As ever, a thoughtful piece of design from BERG has kicked off some interesting analysis and writing by the design community.
Sitting in a more useful corner of ‘the smart home’, their Cloudwash washing machine concept/prototype is an interesting instantiation of a ‘mod cons’ becoming connected.
While most of the chatter has focused on the choice of device and what it says about men (and don’t get me wrong I think this is a tremendously interesting area of discussion, go and read Rachel Coldicutt’s post) the thing that really caught my attention was the roll of a single function button.
Single Function Buttons
In an era of touch screens the presence of buttons becomes more noticeable. The iPhone’s mute button; the turn page button on a nook ebook reader; the Nest’s dial control.
What do they have in common? They all represent such a fundamentally important control for the device that they get their own button. (Incidentally, I don’t include on/off buttons in this group – I’m focussing on the functionality once the device is on.)
These buttons also allow for more tactile interaction, a learnable physical behaviour. In the case of the iPhone it’s easy to switch mute on and off without even taking your phone from your pocket. On the nook my gaze never leaves the page. Click.
On BERG’s washing machine the button that is given its own sole function is the notification override. It makes a lot if sense: notifications are both very useful, yet have the potential to become a big annoyance.
Buttons for Interaction Designers
The consideration of physical buttons by interaction designers is more important now than ever before, as touch screens have become the most pervasive format (perhaps even the default format) in such a short period it’s easy to forget the point of difference that a physical button brings.
What functionality deserves a button? What type of button is best? What is the button’s default state? What does it sound like? How does it feel?
From an accessibility perspective physical buttons are also tremendously important. The reason that you don’t get touchscreen ATMs? They’d be tough to use by those with limited vision. Equally those with restricted dexterity may also benefit from something more tactile and forgiving than a capacitive iPhone screen.
But physical buttons also bring different challenges, they fail, they stick, they break. In fact, all the more reason to keep them for the most important functions. You can read more on how hard atoms are compared to pixels here.
More buttons, less buttons, no buttons
A final thought on the roll of buttons from the new product developer at BERG (and recently Luckybite), Durrell Bishop.
The marble phone is an investigation into an entirely physical interface to an answer phone. Each new message is stored on a marble which rolls out onto the top of the machine when a message is left. You then listen to the message by placing the marble on the playback cup.
It’s easy to see at a glance if you have messages without a little flashing light (or notification). In fact it allows the technology to manifest as a piece of sculpture.
No buttons, no screen.
Worth thinking about when you next start designing the interactions or interface, on screen or with buttons.