What are tangible user interfaces (TUIs), and how do they enhance UX?

Considering that Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) has become an increasingly integral part of our daily lives, it’s essential to take a moment to understand how humans experience computer interactions and how we can expand beyond the current constraint to create the best experience possible.

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Photo by Warren Wong on Unsplash denoting human’s lives tangled between phones

From waking up to an alarm on our smartphones, reading news on tablets, working on our laptops to watching series on our TVs, we do many things with technological interaction in our everyday lives. The joy of doing all kinds of activities with different interactive mediums is replaced and confined to a static frame that is displayed in front of us throughout the day.

As more and more objects we interact with and our ways to do different tasks become digitally connected, questioning these types of usage will become increasingly important.

Imagining that we could still interact with technology beyond static frames, looking into the tangible forms of interactions that would bring us back to our physical environment and make it more enjoyable to use.

TUIs (Tangible User Interfaces) are novel forms of human-computer interactions based on the physical manipulation of everyday objects introduced by Hiroshi Ishii and Brygg Ullmer.

An interface that is tangible is one that involves a physical embodiment or token that interfaces with the digital world in the case of data, computations, information, and so on. it emphasizes that a user interface can be achieved not only with a screen, but also with any physical object that can be touched, heard, or seen.

As users are intuitively familiar with everyday objects, these interfaces take advantage of their rich physical attributes. As a result of their similarity in physical shape or types of manipulations, they offer a tight coupling between real and digital objects.

One of the best examples is the computer mouse with its two parts and scroll wheel, as a representation of physical objects used to interact with digital information.

Representation of modes of use with TUI(Tangible User Interface) Vs GUI(Graphical User Interface)

A Tangible User Interface (TUI) reduces cognitive load and improves usability

  • Things that are tangible impart a greater sense of connection to humans and help them better understand them.
  • In some cases, technology and people speak different languages, which causes problems when performing tasks or achieving results.
  • A tangible object has the ability to demonstrate embodied cognition, which makes it simpler to comprehend how the technology encapsulated in it works than an intangible object. Because interaction is not only based on imagination and comprehension, but also on tangible representations, it is easier to understand the workings of the technology embodied in it.
  • By using tangible media, we can bridge the gap between technological use and understanding of certain things. Furthermore, this paper on touching services shows that…

By connecting with a service object physically, one develops a stronger psychological connection with it, which processes behavioral intentions and understanding.

With tangible tokens for code building, this project aims to reduce cognitive load and presents its possibilities as experimental prototypes.

The magic of product use is a mix of physical and digital interaction

Our bodies are designed to respond to touch, not just to perceive the environment around us — Mary Halton in one of her blogs at TED

  • We are sentient, experiential beings whose experiences are defined by our senses and emotions.
  • An enriching and fulfilling experience directly correlate with the number of senses involved, according to Jinsop Lee’s Ted Talk.
  • Despite the visual nature of the digital experience, tangible user interfaces can also make the experience more tactile through material play. It is thus more understandable, enjoyable and even surprising to use products whose forms follow functions and engages multiple senses.
  • A tactile interface experience could also make us feel emotionally closer. As Psychology Guy Winch states, “Touch is something we associate with emotional closeness, and without it, we feel emotionally distant.”
Through the use of similar forms and motion, a video editing TUI (tangible user interface) could simplify the implementation and make it easier to understand.

The Tangible User Interface (TUI) allows us to connect with the physical world while interacting with technology.

  • With the advent of the digital age, there are some digital deficits have emerged due to technological invasions, such as lack of focus, social isolation, reliance on devices for companionship, virtual distance, and a reduction in connection to nature. As humans enrich their lives through physical experiences, technology should embrace them rather than replacing it.
  • Using TUI (Tangible User Interface) humans can access experiences beyond their mobile phones or any rectangle screen to bridge the gap between the physical and digital worlds.
  • A user could regain direct contact with the physical world by using known physical tokens requiring minimal action input to computerize and interact with digital media. By simplifying actions corresponding to the use, the experiences become more engaging and quick to perform.
With flipping and rotating as the method of changing inputs, here is a cube that does day-to-day fixed functions as the user performs an action, keeping the user’s interaction minimal and them grounded in the physical world.

Tangible user interfaces (TUIs) are prone to being more accessible and delightful.

  • Human beings are accustomed to interacting with the physical world in a day-to-day basis, so tangible interfaces could leverage this mental modality and decrease the cognitive load our interaction with technology could have. As a result of physical embodiment, we would be able to bring the body into the equation of interaction, making it more intuitive, enriching, and delightful.
  • A TUI (Tangible User Interface) could be used by a wider audience than a GUI (Graphical User Interface) due to its potential for multiple senses of interaction. thus It can play a great role in making technology more accessible for people with disabilities and those who do not have much tech use experience
  • It may thus also be possible to increase participation ratios for individuals of all ages, including seniors, novices, and those with special needs since TUI could be more like our natural environment.
Here’s a project of a weather visualizer implemented as a TUI (tangible user interface). With the help of form and motion depiction of the natural world, Providing quick and enjoyable weather information without requiring users to interact.

Tangible user interfaces (TUI) are a great medium for Calm Technology

  • In our daily lives, there are several tasks we don’t need to devote our full attention to in order to accomplish, For instance, a reminder or an alert. It is in such cases that products can inform or interact with users in an ambient manner so that they are not completely distracted from their main tasks.
  • This allows humans to focus on the experience provided by the product rather than how to use the product to achieve their goals.
  • Ambient technology, as IN10 pointed out, is now more empowering for humans than ever before. A suitable medium, such as tangible user interfaces, can enable technology to be empathetic to the user, resulting in human-centered manifestations of autonomous behavior that could make life safer and more intuitive in the future.

In this way, it can be viewed more as a subtle form of digitally enhanced reality rather than a hyper-reality.

Here is an example of Google’s products as TUI (Tangible user interface) providing users with subtle nudges for their day-to-day tasks…

Tangible User Interface (TUI) could be more sustainable

  • 50 million metric tons, roughly 300 blue whales, and 1000 laptops per second. This is the amount of toxic electronic waste thrown away every year.
  • While technology has helped bridge gaps in communication management and more over the last few years, it has also created its own problems. One of them is its electronic embodiment, which contributes to E-Waste.
  • A more sustainable and optimal experience from technology can be achieved by decreasing the craze for types of products and focusing on experience-driven modular digital embodied products.

As technology advances, so could its way of use. Even though it is difficult to disrupt and build on the existing pixel empire of machines, tangible user interfaces could offer a wide range of benefits, from bringing humans back into the physical environment to increasing participation ratios and reducing cognitive load. To make the user experience as delightful, enriching, accessible, and sustainable as possible in this digital era.

Thank you for reading, hope this inspires you to make great experiences.

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