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Has Steve Jobs driven things too far?

The world knows this: Steve Jobs is on a quest to provide the cleanest, prettiest user interfaces ever known to man kind.  When he quits the biz, UI may very well go into a death spiral.  Or maybe not.  When buttons first started to dissapear, something was right in the world.  Buttons that you only pressed once durring the operational lifetime of your computer started to dissapear, making things cleaner (and there fore more attractive).  But at some point, designers went over the edge, and ceased to give greatness to the user, and instead began to torment them in the endless quest for ultra modern sleakness. Does your phone really need to hide everything, sort-of like a James Bond villain’s lair (like the bar behind the secret panel in “You only live twice”)?

There’s plenty of ways that this has become a bad thing.  Take for instance, the new headphones Apple has come up with.  Take one good idea, mix with some over-zealousness, and the result: complications.  Having your controls on the headphones is a great idea: you don’t need to reach into your pocket to adjust the volume.  And this isn’t new either.  But Apple decided to take it to the next level, and add in more controls up on the cord.  Sounds, good, but the result is a bit confusing.  You’ve got one center thingy (not really a button, is it?), that has about a half-dozen functions, several of which could need to be triggered at the same time (with you only intending to trigger one of those).  So, what you get, is confusion.  I want to skip to the next song, but I paused it instead?  How’s that work?  If it was a play/pause button with a separate next/previous button, that would work pretty well, wouldn’t it?  And, how is it intuitive that an un-labeled grey section in between a + and a – sign is supposed to do all this?

And if you think I’m just hating on Apple, you’re wrong.  Another great example is these touch capacitive controls that are all the rage now.  They are extremely cool.  Except for the fact, that you can’t tell by touch anymore whether you’re about to flip power on your monitor, or the setup control right next to it.  Or, you’re trying to turn off your Playstation, and the “button” doesn’t want to work.

So, I suggest we come up with a better idea.  And I’m going to call this new invention the “button”.  And usage in design of this “button” thing, is going to have some rules.

  1. A button must have some sort of tactile feedback, to let the user know that they are touching, or have pressed the button.
  2. The button must have easily distinguishable and intuitive function or set of functions.
  3. Buttons should be clearly labeled as to their function.
  4. Multi-function buttons should only have opposite functions for specific scenarios, such as play/pause for playback.

Now, for my farewell on this lovely little rant, a few words to my credit, if you have been so kind as to read this far and not yell at your screen in a spirited manner in irritation over me being so blasphemous against the church of Jobs.  First off, I don’t hate Apple, or Steve-o.  On the contrary, I think that they’ve done us, humankind, a great deal that might not have ever happened if the big M had all the fun it wants to.  I am also not a crotchety old man.   Hopefully you didn’t think that while reading this, but the thought did cross my mind that I sound like I’m in my eighties, and not in my twenties.

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5 Responses

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  1. Richard said

    Stop hatin’ on Stevie

  2. Dan said

    Guy, I do find you rather crotchety…

  3. Alan said

    Spell/grammar check may help you gain old-dude cred.

  4. Surely the tendency toward infinite function with zero user interface is to be championed? Just think of the possibilities! :)

    I really like how the recent track pads in MacBooks have gone from one to no buttons, although as a result they can now detect exactly where your finger is whilst pressing so it would just be a question of software to have as many button areas as you could distinguish in the space. Gestures are an Apple trackpad innovation that will probably become industry standards in years to come. Double fingered scrolling (2D no less!) is extremely handy, compared to hunting around for scrollbars for example.

    Apple do seem to think out of the box with hardware and software UI (and their congruence) more than most, and whilst some of their experiments in UI minimalism may lead down blind paths, their past hit rate speaks for itself. It’s better to be brave in that sphere, no?

  5. craig said

    Haptic/touch feedback is key for capacitive buttons – otherwise – it just feels broken – JMHO