February 1, 2012
I enjoy my iPhone, but I can't quite come to terms with one aspect of its design: Apple's insistence that there can be only ever be one, and only one, button on the front of the device.
I also own a completely buttonless Kindle Fire, and you'll get no argument from me that there should be at least one obvious "Jesus Handle" button on the front of any gadget. I do wonder why Amazon decided to make the Fire buttonless, when every other Kindle they ship has a home button. Amazon has a track record of making some awfully rough version 1.0 devices; I'm sure they'll add a home button in a version or two. And, hey, at only $199 I'm willing to cut them a little slack. For now.
Even Apple is no stranger to buttonless devices. Consider the oddly buttonless third generation iPod Shuffle
, where you had to double and even triple
click the controls on the headphones to do basic things like advance tracks. Oh, and by the way, this also made every set of headphones you own obsolete, at least for use with this model. The fourth gen shuffle rapidly switched back to physical controls on the device, and the fifth gen went to touch controls on the device, as expected.
Microsoft is just as guilty. I sometimes struggle with the otherwise awesome Xbox 360 Wireless Microphone. It has only a power button and some lights.
In its defense, for the most part it does just work when you pick it up and start singing (badly, in my case), but I admit to being slightly perplexed every time I have to sync it with an Xbox, or figure out what's going on with it. Can you blame me?
When you turn on the microphone, the built-in lights shine to display the microphone status as follows:
- Power on: lights flash green one time every second
- Connecting: lights flash green four times every second
- Connection complete: lights flash blue, and then stops
When your battery power is low, the built-in lights shine to display the battery charge status as follows:
- Low: Lights flash amber one time every three seconds
- Critical: Lights flash amber one time every second
When your microphone moves out of the wireless range of your console, the lights flash green one time every second. The lights can also change color together with supported game titles.
If we can agree that no buttons is clearly a bad idea, I think it follows that one button is problematic in its own way. I have the same issue with the single button on the iPhone that I do with the single button mouse – it may be OK-ish at the very beginning, but over time it leads to absurd, almost comical overloading of functionality. Consider how many different things the single button on the face of an iPhone now controls:
(diagram courtesy Andrew Durdin, source)
The iPhone home button? Why, it's easy! You have your choice of…
- click and hold
- click and pause and click again
All of which have different meanings at different times, of course. In particular I spend a lot of time double-clicking to get to the active apps list, and I often mis-tap which kicks me over to the home screen. I have so many apps installed on my iPhone that search is the only rational way to navigate. This means I search a lot, which requires clicking once to get to the default home page, pausing, then clicking again. Sometimes I click too long, which is then detected as click-and-hold, and I get the voice search app which I am … er, not a fan of, to put it mildly.
I've gotten to the point where I dread using the home button on my iPhone because it Makes Me Think. And I get it wrong a significant percentage of the time. This isn't the way it's supposed to be.
You might be expecting me to turn into a rabid Windows Phone or Android fanboy about now and snarkily note how they get it right. I'm not sure they do. Either of them. They all manage to suck in their own special way.
When there's one button on the device, at least it's clear what that button is supposed to do, right? Well, sometimes.
There is one theme I agree with here – the clearly marked back button on both Android and Windows phones, just like a web browser. I mostly use my iPhone as a platform for the Internet, and the simplicity of the Internet is its primary strength: a collection of obvious things to click, and an easy, giant honking back button so you never get lost in its maze of twisty passages, all alike. It is true that browsers have a home button, but the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, and Internet Explorer have all but pushed that home button off the UI in favor of the ginormous back button. While I'll tentatively agree that not all phone apps have to behave like the Internet, the Internet is becoming more and more of a platform for bona fide applications every day. The back button is a UI paradigm that works like gangbusters for webapps, and I'd argue strongly in favor of that being a hard button on a device.
But once you add three buttons, thinking starts to creep in again. Am I pressing the correct button? That's never good. And I don't even know what that third button is supposed to be on the Android phone! I could possibly be in favor of the hard search button on the Windows phone, I suppose, but I'd rather see good, consistent use of two buttons on the face of a device before willy-nilly adding Yet Another Button. I think there's a reason the industry has more or less standardized on a two-button mouse, for example. (Yes, there is that pesky middle button, but it's a nice to have, not an essential part of the experience.)
What about the one finger solution? Even with touch devices, one finger does not seem to be enough; there's a curious overloading of the experience over time.
On the iPad, there are a number of system-wide gestures, such as swiping left or right with four fingers to switch between apps. Four-finger swipes? That's convoluted, but imagine a virtual mixing console with horizontal sliders. Quickly move four of them at once...and you switch apps. Application designers have to work around these, making sure that legitimate input methods don't mimic the system-level gestures.
The worst offender is this: swipe down from the top of the screen to reveal the Notification Center (a window containing calendar appointments, the weather, etc.). A single-finger vertical motion is hardly unusual, and many apps expect such input. The games Flight Control and Fruit Ninja are two prime examples. Unintentionally pulling down the Notification Center during normal gameplay is common. A centered vertical swipe is natural in any paint program, too. Do app designers need build around allowing such controls? Apparently, yes.
Yes, our old friend overloading is now on the touch scene in spades: for all but the simplest use of a tablet, you will inevitably find yourself double-tapping, tapping and holding, swiping with two fingers, and so on.
Apple's done a great job of embodying simplicity and clean design, but I often think they go too far, particularly at the beginning. For example, the first Mac didn't even have cursor keys
. Everything's a design call, and somewhat subjective, but like Goldilocks, I'm going to maintain that the secret sauce here is not to get the porridge too cold (no buttons) or too hot (3 or more buttons), but just right
. I'd certainly be a happier iPhone user if I didn't have to think so much about what's going to happen when I press my home button for the hundredth time in a day.
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Posted by Jeff Atwood
It's also worth mentioning that the iPhone in fact has FIVE buttons:
• Volume Up
• Volume Down
• Silence Ringer
In my opinion, whether one button is “right” (or N-buttons) depends on how well thought the interaction with the software is designed. The hardware should match the abilities of the software, otherwise things start to get hairy and the hardware controls (ab)used for additional/unplanned purposes.
One good example of ”no buttons can be good” (not even one!) would be the Nokia N9: swiping through the UI feels so natural that I still don't know anyone using it who would miss the buttons. The whole UI can be controlled flawlessly without any button at all. The power button has only one function (poweron/poweroff) and the volume rocker is just a nicety that allows for changing the volume without powering up the screen (good for people like me using it as music player), but still it is comfortable if it is not taken into use.
I'm confused. If you want 2 buttons, but the 2nd button is the back button, how does that help with the overloading of the home button? "Back" is generally not one of the overloads of the home button.
A big problem with adding another button is - does that button always make sense? Having a hard button that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't seems worse to me than only having one button.
Seems like another hard button would make sense if it a) alleviate the home button overloading and b) wasn't context sensitive. Maybe "launch Siri" or "show multitasking bar" could make sense as a second button. I rather like the iPad's multitouch gestures for the multitask bar, though.
Once you add the second button you can never get rid of it. So being cautious about it seems prudent.
Title should by changed to "The one button mistake". Apple tries to be the friendly, accessible technology company, but really goes to far by forcing the use of a single button. What's probably worse than making their mistake is the arrogance of not fixing it.
Samuel, 1 button on the Face of the device.
But the magic of the way that the iPhone (and most technology) works is that if you mis-click, just do it again.
If you're on a PC and try to click on something and miss, you just IMMEDIATELY attempt again, right? Why is this any different with a button on a device?
I sometimes try to double-click to pull up the multi-tasking bar so I can mess with my music from within another app, but sometimes I only single click. No biggie, just immediately double click, fix my music, then pop back into what I was doing.
My only gripe is that maybe I want to change how *MY* home button works. It's my phone, let me make double clicking the home button skip to the next track or open my camera app. Now *that* would be awesome.
+1 for the Zork reference.
I had to disable gestures on my iPad. They aren't very intuitive and my 2 year old caused all sorts of problems trying to finger paint or tickling the cat.
I also have an Android phone. I have to admit, I really miss the back button as it's easily as useful as the home button.
The biggest problem is that because every app needs a back button and Apple didn't put a hard one in, they all do it differently. The one app that is a joy to use is flipboard.
On the upside, I finally figured out that if you hold your finger in place you get micro control of the cursor in text boxes. Makes editing a lot easier now.
"single-click, double-click, triple-click, click and hold, click and pause and click again"
Sounds like Morse Code to me!
The third button on Android is the multi-task button. The back button allows you to go back to the history of activities (task you can perform in an app) you've opened before arriving at the current one, but if you want to specifically jump to a certain app you already opened, the multi-task button is faster. If you want to open a new app you can switch to the home screen with the home button and open it from there (or from your app drawer). This leaves the activity history of the app you had open intact, so when you open the app again it resumes where you left.
Of course this looks complicated because whoever designed it made it look complicated!
He added all the special sections for accessibility that 90% of the users will never use, but are very useful to those 10%. And he spread it out horizontally? Yikes.
Long press: Always Siri
Single Press (anywhere but on the home screen): always go back to the home screen (I don't know why this says "return to previous screen", because that's not true).
Single Press (while on the home screen): spotlight
Double Press(while not locked): will always bring up the running apps drawer
Double Press(while locked): will bring up audio controls and a modified unlock swipe with the camera icon
Tripple press is for those edge cases of accessibility
When there is only one button you may not know what it's going to do but you don't have to spend a lot of time guessing at which button to press.
I'm surprised you like the back button, but not the recent apps button, given how much you talk about multi-tasking on your iPhone being frustrating.
My "one button" has gotten flakey after 16 months. Sometimes it gets ignored completely. Sometimes, one click counts as two. Sometimes, two count as one. Its hard to tell if it ever does three clicks for one.
Very frustrating and just increases my frustration at all the overloading Jeff writes about.
I would like at least one physical, programmable button. There are a few use cases. Most of them relate to ease-of-access. Ideally, it's assignment could vary by context. For instance, when at home, it could start my Google TV remote control app. Other times it could start the camera.
One especially novel use case is stopwatch. That is one area where even a very sensitive touchscreen is not always accurate enough.
I am an android fanboy, but the logic of the physical buttons on most devices escape me.
The back button is great. No argument there. Easily the strongest feature of the OS. The home button is somewhat superfluous since long-pressing the back button achieves the same effect. The only useful thing it does is to bring up the task switcher if you long press it, but this should be the default action instead. I guess it is on some phones though, since physical button setups varies between most brands.
The menu-button is being phased out in favor of on-screen options. I have no strong feelings about it either way. It works well in android 2.x, but I suspect android 4.x works just as well without it.
Then there is the search button. Only reason it exists, must be because google is trying to impose a search paradigm where none is needed. All good apps have better and just as easily accessible search functions.
Volume rockers and on/off/sleep switches, I consider separate and they work perfectly imo.
Jeff, you're obviously unfamiliar with the Nokia N9. There are no face buttons on the device, but the UI is fantastic. Getting to multitasking, apps, web, phone, camera, and SMS are only a swipe away. There are a couple buttons on the side, but they're not necessary for day-to-day use. The volume buttons are more for if you want to change the volume without interfacing with your music application (i.e. while the device is locked) and the lock button isn't needed for unlocking the device - just double-tap the screen.
Since there are no buttons (not even built into the headphone cord), there's no confusing double-click/triple-click etc. behavior of the type you described. The UI just works.
I don't like search-type hardware buttons, because I never use search on my phone. The Swipe UI on the N9 renders the need for a Home/Start button unnecessary. Sure, a hardware back button could be useful, but so could a hardware keyboard, and if you paid attention to the iPhone's design history, then you know that Steve vetoed designs with hardware keyboards because they take up valuable real estate that's better dedicated to screen real-estate, which can provide a back button if needed. And that's exactly what the N9 does. If I need a back button, it's put in the UI. If I don't, I have more room for web/movies/anything/etc.
Jeff, I highly suggest that you do your research and take a look at the Nokia N9 UI - I think you will be pleasantly surprised.
I really like the Windows Phone idea, however the implementation has a big flaw.
Back button - perfect. Click it, it goes back, hold it down to switch to another open app. Navigation in one button makes sense.
Windows Button - goes home, hold it down you get voice prompt.
Search Button - It makes sense these days to be able to quickly go to search so I dedicated button makes sense. But the implementation sucks. In the initial release you click the button and if the app could handle search it would bring that search up otherwise go to bing. Sounds good but in practice there was no way to tell if an app supported search and clicking it would make you leave the app - really annoying.
So in Mango they changed it and made it always go to bing. It's an improvement, but it takes away a really nice idea.
The obvious solution is a click does an app search, if there is no app search it does nothing. And holding the button down brings up bing. But I fear this is one case where Microsoft wants you to use bing so they will never implement.
This fad of having as few buttons as possible is also a pet peeve of mine. As a game developer, it's even more frustrating as I have to rely on the touch screen to do anything, and for games other than gimmicky Angry Birds ripoffs, this cripples the gameplay dangerously. What if I want to make a platformer or an RPG? You hardly have any controls with this kind of setup.
The middle mouse button is not part of the experience? You, sir, are completely wrong! The middle mouse button (i.e. the wheel) is my most used button when browsing. Open a window in a new tab? middle click on link. Close a tab? Middle click on tab. Scroll? Use the damn wheel.
A bit off topic here, but am I the only one who misses physical buttons? You know, the kind that you can actually sense with your fingers, and that move when you press them? Why the hell is everyone switching to this capacitive crap? (I know the one button in question is physical, but the ones in the Android/WP photo aren't, thus the question)
For example, my phone has 4 capacitive "buttons" on the bottom, and I sometimes "press" them while trying to tap something at the bottom of the screen. That sucks. But what sucks more is trying to switch my monitor on in the dark. That bitch has a single little point on a completely flat panel that you have to actually tap (just moving over it doesn't work). Hell, it's hard to hit it even in the daylight.
So, could anyone explain me, why the hell? Is it all about 'prettiness', or is it really so much cheaper? (would be a stupid reason for a $500 device)
@Chris McGrath - I would think the usage of the search button that makes the most sense would be single click brings up the "app search" if implemented, or the OS search otherwise.
Click and hold could bring up Bing, I guess. But it seems counter-intuitive, and smacks of "synergy" taking priority over usability, to search the web when you press a physical search button.
Searching in the Windows start menu (or start screen in Windows 8) doesn't take you to Bing by default, so why should that be the behavior on the phone? If you want to search the web, I think most people would open a web browser and then type in the address bar.
This is likely completely tangential to the discussion, but I enjoy my 80-or-so button phone. Physical keyboards are still ideal.
I'm on Android, with four buttons: Menu, Home, Back, Search - I use the first three all the time, but rarely the fourth because search is baked into applications already, which means I start my searches from browser address bars or in-app search boxes. I can see why Android devices are dropping the search button, but I would be annoyed a bit if they dropped to just two buttons.
You've had you're iPhone for how many years and you are still not sure what one button does?
I had my Google Nexus 2 weeks and I'm happy with the three buttons at the bottom.
(Its the extra button that appears in different places per app, that bugs me.)
The Nokia N9 that is pointed out by many is a fine example of a UI without hardware buttons but you should really look into the HP Pre 3 with its gesture bar. It's so intuitive that I feel locked when I borrow someone else's phone. Too bad the os is kind-of buggy and that they barely managed to release it before pulling the plug.
Keep up the great blogging, always looking forward to the next post. :-)
I have the same problem as Lee on my iPod Touch 4G, where the Home button was just a little flaky: a single physical click would register as anywhere from 0-2 clicks on the device, but usually 1. Meaning: sometimes I'd go to open multitasking, and BAMF. Back at the home screen. Sometimes it would tease me, by opening the multitask drawer and then closing it again immediately. Sometimes I'd click-to-stop-shaking and the multitask drawer would close.
Then I upgraded to iOS 5 and now 1-7 physical clicks will register as 0-2 (i.e. usually 0 per click now), along with horrendous lag that only exacerbates the problem. Click... nothing... click... display rushes through the animations of two individual single clicks.
Out of magic error.
Call me a simpleton, but I literally laughed myself into tears over this line...
there should be at least one obvious "Jesus Handle" button on the front of any gadget
You couldn't have been more poignant, or funny. I think it's because I never heard the phrase "Jesus Handle" before. Where I'm from, we call it the "Oh Shit Bar".
Anyway, thanks for a good belly laugh.
This article (and the responses) have taught me more about how to use my iPod Touch than all of the document Apple included in the box put together!
FWIW, there's no such thing as an IPOD Shuffle 5g (yet). 4g, with physical controls, is the latest version. Perhaps you're confusing with the Nano?
I am completely happy wih Android's evolution. Just 3 buttons : back, home & contextual menu. The latter, is equivalent to a right-click, which allows to reach advanced features. It's essential to me.
I never use the search button directly.
A- talk about a poster child for open and easy posting, you should look at StackOverflow to see how it's done (joke, get it, joke). Seriously, it took 15 or 20 clicks and attempts to finally register on typepad in order to post here. Truly a lesson in frustration. I especially liked where typepad would actually create the user, return you to the exact same "create user" page without telling you, then, when you hit Submit again, it would tell you the blog name you chose was not available (because it had just created it invisibly)... so I probably created 3 or 4 bogus blog names (or more) before finally realizing what was happening.
B-THANKS SO MUCH for this blog entry... I NEVER realized that there was a "doubleclick" on the single button on my iPhone3G (really, it never occurred to me to try). Now I just have to figure out what it does in various situations.
I actually really, really love the gestures on my Playbook, and have found myself trying to use them on my Android phone when after extended Playbook use. It's frustrating. :)
It's actually one of the few things that I think RIM has done right in recent years. Don't get me started on the rest of the device though.
It doesn't matter how many overloads the button has, only that the behavior when you push it is what you expected.
Very rarely do I push the home button on an iPhone and get behavior I was not expecting.
You forgot another function for the iPhone home button: it allows you to take a screenshot when pressed together with the power button/lock screen button on the top right.
A handy function, sure, but it adds even more non-intuitive functionality to the already overloaded home button.
5th generation iPod shuffle? What on earth are you talking about!? :P
I second the BlackBerry PlayBook's implementation of gestural commands.
The PlayBook does not have Home, Back, or other command buttons on its front face yet it is very easy to return to the main menu or switch to another open application.
A single-finger swipe is used to scroll within an application, to switch from one app to another, and to return to 'Home'. The key ingredient that makes all of this work intuitively is the Playbook's bezel.
That black band of glass surrounding the image, a dead-zone on most other devices, is actually a live part of the PlayBook's user-interface.
Swipe from the bottom frame upwards (effectively, starting from "outside the app") and you reduce the current app to a window and expose the main menu; you're returned to 'home'.
Swipe from the top frame downwards and you expose the app's menu.
Swipe from the right frame towards the center and you switch to the next running application. Same applies if you start from the left frame.
Naturally, all up/down and left/right swiping within the boundaries of the frame (i.e. withing the visable app) controls vertical and horizontal scrolling.
In addition, many UI items subjected to a swipe respond with appropriate "physics" (i.e. acceleration/deceleration/momentum) thereby an imparting a sensation of interacting with real-world objects in a fluid medium.
One could argue that the frame constitutes four buttons. However, operating a button is a different physical interaction compared to a swipe. The beauty here is that the 'button' has been replaced with a swipe thereby maintaining a consistent experience.
The reason why apple decided to implement only one button on the iPhone since the very start is to give the user a fallback solution. One can always return to a familiar scenario if one feels lost. This is crucial to a big number of users and maybe not to so many (like us discussing this ;-) who think about function and technology behind things.
All the extra features like double tapping etc. are exactly for us. Most of my none technical aware friends don't even know of the existence of these extras.
I've been using an android phone once or twice up to now but never really understood what app would justify the existence of a separate back button (which couldnt have been implemented per software). Maybe my apple influence is just to big here so I'd say both solutions might be equaly good.
One likes to go back step by step, the next directly back to the home screen. I suppose there's no difference.
The Nexus S (which I've had for 8 months) has 4 physical buttons, all of which I think are reasonable. Back, Options, Search, Home. They all make sense, and it's usually fairly obvious which one to press in a given context.
I dont think the writer of this article has seen a HTC Aria or phones like it. Theres 4 buttons and each r clear. So saying android phones have confusing buttons too is just wrong. Some may yes, but not all.
If u cant tell a house is home, menu is ur menu, the back button is to go back, and the lens is search...something is very wrong with u :) Ill gladly take 4 buttons over single click, double click, click and hold, and click, pause, click :)
just my 2 cents
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All of which have different meanings at different times, of course. In particular I spend a lot of time double-clicking to get to the active apps list, and I often mis-tap which kicks me over to the home screen. I have so many apps installed on my iPhone that search is the only rational way to navigate. This means I search a lot, which requires clicking once to get to the default home page, pausing, then clicking again. Sometimes I click too long, which is then detected as click-and-hold, and I get the voice search app which I am … er, not a fan of, to put it mildly. student accommodation london
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