Do We Still Need Buttons on Smart Phones?

Generation of touch screen is growing. Kids, especially those who were born after 2010 may not have the chance to experience any mobile device with a button on front panel before the trend of bezel-less (or edgeless) sweep the market.

“Why is this screen not responding?”

A 10-year-old girl pokes screen of a Game Boy Color and pays no attention to the buttons below.

Back in the 80s and 90s, the button mechanics structure was our first impression of technology and left us good memories. Kids would rush into arcade and smash buttons or joysticks, knowing every move of Iori Yagami from the King of Fighters. Operating a Walkman definitely feels more like “playing” music than swiping fingers or talking to a virtual voice assistant.

A “Non-smart” phone was the first mobile phone for many people, who are proficient of typing without peeking the keyboard, whether it is 9-key or QWERTY. After the appearance of virtual keyboard (soft keyboard) this skill has become less popular. However, a large portion of smart devices use vibrate to simulate the pressing feedback of a physical button.

“A virtual keyboard is tasteless without vibrate feedback.”

The Magic Button

It is unclear when was the first device that applied a physical button, but we all know buttons are necessary for all electronic devices for a long time. Button simplified the cognition of technology products, turning all the programs, processes into one simple action.

“You press the button, we do the rest.”

In the 19th century, photography was a complicated job. Cameras were heavy and hard to operate. Minute was the exposure unit back in the early days. Kodak made this (probably the most popular one in nineteen’s century) tagline “You press the button, we do the rest”. It represented the “lazy ones” philosophy of human history.

Each button pressing would lead to one photo, next song or TV channel, or another floor level. The instant feedback brings you satisfaction. Some devices even added non-functional buttons to create or enhance users’ satisfaction. Did you know that many “close” buttons in elevators will not make closing faster? And 90% AC temperature control are just for show. They don’t really adjust temperature but they did controlled complaints from your office staff.

Checkout the “Stress Relivers”, aka placebo buttons in the market.

Dr. Ellen J. Langer thinks it is important for people to have sense of control, which relieves anxiety. Button is a great carrier of sense of control. Hence we relates control of most actions with button, while many buttons, including nuclear launching, are just in fiction.

“Every year when Apple launches a new product, Tim Cook presses a button on his desk, which instantly causes lag in all iPhones that are 2+ years old. – internet joke”

Buttons Gone, Our Instincts Are Not

With the launch of iPhone X, The Home button became history after 10 years on iPhones.  The trend is inevitable. Remember Steve Jobs said when he introduced the 1st generation iPhone:

“It takes you home from wherever you are.”

Home button got more versatile with Touch ID and 3D Touch. Starting from iPhone 7, Home cannot be pressed but only touched. It inherited the look, but users may still intuitively press down and found out it cannot be done. The “fake” Home design quickly got adopted by Android phone brands. Apple used Taptic Engine vibrate feedback to simulate the actual button. It has different vibrate levels for pressing, releasing and other actions to provide maximized interactive reality. The same technology was applied in Macbook and Apple Watch, advertised as Force Touch.

It seems contradictory that phone manufacturers spend efforts on simulating buttons while cutting down physical ones, but at least it shows users’ demand for pressing feedback is a solid appeal. The 3rd party input Gboard of Google, LG V30, Xperia XZ2 also introduced their own virtual keyboard feedback technology.

Most people wouldn’t consider vibration feedback as an important fact when making purchasing decisions. Reason is not that we don’t need buttons, but a sad fact that most manufacturers didn’t do a good job in this area. By the end of February 2019, most consumer devices do not support customization of vibrating strength and duration.

It’s All About Certainty

Button structure gives you the sense of touch. When applied to human-machine interaction, it brings you more certainty and sense of control much stronger than sound or vision. Touch sense is largely depending on physical medium, whether it is vibration or position changing.

We miss the certainty, not the buttons, just like reaching to your keys in the bag. Descartes says that the senses deceive us except for the tactile sense. There are alternatives to buttons that provide you physical feedback. I still enjoy the buttons on Nokia 3310, and the fantastic interaction of Mario Odyssey on Nitendo Switch. Some people enjoy paper books over Amazon Kindle. Before the gaming suit in Ready Player One become universal, we still need buttons or button-like interactions.

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