The death of buttons?

Here’s a post I wrote for The Real Adventure blog last May.

The death of buttons

We’ve been clicking our way around the digital world for 30 years or so now; opening files, saving documents, ‘Liking’ posts on Facebook, submitting forms; all by the click of a button – but has the time now come to move on from this most familiar of controls?

The button worked as a familiar metaphor to interact with an interface in what technical types call the WIMP (Window, Icon, Menu, Pointing device) era, i.e. the heady days of controlling desktop computers with a pointing device such as a mouse. But as we continue to move into a ‘post-WIMP’ era of voice-controlled interaction and multi-touch gestures, buttons are no longer the only option at an interface designer’s disposal, and are starting to disappear. In fact, in many contexts, new methods of interaction, such as gestures feel much more natural and intuitive than clicking a button.

Removing barriers

Consider the ‘Pull down to refresh’ gesture used by Twitter and Facebook (among others) on their apps and mobile sites. Comparing this tactile gesture to a clickable button saying ‘load more’ makes the button seem clunky and even quaint. How about unlocking a smart phone just by looking at it? A front facing camera and facial recognition software mean all I have to do is look at my phone when I want to use it. I can search Google using instant search and get results without ever hitting a ‘Search’ button, I can quickly ‘Like’ photos on Instagram with a double-tap. These are all great examples of how removing a button can make human computer interaction more seamless. Often removing a button is removing a barrier that is only serving to slow down a process.

Some recent mobile apps have pushed things even further; almost entirely doing away with buttons and relying entirely on gestures. The most striking example of this is Clear, an iPhone ‘to-do list’ app that employs an uber-minimal, brightly coloured user interface that relies on a user first learning how to use its futuristic gesture controlled, button-less controls.

“But what do I press?”

Herein lies the problem, as stunning as this is, we simply can’t always rely on asking our users to learn new rules each time they use one of our interfaces, as they will vote with their feet, in most cases favouring familiarity, speed and decreased cognitive load over breathtaking innovation. Early adopters and UI nerds (myself included) might be impressed, but what about our target audience? Is it right for them? All users are not created alike.

Whilst a design without buttons has the potential to speed up and enhance the user experience, we should use design patterns that our target users are already familiar with, or are so intuitive that the ‘Don’t make me think’ rule of usability rings true. We are currently living in a wild west of button-less interaction, where new techniques are appearing and disappearing all the time, and it remains to see which methods will stick and become second nature to our ‘non-expert’ users.

What’s next?

The death of buttons? Maybe, but not yet. We’ve still got a way to go, so click the share buttons below and imagine how you might share something in the future – a swipe up gesture? A hand clap? A voice command? I’m excited to see what we’ll come up with…

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