I’m not alluding to the fact that my trousers would fall down or even that I’m addicted to little discs of chocolate, I’m becoming concerned at the proliferation of touchscreens and the like.
In computers, smartphones, cars and cameras it seems that push buttons and switches are seen as old-fashioned, not versatile enough, not eager to change colour or function at the drop of a hat, they’re so last century but wait a second, they still have value.
Some devices like a digital SLR camera have functions that you need to change quickly attached to a button, you instinctively reach for it with a finger tip, press it, twiddle the input dial and viola you’ve dialed in some exposure compensation. The process of just knowing where the control is is called muscle memory and it’s very useful, so much so we often don’t realise we’re using it. I’m using it now, I’m typing this without looking at the keyboard. Now it’s true that’s possible with a touchscreen but only if you have a physical reference to start from and the display doesn’t change – with an actual button you only need to know it’s near your index finger, you just fish around for a second and know what the right one feels like, on a screen there’s, at the moment, no tactile cues.
The other problem with touchscreens is also that they tend to group all the controls on the back or front of the device so for example on the Samsung Galaxy NX camera, and other touchy-feely controlled cameras you have to take your eye from the viewfinder in order to fit your fingers between the screen and your nose.
So speed and practicality are on the single-minded, independent buttons’ side but what about safety?
Huh? you ask. I’ve mentioned before how the same principle reduces the amount of time you’re looking away from the road when driving a car with physical controls rather than touchscreens or joystick-driven menus. Until voice control gets to the KITT-level conversation style I’m not happy giving up my in-car knobs and dials.
As for voice control of phones and cameras, it’s fine until you find yourself trying to adjust a setting on your camera while not wanting to look away from the viewfinder but also being aware that asking your camera nicely if it wouldn’t mind changing the aperture to f/8 might be inappropriate to the setting.
Fashion seems to be pushing tech companies and car makers towards more minimalist devices, their faces just a screen of morphing, interactive controls, often for the sake of it, but good design shouldn’t compromise usability and sometimes the most usable control is the humble physical button.