The One Button Mystique

I enjoy my iPhone, but I can't quite come to terms with one aspect of its design: Apple's insistence that there can be only ever be one, and only one, button on the front of the device.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at:

It’s also worth mentioning that the iPhone in fact has FIVE buttons:
• Home
• Volume Up
• Volume Down
• Silence Ringer
• Sleep/Wake

In my opinion, whether one button is “right” (or N-buttons) depends on how well thought the interaction with the software is designed. The hardware should match the abilities of the software, otherwise things start to get hairy and the hardware controls (ab)used for additional/unplanned purposes.

One good example of ”no buttons can be good” (not even one!) would be the Nokia N9: swiping through the UI feels so natural that I still don’t know anyone using it who would miss the buttons. The whole UI can be controlled flawlessly without any button at all. The power button has only one function (poweron/poweroff) and the volume rocker is just a nicety that allows for changing the volume without powering up the screen (good for people like me using it as music player), but still it is comfortable if it is not taken into use.

I’m confused. If you want 2 buttons, but the 2nd button is the back button, how does that help with the overloading of the home button? “Back” is generally not one of the overloads of the home button.

A big problem with adding another button is - does that button always make sense? Having a hard button that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t seems worse to me than only having one button.

Seems like another hard button would make sense if it a) alleviate the home button overloading and b) wasn’t context sensitive. Maybe “launch Siri” or “show multitasking bar” could make sense as a second button. I rather like the iPad’s multitouch gestures for the multitask bar, though.

Once you add the second button you can never get rid of it. So being cautious about it seems prudent.

Title should by changed to “The one button mistake”. Apple tries to be the friendly, accessible technology company, but really goes to far by forcing the use of a single button. What’s probably worse than making their mistake is the arrogance of not fixing it.

Samuel, 1 button on the Face of the device.

But the magic of the way that the iPhone (and most technology) works is that if you mis-click, just do it again.

If you’re on a PC and try to click on something and miss, you just IMMEDIATELY attempt again, right? Why is this any different with a button on a device?

I sometimes try to double-click to pull up the multi-tasking bar so I can mess with my music from within another app, but sometimes I only single click. No biggie, just immediately double click, fix my music, then pop back into what I was doing.

My only gripe is that maybe I want to change how MY home button works. It’s my phone, let me make double clicking the home button skip to the next track or open my camera app. Now that would be awesome.

+1 for the Zork reference.

I had to disable gestures on my iPad. They aren’t very intuitive and my 2 year old caused all sorts of problems trying to finger paint or tickling the cat.

I also have an Android phone. I have to admit, I really miss the back button as it’s easily as useful as the home button.

The biggest problem is that because every app needs a back button and Apple didn’t put a hard one in, they all do it differently. The one app that is a joy to use is flipboard.

On the upside, I finally figured out that if you hold your finger in place you get micro control of the cursor in text boxes. Makes editing a lot easier now.

“single-click, double-click, triple-click, click and hold, click and pause and click again”

Sounds like Morse Code to me!

Of course this looks complicated because whoever designed it made it look complicated!

He added all the special sections for accessibility that 90% of the users will never use, but are very useful to those 10%. And he spread it out horizontally? Yikes.

Long press: Always Siri

Single Press (anywhere but on the home screen): always go back to the home screen (I don’t know why this says “return to previous screen”, because that’s not true).
Single Press (while on the home screen): spotlight

Double Press(while not locked): will always bring up the running apps drawer
Double Press(while locked): will bring up audio controls and a modified unlock swipe with the camera icon

Tripple press is for those edge cases of accessibility

When there is only one button you may not know what it’s going to do but you don’t have to spend a lot of time guessing at which button to press.

I’m surprised you like the back button, but not the recent apps button, given how much you talk about multi-tasking on your iPhone being frustrating.

My “one button” has gotten flakey after 16 months. Sometimes it gets ignored completely. Sometimes, one click counts as two. Sometimes, two count as one. Its hard to tell if it ever does three clicks for one.

Very frustrating and just increases my frustration at all the overloading Jeff writes about.

I would like at least one physical, programmable button. There are a few use cases. Most of them relate to ease-of-access. Ideally, it’s assignment could vary by context. For instance, when at home, it could start my Google TV remote control app. Other times it could start the camera.

One especially novel use case is stopwatch. That is one area where even a very sensitive touchscreen is not always accurate enough.

I am an android fanboy, but the logic of the physical buttons on most devices escape me.

The back button is great. No argument there. Easily the strongest feature of the OS. The home button is somewhat superfluous since long-pressing the back button achieves the same effect. The only useful thing it does is to bring up the task switcher if you long press it, but this should be the default action instead. I guess it is on some phones though, since physical button setups varies between most brands.

The menu-button is being phased out in favor of on-screen options. I have no strong feelings about it either way. It works well in android 2.x, but I suspect android 4.x works just as well without it.

Then there is the search button. Only reason it exists, must be because google is trying to impose a search paradigm where none is needed. All good apps have better and just as easily accessible search functions.

Volume rockers and on/off/sleep switches, I consider separate and they work perfectly imo.

Jeff, you’re obviously unfamiliar with the Nokia N9. There are no face buttons on the device, but the UI is fantastic. Getting to multitasking, apps, web, phone, camera, and SMS are only a swipe away. There are a couple buttons on the side, but they’re not necessary for day-to-day use. The volume buttons are more for if you want to change the volume without interfacing with your music application (i.e. while the device is locked) and the lock button isn’t needed for unlocking the device - just double-tap the screen.

Since there are no buttons (not even built into the headphone cord), there’s no confusing double-click/triple-click etc. behavior of the type you described. The UI just works.

I don’t like search-type hardware buttons, because I never use search on my phone. The Swipe UI on the N9 renders the need for a Home/Start button unnecessary. Sure, a hardware back button could be useful, but so could a hardware keyboard, and if you paid attention to the iPhone’s design history, then you know that Steve vetoed designs with hardware keyboards because they take up valuable real estate that’s better dedicated to screen real-estate, which can provide a back button if needed. And that’s exactly what the N9 does. If I need a back button, it’s put in the UI. If I don’t, I have more room for web/movies/anything/etc.

Jeff, I highly suggest that you do your research and take a look at the Nokia N9 UI - I think you will be pleasantly surprised.

I really like the Windows Phone idea, however the implementation has a big flaw.
Back button - perfect. Click it, it goes back, hold it down to switch to another open app. Navigation in one button makes sense.

Windows Button - goes home, hold it down you get voice prompt.

Search Button - It makes sense these days to be able to quickly go to search so I dedicated button makes sense. But the implementation sucks. In the initial release you click the button and if the app could handle search it would bring that search up otherwise go to bing. Sounds good but in practice there was no way to tell if an app supported search and clicking it would make you leave the app - really annoying.

So in Mango they changed it and made it always go to bing. It’s an improvement, but it takes away a really nice idea.

The obvious solution is a click does an app search, if there is no app search it does nothing. And holding the button down brings up bing. But I fear this is one case where Microsoft wants you to use bing so they will never implement.

The middle mouse button is not part of the experience? You, sir, are completely wrong! The middle mouse button (i.e. the wheel) is my most used button when browsing. Open a window in a new tab? middle click on link. Close a tab? Middle click on tab. Scroll? Use the damn wheel.

A bit off topic here, but am I the only one who misses physical buttons? You know, the kind that you can actually sense with your fingers, and that move when you press them? Why the hell is everyone switching to this capacitive crap? (I know the one button in question is physical, but the ones in the Android/WP photo aren’t, thus the question)

For example, my phone has 4 capacitive “buttons” on the bottom, and I sometimes “press” them while trying to tap something at the bottom of the screen. That sucks. But what sucks more is trying to switch my monitor on in the dark. That bitch has a single little point on a completely flat panel that you have to actually tap (just moving over it doesn’t work). Hell, it’s hard to hit it even in the daylight.

So, could anyone explain me, why the hell? Is it all about ‘prettiness’, or is it really so much cheaper? (would be a stupid reason for a $500 device)

@Chris McGrath - I would think the usage of the search button that makes the most sense would be single click brings up the “app search” if implemented, or the OS search otherwise.

Click and hold could bring up Bing, I guess. But it seems counter-intuitive, and smacks of “synergy” taking priority over usability, to search the web when you press a physical search button.

Searching in the Windows start menu (or start screen in Windows 8) doesn’t take you to Bing by default, so why should that be the behavior on the phone? If you want to search the web, I think most people would open a web browser and then type in the address bar.