Buttons are naturally to be pushed or pressed, but when the device gets more and more functions, the control using buttons get more and more complicated too. It is easy for the design to convey the press-ability of a button, but how to intuitively tell the users that they can double press or long hold the buttons to perform more functions without consulting the manual? In The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman tells a story about a projector. Short press a button on the projector can forward slides, while longer press the same button would backward the slides. But this function is so invisible that nobody would easily figure out without reading the manual or consulting the technician. I encountered similar problems with buttons.
I love my car, but I had some problems figuring out all the buttons. I like to listen to the radio while driving. I’d like to store a couple of radio stations that I frequently listen to, so I will be able to quickly switch among them while driving. I browsed through the menu, and only found the “autostore” function, in which it will automatically scan and store the six strongest radio stations. But these six stations may not be my favoriate and may not be in my preferred order. So how can I manually store the stations I like? I couldn’t figure it out without the manual, so I gave up for a while, but this problem kept bothering me every time I drive! So I checked the manual. After a long while, I found the instruction to manually store stations buried in long text under the title “Autostore” indicated in the photo below.
I thus realized that when I press the “Radio” button, the radio bands will switch among AM, FM1, and FM2. Only under FM2, I can then long press the number buttons on the right to manually store radio stations. I was also wondering what is the difference between FM1 and FM2 for the long time before, so this is why! I am the kind of person who would dissect a bad-designed manual to find the solution if I’m in the mood, but not everybody would do so. It would be dangerous trying to find the right station while driving without pre-storing them! Who would figure out the difference between FM1 and FM2 without the manual? Who would figure out they have to long press the buttons under certain mode to store the radio stations without reading the manual?
I also found other bad design aspects of these buttons. The “info” button takes too much space and is not really useful. Most of the radio stations do not have text information. Maybe CDs do. But who would really need to read these information while driving? And the typefaces of these texts are not really the easily readable types. Moreover, I burn my own CDs with my favorite music which I do not need to read the information about while driving. The six numbered buttons are also kind of a waste, because they are only related to stored radio stations. They can be designed in a more condensed fashion and store way more than just six stations. I thought my car has six CD cases or something at the beginning because of these six numbered buttons!
Our stove-top fan in the kitchen also has button problems. In the photo below, the left most button controls the light. Each time you press this button, the light switch among off–>on (bright)–>on (dim)–>off. In my opinion, the order between bright and dim should be altered. The default ON mode should be dim in order to save energy. Then if people feel it’s too dim, they can press again to get to bright. For what it has now, people would keep using the bright, and realize they can turn it dim when they finish cooking. At that time, they’ve already finished cooking, and they have to press twice to turn the light off.
All the other five buttons are for controlling the fan. First of all, since the light-control button has nothing to do with the other five buttons, it’s probably be better to put more space between this button and all the other buttons. Second, I do not believe a stove-top fan needs this many (four) different speeds. A weak and a strong would probably be enough, at most three different speeds, four would be unnecessary. Usually people wouldn’t try to adjust among all these different strengths. Third, the symbol for the weakest strength of the fan is “Q”, which is inconsistent with other strengths indicated by the lengths of the vertical bars. According to the person who installed the fan, “Q” means quiet fan. After I got to know this, it starts to make sense to me, since the weakest mode is quiet, but this “Q” symbol didn’t make any sense to me before he told me this. I was just feeling it was so inconsistent and odd compared with the other vertical bars. Fourth, the logic of using all these buttons is so complicated. It started to make sense after I purposefully learned it, but before, I just feel it is complicated logic. In order to use the fan, one has to press the right most button first, then all the four lights above the four different speeds buttons will start to flash. Then you can press any of the fan buttons to turn the corresponding speed on. If you mistakenly pressed the right most button, and you want to press it again to stop the flashing lights, you cannot do this, you have to choose a fan mode by pressing one of the four buttons. I later learned that if you leave the lights flashing without choosing a speed, they will stop flashing after probably half a minute. When you done cooking, you press the right most button, and the light above the fan mode you’ve used will start to flash. This means the fan will turn off in two minutes. If you want to turn it off right away, you have to press the right most button again. How would one figure out all these complicated things without a manual? I do trail-and-error each time I cook, until I decided to learn the logic for writing this blog.
In order to maximize the number of functions can be controlled, ways of pushing buttons such as long/short pushing, double pushing, or complicated combinations are introduced. However, these are not natural to human users. Easy solutions include adding more buttons, or adding screen feedback, but these are also more costly. So I think it is a great challenge to design intuitive and economical buttons that can control many functions.
Should the users be forced to learn all the controls from the manual? Or maybe things like color, shape, and height of the buttons could be properly designed to convey meanings more intuitively?