Why not compress the button?

I’ve wondered out loud before about compressing buttons on to a flat screen. Yet I still have to wonder why people bother making plastic dials? Is there some sort of tactile quality that a tap and swipe can’t provide or is it more about people being used to one type of tool like a dial and don’t feel comfortable experimenting with their unknowns?

UPDATE: 09.06.2011
Coming across the demo this morning, one of the takeaways was that the artist could use the same tool that in new ways because he didn’t have to worry about twisting dials. I bought the app myself to test it out. Having never used the tactile version I’m probably not the best person to talk about the pros and cons of the screen version. With that said the dials were a bit difficult to use…

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  • michael lascarides

    Physical buttons can still serve important functions, most notably to orient users when attention is focused elsewhere. One downside of having 100 percent of an interface in glass is not knowing what the current state of the interface is. Donald Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” goes into this in some detail.The single physical button on an iPhone, and the large home button on a Tivo remote both orient largely symmetrical devices right-side up by touch in the hand, and the “click to start” gesture insures that the devices will be in a “ready” state by the time the user acquires focus. With my iPhone, I usually reach in pocket for phone, find button, click button, swipe to unlock, all without looking, then look down.Physical controls also allow the learning of more sophisticated muscle memory (at the expense of an initial perception of “complexity”). A car radio with a few physical buttons may seem more “complex” at first, but I can quickly learn which is the volume and which is the tuning without taking my eyes off the road. Contrast this to BMW’s horrid iDrive system, which puts several interior functions (navigation, climate control, heating, etc) under the control of a single round knob. It accomplishes the exact opposite, compressing dozens of disparate functions into the same knob, practically forcing the user to take their attention from the road to figure out he is in a numbing tree hierarchy of options. It looks great on the showroom floor and is a conversation starter, but it’s one of the most aggressively user-unfriendly interfaces I’ve ever run across. BMWs would be better served by a few well-placed buttons for common functions (radio, heat, etc). Contrast this with the interior of a modern jet fighter or airliner (the ultimate combination of high-stakes situation, high information density, quantity of systems needing control, and urgency). There are flatscreens aplenty, but surrounded by physical buttons. That little keyboard above is a great example, likely to be used in conjunction with a lot of other devices (focus may be elsewhere), and in a live setting, perhaps a dark and noisy club, onstage with flashing lights. Why not create a device that lets one make music while looking the audience in the eye, rather than selfishly craving glass-screen attention for itself?

  • http://www.noahbrier.com Noah Brier

    Not sure this answers it, but I think it’s interesting you included a piece of musical equipment. Around DJing (at least 10 years ago when I was doing it) rotary dials were the preferred method of mixing for certain types of music. The knobs, at least popular wisdom held, gave a smoother transition than either a cross fader or volume sliders. I felt that way myself, though it’s hard to say whether I really knew the difference or just heard it enough to believe it. I do know that the knobs made it easier to slowly fade volume in. It’s just easier to slowly turn a knob than to slowly push a slider … Anyway, I don’t know if it’s terribly relevant to your question, but thought it might be interesting nonetheless.

  • http://designnotes.info/ Michael Surtees

    Michael—your observations are quite helpful about why it sometimes is best not to go for the complete screen. I had been thinking more in terms of consumer products but your use case of an airplane is interesting to note. The thing that I come back to is that as issues arise with a screen based solution compared with physical dials, the ui is easier to update. Once the dial is created physically it gets a lot more difficult to evolve because of it’s physical nature. The hybrid versions that use a screen that can be removed like this http://www.engadget.com/2011/07/27/ion-piano-apprentice-plays-nice-with-your-ipad-lights-up-your-l/ makes things very interesting.

  • http://designnotes.info/ Michael Surtees

    The music equipment was chosen because it was the first thing that jumped out to me in my rss feed as I was thinking about the issue. Since I’ve never dj’d before your observations are apt. I embedded a video above after your post that speaks to some of those tactile issues. I’ve always wondered about taking one of those real instruments (like sj equipment), put it on screen and reimagine the experience because of the capabilities that swiping, tapping and pressure would allow that isn’t available with older physical objects.

  • http://36creative.com 36creative.com

    I think it depends on what decade you grew up around. I love DVDs and I know for a fact that in the very near future they will turn into a VHS tape and become extinct. I don’t exactly know when it will happen but it is a certainty that it will be soon. Everything is going digital and the idea of actually holding something concrete in your finger tips that is anything other than an iPad is going to sound crazy very soon. I used to DJ as well back in the day and there is nothing like a piece of vinyl in your fingers.