Sometime about 2-3 years ago, the saturated consumer electronics industry, hungry for new but matured technology, has been exploring what we designers call “static” buttons. These “static” buttons are essentially non-mechanical (ie non-moving) and use electronic circuitry as a means to detect triggering contact.
Function or yet another fad?
I must admit when I first learnt about it, I was a big fan and jump on the band wagon in a big way. A design that I submitted to the 2006 Red-Dot Concept award had also used “static” buttons. At that time, I sat back and laughed at my cleverness!
However these days I’m not so sure, especially going through hindsight 30/30. I am starting to feel such non-mechanical buttons actually reduce the user experience rather than enhance it. Often because these static buttons are not used in a correct context and it lacks the most important thing a tactile and haptic feedback.
Before we go on lets take a quick look at the way these technology work. Currently from what I know there are 3 technologies that drive non-mechanical buttons they are Electrostatic, Pressure sensitive and Touch Screen buttons.
Electrostatic buttons are similar to the ones found in lifts. The way it works is the human finger closes the circuit thus triggering the button. Thus if you wear gloves it wont work. On of the big problems is when you have housings place in front of the buttons. If the housing is “charge” in any way it will trigger it.
Pressure sensitive buttons and dials operate like the iPod jog dial or the B&O BeoCenter 2. The circuitry senses very slight pressure on a sensitive plate and thus triggers the button. This would also mean putting it in your pocket could trigger it. This is a much more reliable technology but slightly more expensive than electrostatic buttons.
Touch screen button technology can be found on most PDAs and universal remote controls. The system uses the screen graphics to create the button icons for users to view and activate.
The award winning BenQ Black Box, that is making the rounds in the blogosphere as its the phone that is supposed to have an interface that allows the product to be anything. It has a touch screen surface that morphs to a mobile phone, calculator, or media player etc depending on the requirements of the user and software.
For the purpose of this discussion, I have split the button types into mechanical and non-mechanical buttons.
Personally I am still ready to embrace the use of mechanical buttons. The reason is, nothing gives a more satisfying, direct physical feedback response than a moving cylinder that triggers a switch. It’s instantaneous and you know with its depression and haptic feedback, something will happen.
“Static” buttons on the other hand have issues with feedback. Nothing moves, so there is no action and thus no reaction. Therefore designers that use “static” buttons need to employ a host of other feedback elements, like beeping sounds or lights. This is a very software driven interface and hence prone to software based problems. (Remember the blue screen of death?) If there is even a slight lag in response time, you would leave users wondering if they hit that button hard enough or if the angle of contact is even correct.
However “Static” buttons had advantages in that it’s aesthetically pleasing, and “static” LCD buttons, have immense flexibility. I like to wrap up this post with a list of reasons on when you should or should not use “static” buttons.
Traditional Mechanical Buttons
1) In situations where a button has high frequency of use. A control for a game pad.
2) Good for single specific functions. For example an “open” button in a lift. Depressed means it will stay open.
3) Good as a “goto” button that skips over everything else. For example a “power switch”, over rides everything else.
4) Able to create nice shapes or forms that are nice details. The iPod’s circular jog dial is a good example.
5) Good usability as it is clearly demarcated where is the active area.
1) When Aesthetic has a slightly higher priority than function.
2) With an LCD button interface, you can have a high degree of flexibility in the interface. Look at a Pocket PC PDA ability to be a phone, keyboard, media player etc.
3) You can have a buttons in places that are very thin or stacked tightly with electronics. The LG Chocolate phone buttons located on its thin top flap.
In conclusion, though I’m a fan, I am still sitting on the fence when it comes to mobile phones having “static” buttons. With such small form factors, I am concern that it will be a juggling act locating the buttons in the first place as there is no demarcation of the active area. As with the small size of mobiles phones today, they are already a huge usability problem in itself, so much so that static buttons do not seem to make it any better better.
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