Design can be free (part 3)

This is the third in a series. The first two showed how confusing products could be fixed with fairly simple changes. It’s often possible to significantly improve a product even using the same hardware.

This one tackles a much trickier problem: improving the quality of hardware. The majority of the terrible products I’ve discussed used simple push buttons instead of superior analog controls such as sliders or dials. Companies do this to cut costs in what feels like a continual “race to the bottom.”

To be clear, I’m not talking about phone apps here, but devices that are more hardware than screen. Devices that always have some type of hardware control. As an example, compare these two radios. The first one uses just three dials while the other is fundamentally different with nine push buttons. They are functionally equivalent, and there are good reasons for each, yet we should all agree that the experience of using the dial version is far easier.

My point isn’t to say you should never use push buttons but that they often come at a cost. Too many don’t understand that cost or just dismiss it outright. Before I’m labeled Old Man Simpson, this is more than just “getting used to it”, there are ergonomic impacts that make even experienced users make mistakes.

No silver bullet

I naively wanted this post to be so shockingly brilliant that it would galvanize the world into creating better hardware products. But as I’ve wrestled with writing this, it’s clear that many just don’t see the problem, as they assume a cheap button is nearly as good as a proper dial. They’ll openly admit a dial is indeed better but a cheap button is “good enough” and that a dial is “just too expensive.”

That actually may be true! There are cases when using a push button is the right choice. But not always. We need to understand when to try a bit harder. Yes, you’re spending a tiny bit more on hardware, but you’re creating a product that is usually much easier to use, reduces returns, and builds your brand which improves sales. Is this positive outcome a given? Of course not, nothing is guaranteed but we need to stop pretending there is NO COST to cheaping out on buttons. 

To be clear, if companies did proper UX design and actually tested their products, posts like this wouldn’t be needed. The costs of bad hardware design are actually obvious. But you need to be interested in looking. In this hyper competitive world where hardware is released quickly and with little testing, companies are just assuming certain designs are “obvious” or “clear enough”. Let’s step back a bit, talk about the mechanics of what is going on, so we can have a more nuanced discussion about what we should be doing and why. 

What’s a button?

We have to understand what is a “good button” and be able to discuss how they are abused. As an extreme example, let’s take a look at a product that has no buttons at all! 

It’s a painful video to watch. It describes how to reset a ‘smart lightbulb’ which has no buttons at all. This unfortunately means the consumer must turn the light on and off in a complex pattern. The processor on the device detects this pattern and if the user does it perfectly, then resets the device. As you can imagine, the online reviews have not been kind. They made it cheaper, that’s for sure! But the product is not a success.

This painful device helps us appreciate what a proper button should offer:

A properly designed button allows us to use it without a manual.

  • Discovery
    A button has a clear physical affordance and label. We can see it easily and don’t have to guess what it does. If there is more than 1 button, it’s easy to distinguish between them.

  • Actuation
    The physicality of the button is plainly visible and familiar to us. It’s not hidden or mysterious, we know how to push it.

  • Feedback
    The physical travel of the button and its sharp “click” is critical. It confirms to us that we have pushed the button far enough. We’ve done our part. 

The reason that the lightbulb video above is so painful to watch is that none of those three mechanisms are there. The device is completely devoid of physicality. What’s a better solution? A simple inexpensive pinhole reset button with a label. It isn’t perfect as actuation is difficult but it is fairly cheap and can be added to the device with much less complexity than a standard push button.

But is even this compromise solution more expensive? Of course it is, but the actual cost is so much more than just the bill of materials. You want the purchase price to be low but you also want quality to be high (enough). Imagine if this lightbulb was half the price but burnt out after just a week of use, it wouldn’t be on the market very long. You can’t save money by removing all buttons and then expect quality to remain constant.

So if we’re going to talk about when to use and when to avoid push buttons. We need to know how they can be abused. Again, I’m not anti-button, I’m anti-button-abuse. There are four ways buttons are abused and create UX problems.

Abuse #1: Toggling

We’re all familiar with the light switch on the left. Now imagine that it is replaced with the one on the right. How do you feel about it? It works, obviously, it’s not impossible to use but it’s not as clear. Why is that? (for simplicity’s sake, I’m assuming a single switch for a single light)

Replacing a tactile flip switch with a single button adds some user friction and confusion. Let’s use the three button attributes to understand why: 

  • Discovery
    At one level both are discoverable, you can easily see both on the wall. However, the physical switch has a clear on and an off state. Just by looking at it you know what state it’s in. You don’t have that with a basic button. Of course, adding an LED to the button improves this a bit but not all push buttons do this.

  • Actuation
    The physicality of the left switch is obvious. I don’t even have to look at it to use it as a quick slap on the way out the door will work.  The one on the right requires targeting and precision. I have to look at my finger all the way to the center to make sure I hit it.

  • Feedback
    That sharp physical snap says it all. Like actuation, I don’t even need to look at it to know I’ve switched it properly. For the flat glass push button, there is no feedback so I need to linger there JUST a bit longer to make sure it registers.

You may be rolling your eyes a bit. “Scott! Of course the physical switch is better! But is it REALLY that big of a deal?” The point isn’t to be black and white but to talk about when you should use one vs the other. For example, the power button on your coffee machine may be perfectly fine with a push button as you’re already required to focus on it for other tasks. You don’t need to use it quickly in the dark like a light switch. 

Yet the situation is very different for the Silent switch on the side of every iPhone. It is a physical switch for strong reasons. It’s worth it for Apple to spend this money on a hard switch as they want the button to be extremely obvious (Discovery) and to allow you to flip it without ever having to look at the screen (Actuation) with clear Feedback on it’s on(the red dot shows) Having that be a push button on the side would be ambiguous and require the screen to be on. Context matters. 

Abuse #2: Multiplexing

Multiplexing is when a single button is overloaded with many functions. For example, most flashlights today have a single button on them:

A basic tap to turn on and tap again to turn off (But I’m not going to let it off the hook as it still has all of the problems of toggle we just discussed! A slider switch would be stronger) But it doesn’t stop there as flashlights now have many more “functions” such as different light output levels. The problem is that in order to save costs they access all these new functions all with that same on/off button. I found a flashlight that takes this to the extreme. Check out this flowchart:

I’m not going to walk you through this as honestly, I’m not fully sure how it works. I was a little surprised to find it offers 5 types of strobe effects! Let’s just say a wide range of functions are offered, through at least 10 different button press combinations. Note that a click is different from a click and hold. The same is true for double and triple clicks. This flashlight should be the poster child for “feature rich, user poor.”

“Multiplexing” is a trick to exchange the cost of multiple buttons with a single one. Of course to unlock the functionality of the lost buttons, it uses these double and triple taps. It’s cheap but it practically begs the user to memorize the manual. 

Score card:

  • Discovery
    Impossible as the button has no label. None is possible as it does so many things.

  • Actuation
    Also impossible as there is no feedback for Double click + hold. That’s an incantation, not feedback.

  • Feedback
    Every button press is the same. If you do it wrong the function just doesn’t happen. There is no way for you to know “yes I’ve tripled clicked properly” 

We’ve all used multiplexed buttons. We’ve almost gotten used to when a device doesn’t work we wonder, “Maybe if I press hold, that’ll do it?” Again, it’s survivable, but it’s opaque and requires reading the manual (again). Let’s take a look at how a clever flashlight tried something different:

For this flashlight there is a push button at the back for toggling the light on and off but that’s the ONLY function that button has. There is a dial around the front of the light that clearly allows you to a) see what the 4 choices are and b) permanently sets it to the mode you like. Once set, it never moves. It’s a dial and a setting! I also can be used with bulky gloves! In the photo above you can see it set to FULL power but the next stop to the right is HALF power. This is far better than the previous flashlight. Is it more expensive? Of course it is! But it also performs and feels so much better. For the right context (and product), this is clearly superior. 

Abuse #3: Deconstruction

Due to cost factors, there is always pressure to replace better and more capable controls with cheap push buttons. Let’s take the radios we used above.

The dial changes the frequency with a simple twist. The push button device “Deconstructs” the twist dial into two up/down buttons. Each press increments the frequency a tiny amount. This means a twist is replaced with many button presses. Again, they are ‘functionally equivalent’ but the expression and ease of use are quite different. 

As it’s so slow to change the frequency with multiple button presses, this was ‘fixed” by adding acceleration. If you hold the button down 500ms  it increments the frequency faster. This long-press is a ‘spring-loaded mode’ that is completely invisible to the user. Unfortunately, this makes it far too easy to ZOOM past your target frequency. In an attempt to compensate, yet ANOTHER feature is added: station memory. You can save and later retrieve a station (up to 29 according to the user manual) to switch between pre-set stations. But if you have 5 stations set, you’ll need to tap the M+ button up to 5 times! This ‘fixes’ the problem much like lead shielding makes uranium safe.

The analog dial naturally has acceleration as you can ‘zoom’ to your location just by twisting a bit faster. If you overshoot, a tiny twist in the opposite direction corrects it easily. I’d argue that ‘zooming’ is inherent into the mechanics of the dial.

Deconstruction is functionally equivalent but unfortunately clunky. In this case, as each of these buttons also has a secondary HOLD function (Multiplexing) the overall Discovery is compromised. It’s hard to understand what each button does. However, it’s the Actuation that is the real issue as you’ve replaced a simple twist with a push button that zooms when you hold it. 

There is a time and place for designs like this. But it’s NOT superior to an analog dial.

Abuse #4: Modes

We’re all familiar with mode buttons, they are on nearly anything with a timer or a clock. The radio we’ve been using has a fairly simple one:

This button toggles between the AM and FM bands. Feedback is the biggest problem with MODE buttons, the current mode is often shown on the display. This separates the label from the button.Compare this to the analog radio design:

The biggest difference here is that the feedback and the actuation are built into the dial. I can just LOOK at it and know what the setting is. If I want something else, it’s a quick flip. POWER is thrown in as a freebie! (it could even handle another band or two with ease). Dials tightly marry state and actuation into a clear package.

There is a darker side to mode buttons, one that is harder to show by a simple example. But mode buttons often multiplex other buttons. For example, when in TIME mode the VOL+ button switches from increasing the volume to incrementing the minutes of the clock. For some devices the mapping is far less obvious. Switching a mode isn’t just an AM/FM toggle but often a remapping of the other push buttons on the device. Clever, yes, obvious, no.

Creating monsters

These four abuses are not meant to prove buttons are horrible but they do show how they can be misused to create confusion. We’ve all used devices that do this and unfortunately, they are growing in number. That’s why I’ve started this series. These abuses have become a dark set of accepted practices, enabling the creation of ever more complex and inscrutable devices. Companies are encouraged by a cavalier “Why not put it in?” attitude instead of asking the much harder question if it should put it in at all.

“Adding a feature” is never free. Always start with the user’s problems first. If pressed into using one of these four abuses, make sure to fully appreciate its impact, the friction it creates, and what you can do to work around it.  Adding a feature shouldn’t also “add a problem.”

As a professional UX Designer, I want devices to offer more. But UX Design isn’t about cramming everything into your product in the vague Hail Mary hope it’ll ship a few more units. That’s the sales team speaking, not the user. It’s the wrong motivation and creates monsters. 

P.S: Any device makers out there, I’m happy, for no cost what-so-ever, to give your product a review and brainstorm ways to improve the flow and layout of your product. I’m retired, I don’t want to sell you anything. I just want devices to be better.