The Case for Hot Zones

This post is a playful reply to Marco’s thoughts on the iPad. I’m not trying to say that he’s wrong (he brings up a perfectly valid usability issue), just that there are two sides to every coin.

Update: A more fleshed out version of my thoughts on this topic is available on my company blog.

If you’re reading this, there’s a better-than-average chance that you’ve heard about or maybe even played with an iPad. Have you tried to show it to someone extremely nontechnical, like that parent or grandparent who has never really used computers, or those friends who are always scared of technology because their computers always confuse them and cost them money?

You hand it to them, the screen auto-rotates, and they’re amazed for a second as they wonder what they just did.

With universal auto-rotation, the massive touch screen, and highly reactive apps, the iPad (and the iPhone, but it’s even cooler on the iPad) is always “hot” — touch anywhere on the screen, brush off a speck of dust, or change its orientation slightly (often unintentionally), and something happens. You found something! Maybe you discovered a feature you didn’t know about, maybe you noticed something you hadn’t originally seen, or maybe you’re simply in awe for a few seconds.

We’re not accustomed to this. You can pick up a TV remote, twirl it around, and run your finger over some buttons without learning anything. It has very small hot zones that you’re unlikely to accidentally discover.

When the hot zone is the entire device, and it’s a device you’re likely to be frequently picking up and handling, using it is actually kind of exciting: you never know when you’ll uncover unexpected behavior, so you’re more curious and exploratory. Every time it auto-rotates when you didn’t know if it would, it’s a minor joy: this device is a step ahead, it’s thinking for you, and you don’t need to be “good” at it.

One reason the Kindle seems like a less exciting ebook reader, and why the Kindle 2 is so much more boring than the first Kindle, is that it has almost no hot zones. Accidentally rotate it a bit in bed? Nothing happens. Grab the side and pick it up? Nothing happens. Accidentally rest your thumb on the button without deliberately pushing down on the inner edge? Nothing happens. Brush some dust off the screen? You guessed it: nothing happens.

When you want to take an action, it’s not fun or exciting — it’s just like every other piece of hardware from the past twenty-five years.

By minimizing hot zones, the result is a less-innovative product that provides little discoverability for people with low technical confidence. When everything is a hot zone, user excitement and experimentation increases.