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What is a mouse?

I’m sure that readers of this blog have already thought this, so forgive me if I’m a bit slow, but with the release of the Apple iPad, it finally struck me that in my lifetime one of my employees will actually say:

What is a mouse?

At that moment, I will think of tube socks, Michael Jordan Nike Airs (the originals!), Polaroids, Commodore 64s, vinyl records, eight-tracks, cassette tapes, VHSes, CRTs, rotary phones, the Motorola StarTAC, the original Star Wars, and so on. I will be amazed that an entire generation of humans will never know that we used a device to move a cursor in 2D space. And then it will really hit me: comic books are dead.

Of course, it won’t come as a complete shock to me as I wave my hand in front of {insert name of whatever we’re calling computer screens at the time} to close my open applications. Certainly by then everything I use will receive 3D input.

We are, according to Bill Buxton, in the final throes (i.e., the next 5 years) of flushing out multi-touch innovation. Assuming, of course, it follows the course of what he considers the “long nose of innovation.” Frankly, given what the iPhone has already done, and what the iPad (and the alleged touch iMac) assumes to do, I can’t say that I disagree with him. More importantly, I’ve been thinking about the extension of multi-touch to online legal research, and whether it will usher in a new paradigm for discovering, researching, gathering, interpreting, or sharing results.

Here are some preliminary (and very rough) thoughts about the matter:

  • Website GUIs should be thinking about touch now. Apple’s iWork suite was revamped for touch. In much the same way, publishers who deliver their content online should be thinking about touch interfaces, and not just for mobile phones. For example, are your menus too tight? Do you continue to use textual menus that could be reduced to icons (“Home” instead of a home button, or “Tools” instead of a wrench)? Remember, fingers are not transparent, like a cursor. If the vast majority of legal researchers are right-handed, should we be placing menus on the right-hand side of the screen? This would be contrary to current eyeball-tracking analysis that says we look at screens in a decidedly “F” shape pattern. But does touch change where we look on a screen? (I have an entire journal already dedicated to mock ups trying to anticipate GUI changes based on simple multi-touch gestures. It’s fascinating to think about the possibilities.)
  • Does touch change the way we interact with our digital information? How many hands or fingers do you use to read, highlight, copy, create notes, etc. when you are researching a topic? How many books do you have open or documents in print lying around on your desk when constructing an argument? How does your physical (finger) interaction with this material translate to the web? It seems to me that we will see a greater use of context menus that change based on our input stimulus (e.g., one menu when you press and hold, a different one when you drag your finger across the screen, yet another when you use two or more fingers). Right now context menus are very limited, unless you combine mouse action with keyboard commands (something usually reserved for more sophisticated or “power” users).

photo (1)(My desk on any given day. What is this going to look like in a multi-touch environment?)

  • Does touch change the way I present my digital content? What I’m referring to here specifically are the containers legal publishers tend to put their secondary sources into for purposes of search. For example, some publishers limit your search results to a specific subsection of a section of a subchapter of a chapter. Do I display a larger selection of content (e.g., an entire subchapter) because it is easier to scroll or flip through it, much like reading a book?

Having seen and used WestlawNext, it is a modern system to be sure, but it is also several years old already. And the new Lexis system will undoubtedly be much of the same. These systems are going to satisfy the vast majority of legal researchers tethered to the old mouse and keyboard, but we are fast approaching the point on the horizon where multi-touch, like search, becomes a big part of the debate on researching efficiencies. I can’t wait for this debate because I think it will provide opportunities for start-ups to create better mouse-traps for secondary source material, which if Richard Leiter is correct, may be the biggest selling point for Westlaw and Lexis in the digital future.

[Image (cc) by Plastic Revolver]

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