Button, Button, Who Has the Button?

By Tom Peters |

Cell phones, PDAs, MP3 players, and other portable information/communication appliances all have buttons. For most tasks, the dominant way of interacting with these devices involves pressing buttons. The functionality of some buttons has become so multifarious that they seem like joysticks—without the stick and without the joy.

The problem is: most button designs are poor, assuming that easy usability is the principal design goal. Somewhere along the line the device-design community developed the collective wisdom that the purpose of button design is to enhance the overall style—and sales attractiveness—of the device. The result is a bunch of gadgets with buttons that elicit user responses ranging from confusion to open hostility.

Button design is a key component of both the usability and accessibility of these devices. This summer the Canadian National Institute for the Blind concluded a three-year study of the accessibility and general usability of a specific hardware device and a specific software program. The full report is available at www.cnib.ca/library/daisy_info/results_report.htm. The manufacturer of the device and software is not a secret, but not worth mentioning here, because I'm not picking on one device manufacturer but on the entire collective of designers of the buttons we all use every day in our personal portmanteaus of portable information appliances.

One interesting finding (identified on page 26 of the online PDF version of the report) was that 42 percent of the participants made suggestions on how to change and improve the button design. This is, by far, the most frequent type of recommendation related to the device used in this study. This study supports, although in a small limited way, my thesis that the most important thing any portable playback device manufacturer—from Apple on down—can do to improve the accessibility of a proprietary device is to redesign the buttons (size, placement, tactility, etc.) for accessibility—rather than for stylishness and increased sales. This tentative thesis seems to apply for devices purportedly designed specifically for print-impaired users as much as it does for devices designed for the general consumer market.

MuVo MP3 playerOne device I have been using intensively for more than a year is the MuVo MP3 player from Creative Labs. It is designed for the general consumer market—an iPod shuffle wannabe, even though it came to market before the Shuffle. Although all the anecdotal feedback I receive from print-impaired users indicates that the MuVo is much better than average when it comes to accessibility and general usability, the button design is all style and no substance.

Why should librarians care about button design, and what should we do about it? Let's face it: We are more closely aligned with digital content end-users than with content creators or device manufacturers. We should serve as advocates for the end-users' experience. For better or worse, finding and pressing buttons on devices will be an integral part of interacting with information systems into the foreseeable future. We should help develop first principles, guidelines, and best practices.

At the dawn of the digital age we are presented with a unique opportunity to expand and improve access to—and the accessibility of—information for all users. Let's not squander this opportunity. Let's stop pressing the wrong buttons, become advocates for all users in this regard—let's press a few of the device manufacturers' buttons.