Too Many Buttons


Okay, another diagram. this time not as clean, but it'll get the job done. I didn't feel like drawing out all those different buttons to present. :-) What I did was grab some keypads from the most advanced or latest models of biggest manufacturers. That would the Nokia 6680, Motorola SLVR, Sony Ericsson Walkman phone, Audiovox SMT5600, a Samsung SCH-A890, and a couple Japanese phones - one from KDDI and one from DoCoMo.

What I'm trying to point out is the multitude of buttons on the front face of most of them. Let's count all the different types of buttons you can have:

  1. Green (Pick Up)
  2. Red (Hang Up)
  3. Left Soft Button
  4. Right Soft Button
  5. Five Way Joypad/Joystick (Left, Right, Up, Down, In)
  6. Clear
  7. Back
  8. Home, Menu or Applications
  9. Edit
  10. Music?

There's quite a few options and no two models are the same, even though they've more or less standardized on the two soft buttons and five way joystick thing. These are just the basic designs of the buttons on the front and doesn't count all the stuff on the top and sides. There are also phones coming that add four audio control buttons adding even *more* buttons. And none of these are standard.

Okay, I read not too long ago a great explanation why Apple still ships the one button mouse. It had to do with the most basic user. Ever walk your Mom through a task on her computer and get into that left and right mouse button problem? This quote from the article is perfect:

I kid you not, ten times a day I would talk to someone who has never right clicked in their life. After they first do it, they will ASK YOU EVERY TIME if they should right click or left click.

That is so true, it's amazing. The thing is, I've had this same exact problem lately while demoing mobile phones and mobile apps to newbie mobile phone users - well newbie mobile data users at least. The left/right "soft button" (WTF is a soft button anyways?) came up and just like the quote above, after they ask you which one to choose, they'll ask you from that point on. Even if you *say* "click the right soft button to go back" they'll still ask you, "Which one? This one?" Urgh.

Mobiles are the ultimate consumer computer. They are meant to be used by 12 year olds, teens, college kids, business people and your mother in law. But right now, the design of the interface is still way too confusing. Even Nokias which rank high on the usability scale have problems when it comes to using their phones. I was just talking to someone today about the "overloading" problem with Nokia. The re-use the same button for different, completely disparate tasks: like your power button to change audio profiles. What?! And the fact that if you click the menu button once, you go back to the home screen, and if you click it again you go to the menu, and if you hold it down, you get a list of running apps. On other phones, they have a tendency to do things like combine the power and hang up keys. Huh?

The regular user wants One Button To Do One Thing.

So that brings me back to the left/right soft button issue. I'm not sure how it started, but I think after long consideration, that it's a bad design. I mean, it's great for "yes/no" type questions to have single buttons there for you to push, but to me the joypad and a center select button (better to be separate like on the Samsungs than integrated like on the Nokias) would do better. With a single menu key to pop up options and a joypad, you don't need much else. Honestly, it goes back to the iPod mini's design. That control is far and away the best way to navigate options created. Though I have to say I wish the iPod had a dedicated "back" button, even though it would ruin the ascetic a bit.

To me the key to usability is to give the end user one way to do something, and pretty much one way only. Even if it's a long way to do it, they can remember that way. Rather than give them too many paths to accomplish the same thing. Maybe there's a switch for the advanced users to turn on shortcuts, but for the most part keeping interfaces straight forward makes all of us more content.

The problem with all this thinking is that of course none of the manufacturers are going to try it. Nokia got bitchslapped by the market last year for trying funky new variations of the mobile phone, and now *no one* is going to produce anything that doesn't immediately look like all the rest of the mobile phones out there. The consumers now have an image in their minds of what a mobie phone should look like and the carriers are going to buy phones that look like that image to sell them.

But if we did have our druthers, which buttons should we keep? Okay, the five way joystick stays. Either the menu key or the home key should as well. I prefer the Home key, actually, just like on a web browser. It's great to show newbies: "If you get confused or lost in the UI, just click this button and like Dorothy, you'll instantly appear back at the place you started." The menu button like on the Motorola's is horrible, because they overload it with options. The menu button function on the Nokia's is also too confusing and more importantly Doesn't Look Like A Menu Button. I don't know how many times I've shown someone my phone and said "click on the menu button," to which the person has responded with a "where?" and then a "*that's* a menu button?" A home key is sooo much easier to understand.

The back button is also pretty nice. But here's a question, it's sorta similar to the clear key, no? I think it's amusing that the Nokia has a clear key, the Microsoft has a back key, the Sony Ericsson has both, and the Moto has neither! Hysterical. In my opinion you *need* a clear key for texting, though the "c" doesn't mean anything to anyone generally. And the back button is also needed if you get rid of the second soft button. In general I love the idea of giving people a dedicated way of escaping an option without having to figure out how. I use it on my Sony Ericsson all the time: "Oops, I don't want this option... go back." It's very intuitive, which is why I want it on my iPod as well. The problem with overloading the clear and back buttons is that if you get into a text entry screen and change your mind half way through? If you don't have a back button, you can't escape without deleting all your text character by character first. See what I mean?

So wait, am I just recreating the web browser on my mobile phone? Sorta... and even if I am, that may not be a bad thing. But it's more about just adding buttons that do very specific things keeping in mind what people do with mobile phone apps. A five way joystick for navigating and selecting. A home or "applications" button for pulling up the list of apps to run. A menu button for pulling up application menus. A big dedicated back button for apps, and a smaller dedicated clear button for texting near the keypad for easy access. And that's all you need. Add in a traditional keypad and the red/green buttons and you have yourself a pretty usable phone that you can explain how to use over the phone.

What do you think?


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