Users Hate When Physical Buttons Go Away. Why?

Admit it: You love buttons too.

Written by Stephen Gossett
Published on Sep. 22, 2021
Users Hate When Physical Buttons Go Away. Why?

“The button is not long for this world. ... Just savor every keystroke.” Technology writer Russell Brandom wrote those words back in 2009, as Apple was in the early stages of its (ultimately successful) campaign to topple physical QWERTY keys from phones.

Brandom’s wistful, hug-your-loved-ones-while-you-can plea was an early example, as cited by Rachel Plotnick in her cultural history of push buttons, Power Button, of the vague sense of collective loss that sometimes accompanies the digitally-powered displacement of physical buttons. Out with the analog, in with “slick, flat glass,” as she wrote.

More than a decade later, physical buttons refuse to give up the ghost altogether, but their endangerment, well, presses on. So, too, does the pushback.

Why Do Users Hate When Physical Buttons Go Digital?

Push buttons promote senses of tactility, affectivity, user agency and control, quick recognition, and transparency of function (not to mention a bit of nostalgia). They also loom large in our cultural imagination, signifying luxury, convenience, play and more. These factors likely contribute to pushback when buttons are streamlined into touchscreens, voice controls or other interfaces. Technology like variable-friction haptics seek to bridge the gap between tactile buttons and flat, programmable surfaces.

As UX designer Chris Kernaghan wrote in March for UX Collective, high-profile banishments of physical buttons like Apple’s Touch Bar and Tesla’s central display dashboard have generated criticism from users, designers and industry analysts. But they’re hardly alone. Buttonless elevators have their problems and voice interfaces are still maturing and learning to master intent extraction.

Despite longtime proclamations of the death of the button, and longstanding efforts toward their demise, buttons have “turned out to be very thorny and persistently desired,” Plotnick told Built In. Think of it as the American burying beetle of industrial design: once ubiquitous, suddenly threatened, but harder to kill off than expected.


Buttons Are More Important Than We Recognize

According to Power Button, the button dates back at least to the early 1800s. But the first button of major significance, according to Bill DeRouchey, a product designer at Zendesk who ran the now-defunct button history site Push Click Touch, was the on/off button on the portable flashlight, which debuted in 1898.

It represented a fundamental change in how people interacted with their environment. The button was the first time that, as DeRouchey said in a 2015 talk, input and output were abstracted. Before buttons, there was a logical relationship between a mechanical action and the mechanism that initiated it: pulling a lever pulled a gear. The motion matched the intent. On the other hand, “the motion ‘push’ had no relationship to turning a light on,” DeRouchey said in the talk.

After their introduction, buttons immediately clicked. They permeated design over the next several decades — in appliances, consoles, mechanical and electrical devices, gaming systems, you name it. The button had cemented itself as “the most important invention of the century,” as DeRouchey saw it.

The next big sea change arrived in the 1980s, according to DeRouchey, when monitors and mouses reached the masses. The button became two things at once: an onscreen icon to be clicked and a physical mouse button to be pressed. “The button became a metaphor,” DeRouchey said. The advent of the web synonymized buttons with links and the touchscreen revolution meant a “button” could satisfy any function that a developer could program underneath.

All this time, buttons shouldered incredible cultural significance. The button came to represent the future: luxury and convenience (“at the push of a button”), nuclear anxiety (fear of pushing “the button”), video games (arcade button-mashing), unskilled functionaries (“a mere button pusher”) and much more. Maybe it’s only appropriate that something so semiotically fluid lands at the present moment, where links and touch panels mean buttons can take us anywhere programmers are capable.


Why Do Users Love Physical Buttons?

If buttons’ great innovation — to divorce and simplify input and output — still lives on in the touchscreen era, why all the clamor amid so many physical button phaseouts?

Not surprisingly, part of our continued attraction to physical buttons, Plotnick said, is tactility (the sensation of physical feedback) and its relationship to affectivity (the pleasant, stimulatory aspect of touch). We feel the device respond to us and we respond in kind.

J. Edward Colgate, a professor at Northwestern University who researches haptic feedback for touchscreen interfaces, identified a similar effect at play. “There’s an aesthetic to touch,” he said. “When you turn the knob on a high-quality piece of audio equipment or in a fancy car, you feel this really beautiful feeling. You know somebody worked pretty hard to make them feel just right.”

Plotnick also believes physical buttons can promote a stronger sense of control. “People want something physical to touch and they want that feeling of agency that’s associated with getting to control that interface,” she said.

Some pushback is almost surely related to simple change aversion. Users often fall prey to the mere-exposure effect — that is, we prefer the familiar. But part of it could be a sense of confusion too, where this swipe or that touch-and-hold just isn’t as intuitive as the baked-in clarity of an old-fashioned button or knob.

Buttons lend themselves well to discrete interaction whereas software buttons can be more opaque, Plotnick noted. “There’s a complexity issue at stake where sometimes buttons just have a transparency to them that can be more effortless than the alternatives,” she said.

Of course, that familiarity and straightforwardness tend to work together — or not work together, when they’re conspicuously absent.

About six months ago, DeRouchey bought a new Subaru. In the model he purchased, the fan control wasn’t a physical knob that drivers have come to expect, but a touchscreen — one tap to activate and another tap to adjust the fan speed higher or lower. The other temperature controls, along with the entertainment system controls, were physical buttons and knobs. Just not the fan. 

The extra tap required, the loss of easy, tactile recognition, the inconsistency of design — it all felt a little off.  “That’s the one thing for me where they crossed the line in the wrong way,” he told me.

Even after about half a year, he’s still not enamored with the design. “Acceptance, but not love. Let’s put it that way,” he said.

These kinds of examples point to how, despite being considered yesterday’s news, physical buttons and knobs have a knack for proving their present-day value. “You rub up against this idea of buttons being old fashioned and old tech, with touchscreens being new and high tech, but that often doesn’t bear out well when it comes to practicality,” Plotnick said.


tanvas tanvastouch physical buttons
Rendering of a Tanvas screen, which uses haptics to create tactile sensations of friction and grain on a touchscreen. | Photo: Tanvas

Bridging Push Buttons and Touchscreens

Nowhere are the stakes higher in the choice between physical buttons and touchscreen interactions than in automotive design. Drivers need to have their attention focused on the road, not diverted by unintuitive dashboards and center consoles. Just ask the Tesla driver in Germany who was fined for distracted driving after a court ruled that the carmaker’s center touchscreen was tantamount to a distracting electronic device.

Colgate, the Northwestern researcher, is also co-founder of Tanvas, which builds haptics designed for automotive interfaces. The company’s technology differs from the two main traditional approaches: eccentric rotating masses, where a small weight is made to rotate and vibrate; and linear resonant actuators, which create vibrations using magnets, coils and springs.

Tanvas, however, relies on what Colgate calls variable friction. Instead of motors and moving parts, the system uses multi-touch sensors to create an effect known as electroadhesion, where electric fields create senses of friction, texture and grain. Users feel, for instance, the “click” of a “knob” even though the surface is entirely flat. “We can very finely control those forces in conjunction with your motion,” Colgate said.

A Tanvas touchscreen tablet drew raves when it appeared at CES 2017, but the tech is just now getting ready to roll beyond the trade-show phase and onto real-world roads. (The automotive qualification process for technology is long and rigorous.) Last year, Tanvas announced a partnership with Innolux, a prominent, Taiwan-based manufacturer of automotive touchscreens that’s worked with GM and Hyundai, and Colgate said that carmakers interested in installing his technology could likely start the process by year’s end.

Colgate believes this kind of best-of-both-worlds technology represents the way forward in vehicles. Touchscreens have the benefit of over-the-air updates and — among the biggest drivers pushing toward their inevitability, according to Colgate — it’s simply cheaper to work with large panes of glass than the finicky push-button combination of springboards, contacts and terminals.

Meanwhile, the tactility and responsiveness of a sophisticated haptic provide the kind of wayfinding familiarity that keeps drivers face-forward. It’s easy to see how that could have repercussions outside vehicles as well, where the stakes are much lower but where affective, physical feedback could still drive a positive user experience.


Pushing Our Emotional Buttons

As we wait for a more haptic-touchscreen future — if not, eventually, a fully voice- and gestural-recognition one — product designers working to streamline away the physical button will continue to risk some fallout, not only because of users’ logical appreciation for tactile feedback but because we’re sentimental creatures too.

Alyssa Bereznak, writing for the Ringer in 2017, put her finger on the button-nostalgia connection: “In the history of consumer electronics, [the button] has functioned as the first point of contact between people and their devices — whether that be the bulky plastic square you pushed to play an old cassette tape or the Nintendo 64 Z-button you tapped to shield your characters in Super Smash Bros.”

Of course, the more those entry points transition to digital, the weaker the pull of that nostalgia. Will users who came of age among fewer physical controls recoil so at their loss? As DeRouchey told me, “I do wonder, at some point, how much of it is generational?”

In the meantime, Plotnick thinks the current moment demands a kind of mutual self-interrogation on the part of both users and designers. Users shouldn’t resist changes simply out of unexamined conservative instincts. Designers, meanwhile, should frame each decision beyond the streamlining impulse.

“Who is it serving?” said Plotnick. “What are the benefits and drawbacks? How can we kind of unmask the choices and the reasons behind why something has a button or it doesn’t?”

The continuing evolution away from physical buttons is inevitable, said Colgate. Indeed, despite moments of reasonable, high-profile pushback, users often respond well to these shifts. (You’re probably not reading this article on a QWERTY keyboard phone, after all.) That evolution isn’t bad, he said, just challenging.

“For me, as an engineer, what gets me up in the morning is solving problems, and maybe doing that in new, unexpected and interesting ways. I love buttons and knobs, but I have confidence that we can create really compelling user experiences going into the future.”

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