More buttons does not equal better experience

The other day my friend got a new mouse.  It has nine buttons and a 5 way scroll wheel on it.  When browsing around my local computer store todays keyboards like they would be more at home in an airplane cockpit.  It seems new keyboards are in an arms race to see who can cram the most buttons on them.

Why?  Why do gadgets constantly get more complex?

And is the answer really more buttons?

Manufacturers,  in their ongoing effort to sell more whatever it is they sell,  want us to upgrade our old models.  And if they want us to do so they have to convince us that the new model is better,  that it is worth our effort to make the switch.  And the obvious answer is to add new features.   Herein lies the problem.

Unfortunately,  features are an easy sell.  I say unfortunately becuase when you adopt a features based mentality you will inevitably end up with a lesser product than if you adopt an experience based mentality. However features are easier to implement and easier to sell.

When convincing someone to upgrade from version X to version X + 1 it is much easier to say:

Version X + 1 gives you all these features that version X does not have.

It is a quantitative statement, so it is direct and easy to digest.  The end user can appreciate easily exactly what they will gain out of upgrading.

If we state however:

Version X + 1 has a streamlined interface allowing you to perform activity Y quicker and easier than with version X.

Then this statement is qualitative, it is really just our opinion.  The end user is left to ask themselves;  Is it easier?  Why?  I like the way I currently do things,  I don’t want to change.

Adding more buttons is the easy marketing tool.  When comparing two products,  which one is better?  The one with more buttons surely. It must have more features,  therefore it must be more powerful.

The user interface becomes a tool of the marketing department and when this happens it’s not a good sign.

It’s a shame because I would much prefer the latter approach.  That based on experience.

When done properly,  new products should not have more buttons (or other physical user interface features),   in fact,  in a lot of cases,  they should have less.  If when designing a product you feel the need to add more buttons then you are probably jumping to conclusions and missing the real source of the problem. What you should be doing is rethinking the interface.

I like technology that makes my life easier.  That unclutters and simplifies my experience.  You do that not by adding features but by creating a system based on the understanding of what I want to achieve and creating an overall system that works towards that.

It appears to me that a large part of the interfaces of products is centered around us making decisions.  We have to decide how we want a variety of settings to be set befor the product will perform it’s task.  When you look at the problem in terms of a task to be achieved however it is not uncommon to come to the realisation that there are a smaller number of conifgurations that will handle most scenarios.  We can reduce the options the end user has to select from while at the same time making it more directed at what they are achieving rather than what the features do.  The system starts talking to the end user in their language rather than the other way round.

So,   next time you are designing a system,  think about what the end user is trying to achieve and get your product to talk to them in their language rather than the other way around.  You may not get it right for everyone but it is much better to make a large number of people very happy and a few unhappy than to just be mediocre to everyone.  It may not be as easy but it should lead to a vastly more elegant end result.

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