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XIV.5 September + October 2007
Page: 44
Digital Citation

Am I pushing your buttons?


Authors:
Aaron Marcus

Why does the one-button solution to life’s challenges seem so appealing? Such simple, clear, consistent solutions appeal, perhaps, to the child in each one of us. More on that later—let’s first take a look at single-touch solutions in the marketplace.

Recent advertisements for Staples, a U.S. office-supplies chain, emphasize its signature red Easy Button, available online as a downloadable “one-stop link” for your desktop that provides access to everything Staples has to offer. Customers can get the supplies they need quickly and easily. Members can check their rewards purchases, points, and earnings “with one quick click.” (A concept earlier formulated by Amazon.com with its successful one-click shopping technique). Staples suggests consumers think of the solution as a “helping hand for your desktop that makes your workday a little easier.”

Of course, if we have one button for our office needs, one button for our travel needs, and one button for our financial needs…well, you get the picture. Our desktop would look like it had broken out in chicken pox.

Navigating the Road With a Single Finger

General Motors’ OnStar technology offers a one-button solution for solving navigation challenges, auto malfunctions, and even traffic congestion. According to GM’s website, the world’s “most comprehensive in-vehicle security, communications, and diagnostics system” can provide safety, directions, connections, vehicle diagnostics, turn-by-turn navigation, hands-free calling, even crisis assistance, all at the push of a single blue button. Forget complex graphical user-interfaces and arrays of physical buttons that still populate many car dashboards. The simplicity of calling a real person who has the answers is very appealing.

In fact, single-button ignition-devices, that is, push-button vehicle starters, have appeared in 55 car and truck models, including luxury vehicles from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes, as well as inexpensive cars like Nissan’s Versa and hybrid vehicles like the Toyota Prius [5]. These devices date back to 1913 but have found new life thanks to the remote-control “fob,” which one must have in one’s pocket to control car security and start the engine. I have such a system in my new car, and I must admit it makes me feel like a royal personage to reach out and, with an imperial gesture, press a single button that makes the car spring into action. Ah, the simple life. In fact, the user experience of such a device, like that of the OnStar button, seems to both denote and connote a life of executive ease, royal power, and pain-free solutions to life’s problems.

Apple’s Next (Imagined) Generation

About a decade ago, long before the Apple iPod’s navigation circle dominated the surface of music-listening devices, Sony produced a small portable radio measuring about 5 x 8 x 0.5 cm. The most striking aspect of the user interface and product design was that the sleek metallic front was almost completely covered with a single large black disk, a single on-off button. After setting the station with tiny controls at the edge of the player and plugging in the earpiece, my typical use for the device was to listen to a favorite radio program. All I had to do was touch that one black disk to instantly get the musical satisfaction I desired. Sony designers had thought out a very clever feature: If the earpiece were removed, the button could not turn on the radio, thereby removing accidental touches while the radio was in one’s pocket, purse, or briefcase, which would otherwise have drained the batteries. My own portable radios that I carried around in my briefcase often suffered this fate.

Part of the iconic visual appeal of the iPhone in recent ads and news articles is the striking simplicity of its array of buttons. Not one button, to be sure, but an orderly display of 20 buttons, each representing a single-button solution to your communication, entertainment, and information-processing needs. It raises this question: Is there a connection between the look of the iPhone’s screen simplicity and the appeal of the single button? A group in Japan has jumped ahead of Apple’s current products and produced spoof designs for the iPhone Nano and the iPhone Shuffle, which reduce the iPhone’s user interface to ultimate simplicity: two buttons. See more at www.informationarchitects.jp.

The one-button approach even extends to a patent for one-button wireless telephony [3]. All of the solutions mentioned thus far emphasize, directly or indirectly, a search for simplicity. The “Laws of Simplicity” are elucidated in Maeda’s treatise on the subject [4].

But is there something else here besides simplicity? Is the single-button look somehow related to the look of large-eyed cartoon figures of childhood? Recall that Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse went through a transition from its earliest incarnations to the more familiar, wholesome, cuddly rodent of today by getting large eyes and large, simple ears that look almost like large buttons! In fact, some Disney-sanctioned graphic designs have reduced Mickey to just three connected circles to represent the head and the two ears. Some theorists have begun to suspect that hiding behind this desire for simplicity is a desire to return to the simpler, clearer notions of childhood.

One question must be asked: Is the one-button solution a viable approach to user-interface design and the user experience? Certainly, in some situations it can be a quick, effective, productive, appealing solution to alternatives that require more-complex navigation of menus. In the OnStar case, the menu navigation is shifted to human-to-human communication and interaction. For some people and in some situations, human-to-human contact is far more desirable, even if more costly in terms of paying human workers rather than maintaining machine servers.

However, even if more costly, and in some cases, probably dysfunctional, the appeal of a single-button solution is so powerful that one-button, one-touch, one-choice solutions are increasingly likely to find their way into a world filled with too many icons, too many menus, and too many choices.

References

1. Clarke, Warren, “Going Keyless,” 16 August 2005, http://www.edmunds.com/ownership/audio/articles/106651/article.html (16 July 2007).

2. Information Architects Japan, “Introducing iPhone Nano & Shuffle,” 11 January 2007 http://www.informationarchitects.jp/iphone-nano-iphone-shuffle (16 July 2007).

3. Kravitz, Steve “One button cellular phone, system, and method for use” US Patent 6035217. 7 March 2000. http://www.patentstorm.us/patents/6035217-description.html (16 July 2007).

4. Maeda, John, The Laws of Simplicity. Boston: The MIT Press, 2006. http://lawsofsimplicity.com/category/laws?order=ASC

5. Maynard, Micheline, “With Button Ignition, Car Keys Could Go the Way of Tail Fins.” New York Times, 14 January 2007, p. A1.

6. OnStar: http://www.onstar.com

7. Staples; http://www.stapleseasybutton.com

Author

Aaron Marcus
aaron.marcus@AMandA.com

About the Author

Aaron Marcus is the founder and president of Aaron Marcus and Associates, Inc. (AM+A). He has degrees from both Princeton University and Yale University, in physics and graphic design, respectively. Mr. Marcus has published, lectured, tutored, and consulted internationally for more than 30 years.

©2007 ACM  1072-5220/07/0900  $5.00

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