Two and a bit thoughts on buttons and interaction design metaphors

Thought one: The distance that a traditional button on the screen appears to depress is the same distance that a mouse button depresses

There is a school of thought going around saying that buttons should be avoided in interface design. This makes a lot of sense for touch interfaces, but before we get rid of them we should try to understand reasons buttons on interfaces are so successful in the first place. Until recently we’ve (mostly) only been able to interact with computers using physical buttons, so building digital interfaces out of skeuomorphic buttons works well- the UI is a direct metaphor for the input mechanism. Creating a button-less interface on a non-touch screen is likely to be more challenging.

Thought one point one: Mice are mostly just moveable buttons whose function changes according to its position.

Thought one point two: Are buttons skeuomorphic? They don’t normally get the designer ire reserved for the like of some of Apple’s apps. But yes, they redundantly mirror their real-world equivalent just to make the user feel like they are using something physical.

Thought two: There’s no such thing as ‘authentically digital’

I’m a big fan of Microsoft’s Metro interface style. It’s big, bold, flat, modernist design eschews all trompe l’oeil – Microsoft call this ‘authentically digital’. Being authentically digital is a seductive idea, but Metro is no more authentic than a DOS command line. The command line is an ‘authentic’ interface for machines where the main input method is keyboard, button based UI work well for machines where the main input method is mouse buttons and flat UI designs are a natural fit for the flat physically unresponsive input method of touch screens.

However if there’s no such thing as “authentically digital” there is certainly the possibility of using an inappropriate interaction metaphor.

Thought two point one: Digital authenticity is probably the same sort of deceit as the idea of NUIs or “natural” interfaces. That’s not to say it isn’t a useful deceit.

Thought two point two: In the near future, 3D gestures made available by the likes of the Kinect might well be the ‘natural and authentic’ input mechanism for 3D displays.



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