Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Attention: Worldwide Shortage of Buttons

"Warning Will Robinson, Warning; There is a worldwide shortage of buttons." Electronic devices will soon be inoperative. Clocks, digital cameras, stereos, and blenders will soon be at risk. Architects, you must conserve buttons where ever possible by assigning every button, knob, dial, and slider to multiple functions regardless of usability.


This message must have been distributed to electronic device manufacturers as it is the only explanation for how the modern conveniences of my life made it out of their respective QA labs.  Take for example the clock in my Saturn Vue, a vehicle that in most other respects is usable. Here are the instructions for setting the time:

Press and hold the RCL button and at the same time press the HR (AUTO EQ left) or MN (AUTO EQ right) arrows. You will hear a beep indicating that you can change the time. Release the RCL button and press HR until the correct hour appears on the display. Press MN until the correct minute appears on the display. The time can be set with the ignition on or off.

The RCL button - what is that? What does RCL stand for - Really Cool Looking? Random Chaos Liquidator? And why do I have to hold down this magical RCL button and then contact Human Resources - or does HR now mean something different? Why am I holding down two buttons that have no apparent relationship to the task at hand when, at least theoretically, someone could have provided a single button that reads “Set Time?”

On what planet are these things designed - do the architects of these solutions understand that their users actually have opposeable thumbs, but are otherwise hampered by being telepathically-challenged.

I’ve written before about my loathing for alarm clocks - not because they wake me from blissfull slumber (although that would be enough) but because the buttons have been combined to perform multiple functions, the most important of which is “Shut Up!” And that particular button is insufficiently sized when you consider my state of dementia, blindness, and coffee-deprived motor control.

It seems every button on my clock, phone, media player, coffee maker, and geesh - mouse has to perform at least three functions depending on what other buttons are pressed, how long they are pressed, the sequence of pressing, the angle of the sun, and whether I’m leaning the button in a easterly direction. Give me a break - - are we running out of buttons?

I like my keyboard. There is a separate button for every letter I could possibly want to type. Of course, I have to look at the keyboard as I type, because when I look at the screen the buttons start rearranging themselves. I think my keyboard is in collusion with my clock.

I guess the point is that simple is not the same as few; as in a fewer number of buttons does not mean a device is simpler to use. More broadly, a fewer number of interfaces doesn’t necessarily translate into an easier interface to use, support, or describe. Since we know that more isn’t always better, and fewer isn’t always better - we’re left with striving for clarity. Design for clarity, even if it costs a few more buttons.

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