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Death of the Button? Analog vs. Digital 329

Posted by Zonk
from the long-live-the-knob dept.
mattnyc99 writes "Instapundit's Glenn Reynolds is sick of navigating menus to turn up the heat—while he's trying to drive. His take in the article (as well as a a no-holds-barred podcast) is that modern tech product designers should get back to analog controls before iPhone users get sick of looking down at their touchscreen everytime they dial without a dial. It may be up to you: Whither dangerous auto technology, or long live the touchscreen?"
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Death of the Button? Analog vs. Digital

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  • Voice recognition (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Colin Smith (2679) on Friday March 30, 2007 @04:31PM (#18549585)
    For everything but the volume control/mute button on the stereo.

    "car, turn up the air conditioning and close the windows."

    Oh, and gags to keep the kids quiet.
  • by khasim (1285) <> on Friday March 30, 2007 @04:36PM (#18549649)

    The problem with analog controls is that you can't add/remove them easily once a device is made.

    That's a manufacturing "problem".

    Consumers are concerned with control.

    Making it easy for the manufacturer to crank out more units or less expensive units or whatever isn't important when the consumer has more difficulty USING those devices.

    Apple did great with the iPod. Most companies aren't as focused on the customers.
  • by wirelessbuzzers (552513) on Friday March 30, 2007 @04:37PM (#18549655)
    I think the problem is that it's hard to use without looking at the screen.
  • Good example (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MobyDisk (75490) on Friday March 30, 2007 @04:40PM (#18549691) Homepage
    Computers are now being put into embedded devices, but they shouldn't look or act like computers. My prime example is the digital camera:

    My mom was an amatuer photographer who used a fully manual camera in the 70's. I bought her a very easy to use Canon Powershot with the same features, and she was completely lost. Imagine this: She wants to set the f-stop, aperture, and exposure time. On her old Miranda [] that was a switch, a knob, and a slider (or something like that). Now, it's switch to "M" mode, then arrow left to one setting, then arrow up and down, then arrow right, then repeat for the next setting... it takes 10 times longer, and the buttons are much smaller and harder to push. She can't just go by feel while looking at the screen or viewfinder.

    Buttons are not the universal replacement for all settings for the same reason that the mouse cannot replace a keyboard and vice-versa. There are multi-modal input devices which map better to some things than others. Use the most appropriate input for each setting. It actually makes it easier.

    Oh, and more buttons isn't the answer.
  • by Rob the Bold (788862) on Friday March 30, 2007 @04:41PM (#18549711)

    The problem with analog controls is that you can't add/remove them easily once a device is made. BMW, for example, updates the software in their vehicles periodically, adding and removing features. Without some sort of universal control system this is much more difficult to do.

    And the problem with "digital", or maybe more appropriately, "soft", controls is that you can't feel them. Like they say: "'iDrive', you work this thing." There are many situations where it's safer, better or more appropriate to locate a control by feel. If you can't feel it, you're losing some sensory input.

    A self-deforming input device that could form itself into buttons or whatever would be a neat solution to reconfiguring your input device. Too bad I have no idea of how that could be accomplished.

  • Money (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Detritus (11846) on Friday March 30, 2007 @04:42PM (#18549715) Homepage
    It isn't a question of design aesthetics, it's a question of money. Knobs cost money. Analog potentiometers, even bad ones, cost money. Shaft encoders cost money. What you see in modern product design is the result of a ruthless campaign to cut parts costs. A front panel composed of a microcontroller and bunch of flimsy switches is the result.
  • the folly of youth (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tverbeek (457094) on Friday March 30, 2007 @04:52PM (#18549841) Homepage
    When I was getting ready for my freshling year at college, I bought a slick new stereo system. I was so proud of how modern and futuristic it was: it didn't have any knobs! But as time went on, I discovered how awkward it was to use a slider to adjust the volume, or the bass and treble. And holding down buttons for the digital tuning was a pain. I've since replaced it with a stereo that has knobs for all these inherently analog controls, and I'm much happier with it.

    Anyone notice what the main control on the iPod is? It's fundamentally a knob (implemented digitally). And that's no small part of the product's success.
  • by pilgrim23 (716938) on Friday March 30, 2007 @04:54PM (#18549881)
    Knob. K.I.S.S. is by far the best aproach for controls. Ask any pilot. Example: a fuel control for the left tank...should the control point left up down or right when the engine is on the left tank? Ask John Denver. An Autromobile is a analog device, on an analog road controlled by a human being via analog controls. Design engineers should stick to pretty body changes and leave proven control designs ALONE.
  • by stratjakt (596332) on Friday March 30, 2007 @04:57PM (#18549915) Journal
    Remember the 80s? Remember the fancy cars with digital readouts for speedometers, and some would even talk to you and tell you when the door was open?

    Remember when you went in a recent car and saw analog speedometers, and tachometers.

    The irony, is they aren't analog - they're displaying a readout of a digital signal. But the "needle" guage is something you can monitor with your peripheral vision. It's safer, people prefer it, and it looks nicer - frankly.

    You have to look at a touchscreen, you have to waste seconds analyzing it. You have to read a digital readout, recognize the numbers "72" and realize you're going 72 mph. Whereas I can know if the orange needle gets past "12 o-clock ish", I'm going too fast.

    Of course, I can guage my speed by feel like most good drivers, I knwo what gear I'm in and can feel how hard the engine is working, so it's not a perfect example.

    But the displays that came with computers are awkward, and unintuitive by nature. The interfaces we have already gotten accustomed to are, in many cases, just perfect as they are.

    My A/C is a knob, one side is red, one side is blue. It's easy to reach down and adjust it without taking my eyes off the road.


  • by fred fleenblat (463628) on Friday March 30, 2007 @04:58PM (#18549919) Homepage
    I'm going to nominate the Advent 201 cassette deck here. I got one as a hand-me down from my dad and it was really something special.

    One of the design goals was that the user should be able to operate the unit in complete darkness going only by feel. To that end, controls were placed far apart, on a couple different planes of the unit, had distinct shapes, and switched in different directions. Stateful controls changed position enough that you could feel what state it was in without looking. There were no status lights (other than the VU meter) to look at as I recall.

    Here's a picture: m []

    Anyway, ever since then I've always felt that user interfaces should be tactile and show their state in a physical sense. You should be able to make changes even with the power off, and you shouldn't have to look at indicator lights to figure out what's going on.

    While a lot of appliances don't require this level of UI "analogness", it is something that should be carefully considered for automotive instrument panel design, since that is definitely a "must be operable in total darkness" situation.

  • Digital Cameras (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gcantallopsr (451114) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:02PM (#18549973) Homepage

    Digital Cameras, Pro or Semi-Pro (i.e. not the point & shoot ones) with...

    • ... a conventional screen and 4 to 16 tiny buttons, and lots of navigation = crap.
    • ... a touch screen, and lots of navigation = crap.
    • ... lots of buttons and wheels simulating good old analog controls = really usable cameras.

      Why? Well, you don't need to look at the controls to operate them. That's good.

  • by AuMatar (183847) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:02PM (#18549979)
    FUnny- so is a car. So is a car stereo. So is a car environmental control. There's no need for a general computer in a car.
  • by corbettw (214229) <corbettw&yahoo,com> on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:10PM (#18550059) Journal
    Who modded this post flamebait?

    Typically lefty, you agree with the sentiment, therefore it can't possibly flamebait. After all, only wingnuts can be hate-mongering racists, right?
  • by ismism (947992) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:19PM (#18550177) Homepage
    Come on, it's just plain stupid to try to talk on the phone while driving. Period. Studies have conclusively demonstrated it, so just don't do it becuase you're going to run over my kid and then I will have to kill you.
  • by Bagheera (71311) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:21PM (#18550187) Homepage Journal
    The author isn't the only one who complains about iDrive. Most (though obviously not all) BMW owners who've got it in their cars complain about it. Most of the auto-Media reviewers complain about it. Some of the dealerships complain about it.


    It sucks.

    The concept wasn't bad. The implementation blew chunks.

    (I understand the latest versions don't suck so bad, and I admit to not having worked with one on a couple of years.)

    As for analog controls, in a vehicle at least, not having them change is kind of the point. Do you really want to activate the wrong thing because the manufacturer moved it? Or, worse, plow into another vehicle because you were reading the new menu rather than watching the road?

    As for adding analog controls, it's trivial. Most modern cars have several places already available to add new switches as needed. Even when they don't, there's pre-fab mounting systems available. It's even possible to modify the existing ones in a lot of cases.

    Sorry. Touch screens and the like are awesome for PDA's, phones, media remotes, and a bazillion other devices. They do not belong in a vehicle's control system. There is a reason that aircraft flap levers and landing gear controls -feel- like little flaps and wheels on the end. You don't need to look at them to know you've got the right control. Where you find touch screens is in the controls and devices that aren't used in situations where the operator's attention needs to be on the vehicle. (HoTaS, anyone?) Same thing goes for ground vehicles. If you've got to take your eyes off the road to operate the control it's a bad idea. Period.

  • Re:Good example (Score:4, Insightful)

    by AaronW (33736) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:23PM (#18550211) Homepage
    I have the same problem with point and shoot cameras and hence use a DSLR. I can quickly change just about any option on the camera by holding down the appropriate button and turning a knob. Need to change the ISO? Takes 2 seconds. Need to set the shutter speed or aperture? Just turn the knob. Or focus? If I want to manually focus, I just grab the focus ring. Similar for zoom. Manual zoom is much faster and easier to control. Point and shoot cameras are great if you don't care about adjusting anything or worry about focusing, exposure, etc. My other big problem with them is the lag. I like the fact that my DSLR takes a picture when I push the button without delay, making action shots very easy. I can point my camera, frame the shot and click within a second by having everything as a separate knob. Even manually setting all of the exposure settings only takes a couple of seconds if I don't use the automatic mode.

    The best part is I can work most of these settings without having to take my eye off of the viewfinder. Same thing with a car. I should not have to take my eyes off of the road to change the radio station, adjust the volume, change the temperature, etc. In my case, my car has both menus and a touch screen as well as all of the common controls as individual buttons on the steering wheel, and each button has a different feel so I don't need to look down. It took a bit of learning where all of the controls are, but now it's second nature. Once in a while I need to use the menus, but not very often. And there are many other functions that I can control by voice. I.e. if I don't want to take my eyes off the road to see what the temperature setting is, I just press a button and say "temperature 72 degrees" and it just does it. Or with the navigation system I say "address" and speak the address. If I'm low on gas, just say "gas stations", etc.
  • by pilgrim23 (716938) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:26PM (#18550263)
    John Denver crashed due to a incorrect setting on the gas tank. I am not clear on the exact setting but, the crash report pointed to the cuase dealing with a tank behind his seat and a unclear direction for the "Which tank am I currently set to". Flight Ergonomics are a very well studied subject. example: guages on planes are designed so that All at 12 O'clock is good. meaning: you do not have a gas is full to the left, oil pressue is ok if that on is pointing a little to the right, engine temp in good range, it points down, etc. No, all in the same position means all is OK. And THAT was my point; changing controls radically practically insures improper use, and courts disaster. Non-knob controls fit this.
  • by hazzey (679052) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:59PM (#18550625)

    Anyone notice what the main control on the iPod is? It's fundamentally a knob (implemented digitally). And that's no small part of the product's success.

    Which side of the argument are you on? Are knobs good or are digital representations of them good?

    Maybe (and I'm going out on a limb here), it is all in the implementation.

    People keep on saying how terrible the iPhone will be because of its touch screen. Maybe we should just wait until it comes out and see what the implementation is like.

    Of course some inputs do seem better suited for certain applications. It is a struggle between what we are used to and what works best. As we all know, the two aren't always the same.

  • by Lars T. (470328) <Lars@Traeger.googlemail@com> on Friday March 30, 2007 @06:06PM (#18550699) Journal
    he dialed with a dial?
  • by Mr. Underbridge (666784) on Friday March 30, 2007 @07:15PM (#18551383)

    but after a week or two I could navigate the menus quickly and without fuss, and while mostly keeping my eyes on the road

    As someone who drives near vehicles that might be BMWs, I have a problem with that 'mostly' bit. Any system that requires you to not look at the road to use it is broken.

    Thirdly, about the criticisms that it's unsafe to use while driving? No shit sherlock. Neither is your cell phone. Or putting on makeup. Or shaving. Or eating lunch. But people do those without blaming the manufacturers or restaurants or stores that sell the necessary equipment.

    Slight problem with that analogy: cell phones, makup and lunch are generally designed to be used in places that AREN'T CARS. Your iDrive isn't. There is a 100% chance that the driver is actually in the car while using it. Therefore, it should be designed to be used without looking.

  • Re:Good example (Score:5, Insightful)

    by BillX (307153) on Friday March 30, 2007 @08:36PM (#18552027) Homepage
    Amen. A while back I bought a nice 8MP digicam [], which kicks ass in most circumstances. Aperture, f-stop and focus are all on their own wheely knob, minimum dicking with menus, feels comfortably close to the good old Canon 35mm I grew up with. On the other hand, turn the wrong knob and it supports all these funky newb modes, including, I kid you not, FOOD MODE. According to TFM, it dicks with the color balance to specifically make pictures of food look tastier. FOOD MODE.
  • Re:Good example (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Headw1nd (829599) on Friday March 30, 2007 @09:18PM (#18552307)

    I think the problem is the designers are out-thinking themselves.

    They are interested in making the simplest, cleanest, and (they think) easiest to use controls. The problem is that these may actually be contradictory. Consider the control setup for a car, for instance: In my car there are buttons, and switches, and sliders, and knobs. Also levers, levers with buttons, and levers with knobs. Also knobs with buttons. And a D-pad with a switch in it. Not to mention the wheel, which is like a giant knob, which additionally holds buttons and switches. Furthermore, there are large analog force feedback buttons, that you control with your feet.

    Looking at it out of context, it sounds fiendishly abstruse. If you proposed this interface for anything out of the blue, I'm sure your average designer would be up in arms, "That's way to complicated! How is the customer going to learn all that? How will they find all of it? Why don't we use a nice contextual menu instead?"

    What they forget is that humans have strong spatial memory, and are quite adept at using a number of different control types. In many cases having a different control type actually helps the user by making that operation distinct, and providing unique feedback. In their drive for simplicity, they underestimate the human element, and end up inadvertently stunting the flow of information between device and user.

  • by ColaMan (37550) on Friday March 30, 2007 @09:27PM (#18552379) Homepage Journal

    In my car, I have a number of buttons and knobs, some on the dash, on the steering column, on the wheel itself. Each one can be operated without looking at it and each one does some specific function. Indeed, the most useful buttons on the stereo can be used even on the most potholed streets by putting your hand on the gearstick and using your index finger without drama.

    But a display-that-changes-with-knob is a solution that is also a problem: The display changes, allowing more controls to occupy the same space. Good, for getting more functionality, bad for having to navigate through it all.

    So, I want to access some function. I need to :

    - Look at the screen and determine "where I am" in the menu system.
    - I have to navigate to the selection I want, from where I was before. This may involve going up a few menu layers and then back down.
    - Which takes a varying amount of rotation/clicks/whatever, depending on where I was. Each step generally requires visual confirmation that you're actually heading in the right direction to get where you want to be in the system.

    Every time I do this, I am temporarily distracted from my main task, which is driving the car safely.
  • by kennygraham (894697) on Friday March 30, 2007 @09:58PM (#18552549)

    There is no need for a general computer in a car. A car needs to be able to transport you from A to B.

    And a computer will never need to do anything more than complicated math problems. As long as innovation doesn't make it less successful at transporting you from A to B, I see it as a Good Thing.

  • by Traf-O-Data-Hater (858971) on Friday March 30, 2007 @10:18PM (#18552677)
    Agree with the parent, buttons and moveable bits add to the cost. Whilst I lament (and curse) the cheap video cassette recorder I have because a lot of things have to be set from the remote (and settings can only be viewed on the TV screen), the cost of that unit was a darn sight cheaper than my nice 20-year-old TEAC Stereo VCR that had buttons, knobs and switches (yes, slide switches) for operation. And the fluorescent clock display had the indicators to tell me what I had set. And not just stupid odd-shaped rubber buttons but big rectangular ones. Ahhh I wish it still worked.
    When I think of loss of 'ease-of-functionality' (not 'loss of functionality') I think VCR's.
  • by gottabeme (590848) on Saturday March 31, 2007 @01:45AM (#18553585)
    You mean you never glance down at the clock or the radio, or even your fuel gauge or speedometer? Most of us don't have a HUD.

    It's really not so much about taking your eyes off the road as it is about taking your attention away from driving. I can feel around for the window defroster button for a few seconds while not looking away from the road, but my mind is giving a lot of attention to remembering where the button is and what it feels like. Or I can glance down for half a second, push the button, and then focus completely on driving again. IMHO the latter is usually a safer option.

    And eating with one hand while driving with the other isn't necessarily unsafe. On roads with little traffic you can do it in a perfectly safe way, especially in daylight.

    As with many things, it tends to boil down to using good judgment.
  • Accessibility? (Score:0, Insightful)

    by bieber (998013) on Saturday March 31, 2007 @09:10AM (#18555313)
    My girlfriend is blind. Anyone care to tell me how she's going to use a touchscreen?

"Never face facts; if you do, you'll never get up in the morning." -- Marlo Thomas