Do more buttons make a better product?

2019-08-30 @Technology

I can’t say for certain. I wish the answer be a definitive no. Then we could reduce manufacturing cost by stripping products of buttons.

But too often products stripped of buttons do indeed serve well. The Raspberry PI has not a single button. It immediately powers on upon being connected to electricity. It shuts off via software, proper manners respected. Considering the barest of hardware features, it drains little current, especially the Zero model. Consequently there isn’t need for cooling, buttons, or mechanical components.

I tested two coffee grinders. One featured two buttons and some LEDs to indicate power and selected grind coarseness. The grinder also auto-terminates after 30s. Alas, even with the finest of grind methods, I encountered a coarse grain too many left over. Substantially sized grains I mean; the size of emeralds. And the other model? No buttons, no LEDs, no automatic shut-off. Hardly any left-over coarse grains, respecting a similar grind duration of the first. Is that a slam dunk? Does that correlate less buttons with superior mechanics? I hesitate. The elaborate button and LED-rich variant employs a better cover to avoid coffee grain spills. Conclusion? Caffeine disturbs sleep.

A product stripped of buttons could well represent a cleverly camouflaged housing. But it depends on the buttons. Some buttons are a joy to operate: the buttons on the older Blackberry phone models or the even more premedieval flip Motorola Razr phones; or the buttons on the older Lenovo keyboards whence I would sooner sacrifice the display than the keyboard. Some manufacturers, on the other hand, refuse to cut costs with these buttons, lest they decay and detach like overwatered plant growth.

The camouflage can arrive in the form of resistive/capacitive buttons, aka touch interfaces. In my experience, such interfaces too defect from time to time. Alternatively, they result in a cumbersome interaction. I guess one must view the buttons in respect to the overall mechanics. Complicated mechanics, and your buttons are not the issue. Simple mechanics (ie a paper notebook or a ballpoint pen), and you might wreck havoc by introducing buttons. In the case of the notebook, you could combination-lock your irredeemably illegible scribbles, but why bother? And those buttons to trigger the cheap pen spring mechanics are, let’s say, asking for trouble.

Ideally, when faced with a choice to eliminate buttons from products, honestly ask yourself: are buttons the product or the by-product? That is to say, are buttons part of the experience, or do they represent a level of modularity to an interface-invariant product?

Pinball machines shouldn’t exist without their flippers. They are buttons in a sense, and represent an integral part to the underlying pinball experience. All of those pinball digital video games that came and went? Distasteful. Like audio electronic equipment without a dial or two.

And voice assistant interfaces? Not the answer. A premature solution to unnecessarily complex interfaces, aimed more to entertain; like virtual pets.

“Alexa! Left flipper.”

Buttons need aid the experience, not distract from it. Virtual, touch screen buttons I identify as a severe screen distraction and awkward of an interface. An overabundance of physical buttons, too. 104-key keyboards (or however many) - legacy. Legacy I also adhere to. But one need not be constrained by two typing hands over a planar support. One could be mobile and interface one-handed. Develop chorded keyboard skills for example. Or learn a one-handed layout. Gain significantly more freedom of movement.

How about virtual interfaces? There is software overwhelmed with menus, control bars, status bars, buttons. All are button variations. And they usually hamper available screen real estate. Unnecessarily hamper with functionality that not only we may not require, but which can lead to unprecedented territory.

There are interfaces of buttons physically rendered on screen to click or touch. Then there are those invisible to the eye, triggered by other means. The VIM text editor in which I type this, for instance, is visually free of objects. At least the console variant is. I evoke all functionality of this multi-modal editor by typing a shortcut or two (or three) that, if elaborately mixed, result in fantastic series of automation. Needless to say, there is logic to it. But buttons they still are, never mind not visually rendered. Now, does a text editor necessitate complex mechanics? I rationalize as such. There is a lot that plain text editing entails: navigation, search, replace, manipulate, automate, transform, displace, mark, compare, jump, et cetera. Merit for buttons there is, whatever the buttons represent.

Sent, my preferred presentation slide software, on the other hand, is button free. I feed it plain text, it instantly renders slides of respectively scaled text, with elementary syntax to render an image. Alright, two ‘buttons’ any slide software requires: navigate back and forward. The solution may not be the ideal for super-professional presentation content, but it fulfills my needs for all I’ve recently delivered. Need presentation software necessarily employ complex mechanics? Considering the use-cases, I stake no. Inference? Most standard presentation software, although all-inclusive, features superfluous functionality and needless buttons.

Conclusion? Simplify your needs and expectations. Be devoid to malfunction. Strive for a button-free life.

Questions, comments? Connect.