a tactile bezel (some laptops don’t have this, which is really bad). I find that I locate the scroll zone by feeling for the touchpad bezel edge, so to some extent that obviates the need for a texture to define the zone.

    (I work at Synaptics, which makes touchpads, so I think about these things a lot. 🙂

  • Cone Trees

    Kevin, thanks for the comment. These are interesting points you’ve mentioned. Here’s to discussing it further.

    “Users can adjust the width of the zone in the control panel, so the texture won’t always match the real zone.”

    – I am not aware of this feature on the laptop specifically mentioned in the post. But if it does exist, then how would the horizontal line pattern (or any other visual cue) match the adjusted zone?

    “Having the scroll zone demarcated might give users the false impression that they can’t use this area for pointing (when in fact they can — it’s only vertical motion that is interpreted as scrolling in the scroll zone). This effectively reduces the size of the touchpad for some users and could be off-putting.”

    – This is interesting. Has Synaptics conducted some user research around this? It would be interesting to know what the results broadly say.

    “Touchpads have horizontal scroll zones too, but marking that as well might look cluttered.”

    – Again, not in the touch pad for the laptop I mention in this post. Which laptops have touch pads with horizontal zones? Are they used on popular brands? If they are not marked, is it left up to the user to discover the feature? I would assume this would have a low error rate as compared to the vertical scroll zone (accidentally scrolling while wanting to move cursor around) because of the fact that horizontal scrolling screens are usually not very common.

    “A more important texture cue is at the edges of the touchpad. There has to be a tactile bezel (some laptops don’t have this, which is really bad). I find that I locate the scroll zone by feeling for the touchpad bezel edge, so to some extent that obviates the need for a texture to define the zone.”

    – I have mentioned utilizing the touch pad bezel in the post. I also mention why its myopic to expect users to do so. It seems like a work around for users that they have to resort to in absence of a design that should take care of it and let them concentrate on accomplishing their actual goals. Any user research data on this would be great again.

  • Hi again Abhay,

    Since you said it’s a Synaptics touchpad, yes, it probably allows you to adjust the scroll zone sizes and it probably has horizontal scrolling. If you go into the mouse control panel, click on the Synaptics tab, and then click “settings” it should bring up a new dialog with all the settings. (At least this is what happens with the standard driver — sometimes PC makers customize this part.)

    Usually the horizontal zone isn’t marked, so it’s up to the user to discover it. The same goes for the rest of the settings — and as you can tell from the above, it’s not exactly easy to find! This is a real usability challenge…

    Regarding user perception of touchpad size and scroll zone, no we don’t have real data on this; just some informal impressions from working with users.

    Thanks again for the stimulating post. I think what you suggest is a good idea and more laptops should incorporate design features like this.

  • Cone Trees

    Thanks Kevin. I’m glad you liked it.

    I formatted my machine and this time round, I avoided all the extra drivers I could do without so it didn’t show up on my laptop. However, I checked on my colleague’s machine, as you mentioned the features were available. Findability and coherence seem to be two major concerns that could help increasing overall usability of the touch pad.

  • Paul

    I agree; but how do you disable this infernal “scroll” pad device???

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  • Hi there, my question is a bit off subject. Do you use electric gel based pads? And what type of Interfase does this technology use? And where can i find out more about this technology?

  • Cone Trees

    Hi Ben. Perhaps you might want to ask Kevin who works at Synaptics.

  • Erik

    I have a hp compaq nc6400 and the scroll facility on the touch pad has driven me to distraction ever since I started using the machine. Finally I decided to try and turn it off so I ended up here. Thanks to your comments I chased the Synaptics settings and have been successful. I agree its not obvious. This may help someone.

    1. Start/Control panel/mouse
    2. Mine shows “Synoptics TouchPad V6.2 on PS/2 Port.
    3. Click Device Settings.
    4. Shows Synaptics TouchPad V6.2
    5. Click Settings which gives a properties window.
    6. Click Scrolling gives separate vertical and horizontal enabling/disenabling. My vertical scrolling was enabled.
    7. Remove enabling.
    8. Back out.
    9. Problem fixed.

    I think I’d describe this feature as “an idea whose time has not come”.

    Erik