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The why and when of touch events

These touch events come in a few different flavors. There are taps, swipes, rotations, pinches, and more complicated gestures available for you to make your users’ experience more enjoyable. Each type of touch event has an established convention which is important to know, so your user has minimal friction when using your website for the first time:

  • The tap is analogous to the mouse click in a traditional desktop environment, whereas, the rotate, pinch, and related gestures have no equivalence. This presents an interesting problem—what can those events be used for?
  • Pinch events are typically used to scale views (have a look at the following screenshot of Google Maps accessed from an iPad, which uses pinch events to control the map’s zoom level), while rotate events generally rotate elements on screen. Swipes can be used to move content from left to right or top to bottom.
  • Multifigure gestures can be different as per your website’s use cases, but it’s still worthwhile examining if a similar interaction already exists, and thus an established convention.

Web applications can benefit greatly from touch events. For example, imagine a paint-style web application. It could use pinches to control zoom, rotations to rotate the canvas, and swipes to move between color options. There is almost always an intuitive way of using touch events to enhance a web application.

In order to get comfortable with touch events, it’s best to get out there and start using them practically. To this end, we will be building a paint tool with a difference, that is, instead of using the traditional mouse pointer as the selection and drawing tool, we will exclusively use touch events. Together, we can learn just how awesome touch events are and the pleasure they can afford your users.

Touch events are the way of the future, and adding them to your developer tool belt will mean that you can stay at the cutting edge. While MC Hammer may not agree with these events, the rest of the world will appreciate touching your applications.

Testing while keeping your sanity (Simple)

Touch events are awesome on touch-enabled devices. Unfortunately, your development environment is generally not touch-enabled, which means testing these events can be trickier than normal testing. Thankfully, there are a bunch of methods to test these events on non-touch enabled devices, so you don’t have to constantly switch between environments. In saying that though, it’s still important to do the final testing on actual devices, as there can be subtle differences.

How to do it…

  1. Learn how to do initial testing with Google Chrome.
  2. Debug remotely with Mobile Safari and Safari.
  3. Debug further with simulators and emulators.
  4. Use general tools to debug your web application.

How it works…

As mentioned earlier, testing touch events generally isn’t as straightforward as the normal update-reload-test flow in web development. Luckily though, the traditional desktop browser can still get you some of the way when it comes to testing these events.

While you generally are targeting Mobile Safari on iOS and Chrome, or Browser on Android, it’s best to do development and initial testing in Chrome on the desktop. Chrome has a handy feature in its debugging tools called Emulate touch events. This allows a lot of your mouse-related interactions to trigger their touch equivalents. You can find this setting by opening the Web Inspector, clicking on the Settings cog, switching to the Overrides tab, and enabling Emulate touch events (if the option is grayed out, simply click on Enable at the top of the screen).

Using this emulation, we are able to test many touch interactions; however, there are certain patterns (such as scaling and rotating) that aren’t really possible just using emulated events and the mouse pointer. To correctly test these, we need to find the middle ground between testing on a desktop browser and testing on actual devices.

There’s more…

Remember the following about testing with simulators and browsers:

Device simulators

While testing with Chrome will get you some of the way, eventually you will want to use a simulator or emulator for the target device, be it a phone, tablet, or other touch-enabled device.

Testing in Mobile Safari

The iOS Simulator, for testing Mobile Safari on iPhone, iPod, and iPad, is available only on OS X. You must first download Xcode from the App Store. Once you have Xcode, go to Xcode | Preferences | Downloads | Components, where you can download the latest iOS Simulator. You can also refer to the following screenshot:

You can then open the iOS Simulator from Xcode by accessing Xcode | Open Developer Tool | iOS Simulator. Alternatively, you can make a direct alias by accessing Xcode’s package contents by accessing the Xcode icon’s context menu in the Applications folder and selecting Show Package Contents. You can then access it at Xcode.app/Contents/Applications. Here you can create an alias, and drag it anywhere using Finder.

Once you have the simulator (or an actual device); you can then attach Safari’s Web Inspector to it, which makes debugging very easy. Firstly, open Safari and then launch Mobile Safari in either the iOS Simulator or on your actual device (ensure it’s plugged in via its USB cable). Ensure that Web Inspector is enabled in Mobile Safari’s settings via Settings | Safari | Advanced | Web Inspector. You can refer to the following screenshot:

Then, in Safari, go to Develop | | . You can now use the Web Inspector to inspect your remote Mobile Safari instance as shown in the following screenshot:

Testing in Mobile Safari in the iOS Simulator allows you to use the mouse to trigger all the relevant touch events. In addition, you can hold down the Alt key to test pinch gestures.

Testing on Android’s Chrome

Testing on the Android on desktop is a little more complicated, due to the nature of the Android emulator. Being an emulator and not a simulator, its performance suffers (in the name of accuracy). It also isn’t so straightforward to attach a debugger.

You can download the Android SDK from http://developer.android.com/sdk. Inside the tools directory, you can launch the Android Emulator by setting up a new Android Virtual Device (AVD). You can then launch the browser to test the touch events. Keep in mind to use instead of localhost to access local running servers.

To debug with a real device and Google Chrome, official documentation can be followed at https://developers.google.com/chrome-developer-tools/docs/remote-debugging.

When there isn’t a built-in debugger or inspector, you can use generic tools such as Web Inspector Remote (Weinre). This tool is platform-agnostic, so you can use it for Mobile Safari, Android’s Browser, Chrome for Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, and so on. It can be downloaded from http://people.apache.org/~pmuellr/weinre.

To start using Weinre, you need to include a JavaScript on the page you want to test, and then run the testing server. The URL of this JavaScript file is given to you when you run the weinre command from its downloaded directory.

When you have Weinre running on your desktop, you can use its Web Inspector-like interface to do remote debugging and inspecting your touch events, you can send messages to console.log() and use a familiar interface for other debugging.


In this article the author has discussed about the touch events and has highlighted the limitations faced by such events when an unfavorable environment is encountered. He has also discussed the methods to test these events on non-touch enabled devices.

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