Attention Signage Designers: Think about what you write.

Okay, just look at it.

Now think about it: quick, you're in line for a ski lift, you're taking off your gloves, getting your poles together, trying not to fall over and knock everyone else down like dominoes, keeping up pace to not tick everyone off... wait, what's the seat height? How high is your butt?? Ouch!

'16" to 18" +/- 2 INCHES.' For those doing the math, this should be either 14" to 20", or 17 +/- 3 inches. And to boot, it's also mixing two different symbols for inches (" and INCHES) and letter cases (all caps everywhere except "to"). It's practically a work of art!

Sure, there are lots of signs that exist primarily to meet legal requirements - and in these cases, the content is often dictated by law, and in legalese. What's forgotten along the way is the end user - the sign exists to satisfy a law which in turn exists to inform a user. If only we could get the message to the user, and skip the legalese! Alas, 'twas ever thus.

Treo Hardware Silencer Switch: Certainty in an uncertain world

Cellphones are tricky things. Lots of info crammed onto tiny screens, laggy user interfaces, misorganized menus, even software crashes. Does that little bell in the corner mean the sound is on, or that the alarm clock is set, or that the local bell choir is having a concert this weekend? Do those little waves mean sound waves for a ringer, vibration waves for a silent mode, or gnarly waves for surfing? And what would happen if some side button gets pressed for too long against an altoids tin in my pocket - would the sound turn back on, or would the wily thing spontaneously decide to call my mother and/or boss??

Treos, which have always been excellently user-centric, have this one down. That little hardware slider switch silences this sucker, period. Sure thing, no question about it.

Hardware features costs more than software features on mobile devices, both in terms of actual cost to produce, and in increasingly precious pocketspace and weight. The alternatives: soft keys whose functions depend on screen labels, which are virtually unlimited, but take time to navigate to. Or, multiple functions for a single (non-soft) key, such as the loooong press or double-click, which are often too confusing to remember. Still, these two options are used a lot because they're so pain-free to the designers and manufacturers. Case in point: my old phone was set to vibrate with a long-hold on one of the side keys - outside the clamshell, even when the clamshell was closed. A second long-hold set silent; a third, and it's back to full sound. Nothing to keep it from being accidentally pressed in the pocket; no feedback to warn the user that it's happened. And even when I wanted to use it, it takes a few seconds (which add up) of rapt attention to do correctly. It's just not a good feeling; gotta love cost-driven design. Ugh.

So, a design is to be applauded when it sacrifices some of its own profit margin to give the user what needs and wants in solution that fits the problem and real usage patterns. I use this hardware switch every day (Treo 680 user, here), and appreciate every saved second and every additional iota of confidence. Gotta love user-driven design. Really.

1-Button Simplicity: Not Really...

“One button operation!” Well, that’s a neat little marketing phrase which probably tests well with focus groups, who think it’ll be easy to use, right? Not when that one button is supposed to control quite a few different functions on a device whose whole identity is based on convenience! Check it out:

Turning On & Off: When the thing’s off, press it “3-5 seconds or until the blue light flashes” to turn it on. First of all, this actually does vary within that 3-to-5-second range – strange, since more precise timing is definitely achievable on such a device. Even stranger, it varies outside that range, in a way that seems to depend on how recently the headset had been on – if I haven’t used it for a few days, it could take 9 seconds; if it was on a few hours ago, only 2. Ugh. But now, ignore exactly how long it has to be pressed, and think about the feedback it gives to the user. I’m turning this thing on when I’m driving (heh heh, guilty), so I have to hold the headset up in front of me, keeping an eye on it to catch that split-second flash to confirm that I’ve done the job. And if I miss the flash, good luck – holding it another second or two puts it into pairing mode, which is a whole different hell.

Status: So, is it on or off? The whole preceding diatribe isn’t even the beginning when you’re not sure if the headset is already on or not. If it’s on, the only clue it gives is an occasional and very brief flash. You’ve got to keep your eye on the darn thing for some time to know its status, and that’s not only annoying, it’s inconvenient. A fast-paced mobile user who’s interested in convenience (sooo, exactly the kind of person who wants a Bluetooth headset in the first place?) wants status instantly and clearly. Not accomplished here!

Calling: Here’s a fun one. Holding that one button, while the headset is already on (see above to get there), for the correct amount of time will call “the last person you called.” So let me get this straight – I’m in my car, the headset is on (at least I think so), I want to call the little lady, I put my finger on that button.... and I have to pause and think... think, think... was she the last person I called? Did I call her with the headset or just the phone? (And does that even matter?) More often than not, I just bust out the handset and hold “2” to speed dial her. Motorola, why can’t that single headset button be linked to a speed dial number, if it’s going to have a calling function? (Voice dial is even better, but support for that feature apparently varies by both phone AND service provider, thanks a lot, cell companies.) The bottom line: convenience in this case is supposed to be about removing unnecessary actions and unnecessary thought from the process. This one-button wonder drops the ball on the latter.

Accidental Calling: This is a theme I address repeatedly in mobile phones: I don’t want to be able to accidentally call someone, change a setting, power on or off, or anything unpredictable from my pocket. I don’t want a single exposed button that does any of those things when pres
sed long enough, because in a pocket, that’s just too possible! And the single-button headset is a violator in just about every way. It can power itself on (see above) and make a call (see above again) without its user being any the wiser, if it just gets squeezed in the right way – although since those are things I can’t muster intentionally, my pocket would have to be pretty damn tech-savvy...

Ending a Call: I can’t seem to get this right. Holding the button for some amount of time hangs up, but for another amount of time puts the caller on hold. How many times have I left a message one someone’s voicemail that lasted an additional 10 minutes when I unwittingly put’em on hold? I guess I’ll never know...

So what’s the truly convenient alternative to the one-button approach? Simply put, more buttons. I was so frustrated with the one-button model I originally had that I switched to the boom-microphone model – that little swinging mic is the on/off switch. You know when it’s on, when it’s off, and how to switch it, no question about it. My gripes about calling, accident
al calling, and ending a call still apply, but one step at a time, right? Design is iterative, and Motorola is getting there. Unless someone else puts some real thought into it and beats them to the punch...


You don't have to have any experience with product design, engineering, or ID - just be observant, find those little things that matter, and have a desire to share the good, the bad, and the ugly with the world!

Anyone can comment on the blog posts, so feel free to do so. And going off on tangents is encouraged, since a lot of these things are more related than they might seem at first! Just be nice, and keep an open mind.

If you're interesting in contributing as an author to Unpressable Buttons, contact Dave at Don't be shy!


Dave Gustafson


Unpressable Buttons:Product design use and usability,
Designs old and new,
Inspired and unspired.
The little things that matter.

Pretty much everything around us has been designed; whether or not the designers did a good job, or were even paying attention, can make life
enjoyably easy or just plain frustrating. Buttons, ubiquitous and widely varied in design and quality, are emblematic of these tiny but powerful choices in creating a product.

Some are irresistibly satisfying to push, like the click-click of a favorite retractable pen. Others infuriate us, like the crosswalk button whose metallic creak leaves us skeptical that it really got "pressed" at all. Special situations call for special buttons, like
the covered missile triggers on jet fighters which are really designed not to be pressed. Sometimes buttons are called on to do more than they should - a basic bluetooth headset may have one button that can be pressed for 1, 3, 5, or 7 seconds to perform different, optimistically memorized functions.

This blog aims to call attention to these tiny elements of product design that too often fly under the radar, lost to the glamor of sexy profiles and feature-laden spec sheets. Because once a product's newness fades, it's the little things we have to, or get to, live with.
The Author:

Dave Gustafson is a product designer and mechanical engineer currently working in creative design consulting. Somehow, through overexposure to design compromises made between aesthetic industrial design and engineering for efficient manufacturing, a passion for real design usability has come out. Holding bachelors' and master's degrees in product design and mechanical engineering Dave lives in Palo Alto with his fiancee. He enjoys Burning Man, poker nights, and occasionally drumming with the LSJUMB.