You wouldn’t try to steer a car with buttons. So why have many product designers abandoned simple analogue controls?
Sometimes you just want to reach out and touch something. But product designers don’t always want to let you.
Not so long ago, if I wanted to adjust the heat in my car, or the volume on my car radio, I could grab a nice, simple knob. Turn it to the right, and the car got warmer, or the radio got louder. Turn it the other way, and the opposite occurred. I could always sense how far I was adjusting things – without ever taking my eyes off the road – because millions of years of evolution have produced a neurological feedback mechanism that lets me know just how much I’m turning my wrist.
Easy, effective, intuitive. That’s simply good design, right? You’d think so. But in most late-model cars, making those kinds of adjustments requires pushing buttons multiple times, or navigating menus within menus, and – almost always – taking your eyes off the road.
That’s the trouble with buttons: instead of working in a continuous analogue motion the way knobs do, they only operate in discrete digital steps. And, since there’s no tactile feedback, the only way to tell what the button is doing is to squint at an LCD readout.
So what do product designers have against knobs? Several things. First of all, most designers like a smooth, uncluttered look. Tiny buttons blend in better than a bunch of big knobs. (Of course, blending in makes the buttons hard to see, which is part of the problem.) Second, the utility of a knob is precisely its main flaw: it does only one thing. If you have a lot of things to control, you need a lot of knobs.
With nested menus and a few buttons, you can duplicate the functions of dozens of knobs in much less space. Trouble is, what’s saved in space and clutter (and gained in elegance) is lost in terms of usability.
To be fair, designers today have a real challenge, as products get smaller and more capable at the same time. The old Motorola “brick” cellphones could have simple interfaces because they were phones – period. Today’s cellphones are also cameras, Web browsers, video players and more, but they’re also much smaller, meaning that they offer fewer square centimetres of control surface.
Sometimes the designers get it right. Apple’s iPod has succeeded largely because of its elegant control system, a quasi-analogue dial that offers tactile feedback as you navigate through sensibly organised menus. (I wonder if Apple iPhone will meet with the same success, as its touchscreen offers no tactile feedback. Will people get tired of having to look down every time they dial a number?)
Several elite audio manufacturers have embraced analogue controls as a style statement. The Tivoli Audio Model One table radio, by Henry Kloss, is a perfect embodiment of the uncluttered “big knob” school of design. One big knob is for tuning; two not-quite-so-big knobs are for volume and band selection – easy, straightforward and attractive. My Harman Kardon AVR 240 receiver takes the big-knob approach, too, with just a few buttons for the more complex features.
Of course, not all such experiments work out. BMW’s original “iDrive” system, which attempted to control dozens of functions with a single knob, was roundly panned for its complexity and user-unfriendliness.
One of the most dramatic examples of the return-to-analogue controls comes from the field of electronic music. I own a 1980s Roland Alpha Juno 1 synthesiser. It’s a sleek machine, controlled with minimalist buttons – a classic. But most musicians will tell you that it’s hard to perform while you’re trying to squint at the Roland’s LCD display and navigate its nested menus.
The synthesiser I’d like to own is the Alesis AG Andromeda. Unlike the Roland, the Alesis puts many key functions on dedicated knobs – so many, in fact, that it looks like the cockpit of a B-17. And that’s why musicians love it – knobs are easy to grab in the dark. Knobs also make it simpler to transfer knowledge from one device to another.
Once you know what a low-frequency oscillator does, you can use it on any device. But with non-standard menus, you have to spend precious time finding, and remembering, how to get to the function you need on every new device you use.
Clearly, not every product can be loaded with knobs like the Alesis. But I’d like to see car designers use more knobs, and fewer buttons, especially for functions that I’m likely to adjust a lot while driving. And I’d like designers of other products, who tend to focus a lot on looks, to remember that “feel” is an important part of “look and feel”, too. Most important, I’d like to buy products that work as if they were designed by people who actually use them in the real world.
* Glenn Harlan Reynolds is the founder of the blog instapundit.