The visual affordances of touchscreen-enabled gloves

09.06, Wednesday 10 Jan 2024

I got some new gloves for Christmas. Thanks!

The first finger and thumb are made of a slightly shinier leather. I just noticed, I’ve been wearing them through this cold snap.

So I tried those fingers on my phone – they’re capacitive touch enabled.

And there I’ve been the last few days, putting on and taking off my gloves like a chump.

(The other fingers don’t work on my touchscreen which in retrospect is odd because, as I say, the gloves are leather and meat usually works on screens. Try some chorizo next chance you get. Anyway, so the leather curing process means that the gloves default to not working on my iPhone, then some secondary process re-enables the tips of two digits.)

Well I should have expected it.

Even my kid’s wool gloves have little grey coloured patches on the first finger and thumb to show where they are touch-enabled.

Putting aside my immediate reaction - we got those gloves when she was 4! She doesn’t have a phone! - I wonder what the thinking is behind using grey to communicate the touch affordance?

  • Grey as in “electronics”? Affordance by similarity.
  • Grey as an artefact of the manufacturing process, the colour of the capacitive thread maybe.
  • Grey as in dirty because those finger pads are used for a lot of touching?

I learn towards “grey as in touched a lot” because my Christmas gloves are matt leather and the fingertips for my phone have been made glossy. And glossy is what leather gets when regularly touched.

So the fabric has been given a pre-worn look. Like a worn patch on a door that shows that people have historically pushed it, and so I can push it too. But here it’s deliberate: the material has “rehearsed” touching and that material muscle memory transmits to me visually.

To perceive something is to get ready to act with it; seeing a mug handle makes your hand-grabbing neurons warm up. That’s how visual affordances work. It happens deep in the brain, I don’t want to have to comprehend my gloves, or remember what functionality they have, in the moment. Shiny leather patches it is then. Smart.

Design eh!


If you’re ancient enough to remember the original click wheel iPod (sigh) you’ll remember that when it switched from a mechanical wheel to being solid-state and touch-enabled, the designers also changed it from white to grey. I wrote about why at Mind Hacks in 2005:

The scrollwheel is a dirty grey. It looks like it has been touched a lot. It looks rubbery (although it’s not). It communicates the affordance of doing something when touched and dragged.

What is the feature called? I checked a couple brands.

Uniqlo doesn’t even mention it. But if you look at their gloves online (except for the cheapest and the specialist gloves) then the relevant finger pads do indeed look different.

Hugo Boss, higher end: they say TOUCHSCREEN-FRIENDLY FINGERTIPS. It’s tucked away in the product description, no biggie.

Now Alibaba. Let’s see what the factories say.

There are generic glove suppliers and also glove suppliers who are trying to “sell” the product. This is the copy they use:

Features: touchscreen, cold proof, windproof, lightweight

What I’ve learnt:

  • The term is touchscreen – not “-enabled” necessarily and not “smart” or “capacitive touch” or “works with phones.” The specific part of the glove doesn’t need to be mentioned either, it’s assumed.
  • At some point between buying my last pair of gloves, when this was an available feature but you had to hunt it out, and this Christmas just gone, touchscreen fingertips became the default.

I like to be reminded that standard clothes change over time.

Anything that I take for granted really. I find it hopeful to remember that the apparently permanent world is constructed. Clothes are a mesofact.

What other changes are coming?

Maybe in the future we’ll have winter coats with hoods big enough to accommodate our always-worn VR headsets.

Or special clips on our shoes to snap-fit onto motorised accelerators that everyone will own by then. Hoverboards or robot boots, I assume something like that.

But then features become vestigial.

The touchscreen fingertips on gloves will remain, years beyond us using capacitive touchscreens. Perhaps they won’t even work, it’ll just be the colour or the gloss.

We’ll look at the shiny leather finger pads and see them in the same category as the hoop on the side of my trousers for, well I don’t know what it’s for, carrying a hammer? It likely has some brand identity purpose now. Or a lapel button hole which is stitched closed now and I don’t know what its original utility was – for a buttonhole flower? Flowers were a sophisticated communications technology once up a time.

Or the little square pocket which is mandatory on jeans.

You never use it and one day you do and then you forget about a coin or something that ends up breaking your washing machine. It’s hazardously vestigial, the appendix of jeans.

The johnny pocket we used to call it as teens in the 90s. Perhaps it was wildly high tech for something or other in the 1850s? Don’t abandon your family to join a frenzied gold rush without it.

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