Just Don’t Remove the Function Keys

Posted by Matt Birchler
— 2 min read

Greg Morris: Just Don’t Remove the Function Keys

Your use case may vary, but that was something I could put up with had the Touch Bar shown a real use case outside gimmicky scrubbing through timelines or swiping through photos. It felt half-baked at best, and thrown in to appease users demanding more from their Macs.

I think the very popular Stream Deck proves that there was something to the idea of the Touch Bar, but the execution was just off. When I think about the differences that could make the Stream Deck more appealing, a few things come to mind.

  1. Stream Deck keys are additive to your experience. You don’t have to lose keys you’re accustomed to and enjoy on your laptop. Greg muses about how things would have gone if Apple added the Touch Bar above the function row in his piece as well.
  2. Deck keys are physical, which makes them more satisfying to hit, and in many cases are more accessible as the tiny touch screen of the Touch Bar requires more fine motor skills and better vision to identify where to press.
  3. The Stream Deck is built around the user having control of their keys. You can load up templates if you want, but most people browse for some things they personally find useful, which lets them build a personalized set of shortcuts that works for them. While you could technically do a variant of this using third party tools on the Mac, it seems like most nerds didn’t even do that, and ultimately we were left with lame Touch Bar experiences built out by devs who also didn’t particularly care for the Touch Bar.
  4. The Stream Deck keys are predictable. Again, users can set up rules to show different actions in different contexts, but that doesn’t happen by default, and because you’re in control of how it all works, it’s more predictable to you. The Touch Bar is constantly changing as you move from app to app, and even system controls like volume or brightness are displayed differently depending on what’s going on with the rest of the Touch Bar. It’s an unpredictable interface that’s always changing, so it’s near impossible to build muscle memory with it.

As Apple fans, we often say that execution and user-centric design beats a raw feature list every time, and Apple’s continued focus on those things is a major reason for their success today. In my view, the Touch Bar is an example of them not hitting the mark, and the Stream Deck is a convenient comparison we can use to try and understand why it didn’t work out.

Old ideas have a way of coming back, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Touch Bar come back in some new form down the road, and I hope that if it does it will take lessons from the Stream Deck.