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Death of the Button? Analog vs. Digital 329

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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  • by mjmalone ( 677326 ) * on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:28PM (#18549517) Homepage

    The author complains about BMW's idrive control [] (more info here []), but I think it is a good solution to this problem. It's a universal control that gives you a tactile interface without tons of buttons and knobs. Once you get used to it, it's actually pretty easy to use.

    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.

    • by Achromatic1978 ( 916097 ) <robert.chromablue@net> on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:36PM (#18549641)
      A nice system, definitely. Mind you, I like the one in my Prius: press button on steering wheel. "Say voice command." "Temperature, x degrees" "Temperature set to x degrees.", or "Restaurants" "Showing all restaurants in area.", or "Cruise Control, 60mph." "Cruise control set, 60mph."
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by AaronW ( 33736 )
        I was about to say the same thing with my Prius. Most of the common things I need to do I can do from the steering wheel, and in addition there is still an analog volume control (for quickly adjusting the volume). Now there are still times I need to hit the touch screen, but usually not often. The main things I usually need to adjust are the radio and climate control, and both are easily settable on the steering wheel for 90% of the things I need to do. It took me a little while to adjust to the new con
      • by El Torico ( 732160 ) * on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:48PM (#18549797)
        I tried "Arm photon torpedoes." on our Prius, but all I got was, "This command is only available on the map screen." I should bring up the tactical display first I guess.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by ozbird ( 127571 )
        Only if your voice is within the expected parameters.

        I recently got a Motorola phone, which has a voice control facility (e.g. via the SoundPilot Bluetooth gadget they bundled with it.) It lets you train your voice for numbers, which I did. However, to actually dial using numbers, you need to go into the voice control system and give the command "digit dial". When several attempts and yarmouthing fails, you just press the friggin' buttons like nature intended.

        Note to UI devices: Just because you can
    • by khasim ( 1285 ) <> on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:36PM (#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.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by mjmalone ( 677326 ) *
        When I said BMW upgraded their software I meant _after_ you buy the car. They're not going to install a new console every time they upgrade the software while servicing your vehicle. All I'm saying is that there is little point in having a programmable computer without some sort of universal input device attached. It can be analog, or tactile, or whatever you want to call it, as long as it's adaptable.

        While the iPod UI is very good, it's a poor comparison. The iPod is a special purpose device only needs
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by AuMatar ( 183847 )
          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.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      I think the problem is that it's hard to use without looking at the screen.
      • by ColaMan ( 37550 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @10:27PM (#18552379) 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 Rob the Bold ( 788862 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:41PM (#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.

      • by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) * <akaimbatman&gmail,com> on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:58PM (#18549925) Homepage Journal

        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.

        Place actuators behind a flexible display device. With a large enough array of them, you could describe nearly any raised shape.

        The simplest form would be to assume that the buttons will conform to a set division of the screen space. e.g. 5x5 blocks that can be actuated up and down. A more complex form would look like those pin tables where you can push on the arrays of pins to outline your hand. This could easy give resolutions as high as 50x50 pins.
      • by rthille ( 8526 )
        You must have missed the Tactipad. []
        Of course, 'immersive' probably isn't what you're looking for in an automotive device, and I think it's going to be a _long_ time before the tactile feedback is combined with the screen. But then again, I think for automotive applications tactile and auditory feedback is probably better than visual. On a cellphone on the other hand, it's just make them more annoying (unless the user was using a headset...)
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by ePhil_One ( 634771 )
        And the problem with "digital", or maybe more appropriately, "soft", controls is that you can't feel them

        There's absolutely no reason soft controls can't give feedback, audio, visual, or tactile. The iPod (optionaly) clicks while you spin the wheel, many scroll wheels have "detents", and my video game steering wheel can drag, fight back, and rumble. These are implementation details.

    • by DingerX ( 847589 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @06:11PM (#18550067) Journal
      It's not a tough interface design problem.

      Heck, you can probably make an 80/20 rule for it:
      1) 80% of the time, users are interacting on 20% of the function.

      Come to think of it, it's simpler than that:
      2) 80% of the time, users want one of four functions. Oh yeah, and might as well throw in
      3) with a button interface, users can "spatially remember" three distinct buttons without looking (or training).
      4) with a dial, that "spatial memory" becomes 5 discrete positions, and a whole mess of sweet intension/remission levels (=volume, tuning have much higher response times).

      So design-wise, you want 5 dials maximum. Of those dials, four are fixed in function, and one changes the paradigm (and presumably some of the other dials' function). The main things anyone would want to do are there, and they're there at the first level.

      If you wanted to have a similar arrangement with keys, you'd need between 10 and 25 keys. It would not make sense.
      • by sconeu ( 64226 )
        Screw menus. A lot of things you can have analog controls for digital input.

        The classic example is a car radio. On my 2005 Camry (and my wife's 2004 Pilot), the tuning and volume control is digital, but the actual buttons are good old-fashioned analog knobs, that simply control the digital input.

        The best of both worlds.

    • by Bagheera ( 71311 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @06:21PM (#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.

    • Maybe its the only solution to the real problem - too many features for the driver to deal with.

      The Wikipedia article is pretty negative on the approach - "iDistract". The BMW video is very positive, and states the knob is where your arm "normally rests" (and we remember from Driver's Ed that both hands are on the wheel?).

      I think navigation and entertainment systems are becoming too overwhelming in cars, and the interior design oriented around a large center display screen is horrible. But who am I to tal
    • by porcupine8 ( 816071 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @06:58PM (#18550615) Journal
      The problem with analog controls is that you can't add/remove them easily once a device is made.

      Why would I want the controls in my car to change?? It's confusing enough when my husband decides to reprogram the radio buttons so that the stations are in numerical order. When I'm driving, I want to be able to control the heat, radio, wipers, etc with no more than a cursory glance downward to be sure I'm aiming in the right general direction, if that. I don't want to push what I think is the A/C button and have my headlights turn off.

    • I have a 325i with an iDrive, and I can tell you exactly what is wrong with the damned thing.

      (1) Inconsistent user interface 'language'. In some submenus, selecting a submenu requires rotating the knob; in others, it requires moving the knob like a joystick. (Worse, in some screens, such as on the main navigation screen, you need both motions to select from different menus and submenus. The inconsistency extends to the language of moving back one level: do you press the menu button to pop up one level (as i
    • Start with the facts (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Asic Eng ( 193332 )
      I think before speculating whether this or that gadget in a car is decreasing traffic safety, it would make sense to establish whether traffic safety is increasing or decreasing. This here y _in_the_United_States [] shows that safety is actually increasing (googling easily finds other references).

      Obviously the safety of a complex system like an entire transportation system depends on many factors - it's to be expected that some changes which occured are detrime

    • by paanta ( 640245 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @09:40PM (#18552057) Homepage
      I own a BMW from the 80's and have had another 9 or 10 German cars. I love them. HOWEVER:

      The iDrive is typical German engineering BS. Some asshole in Munich decided that the hundred year old system of analogue controls wasn't the "right" way to do it, and decided to invent a "right" way. What they came up with was a beautifully thought out, near-perfect solution. Problem? IT ONLY MAKES SENSE TO A GERMAN ENGINEER. Anyone who has worked on a VW/Audi/Porsche/MB/BMW knows what I'm talking about. Anyone who has worked on German industrial equipment (leistritz, anyone?) also knows what I'm talking about.

      German engineers are arrogant bastards. They know what's best and don't give a crap about what anyone else thinks. Nothing is designed around the user, who probably doesn't want to use the product in the right way after all. "Cupholders in a car?! PSHHHHH! You shouldn't be eating in the car!" It's all designed around some magical ideal existing in some engineer's brain. It leads to some very nice products that are _awful_ to work with. When JD Powers (or consumer reports?) came out with the latest reliability ratings, BMW was tied with Toyota for fewest initial defects in their products. But, because their cars were so insanely confusing for the car buying public, BMW had more dealership visits than just about any other car company. People would bring in their cars thinking their radios were broken, only to find out that no, everything is working correctly, but they hadn't gotten to page 267 of the manual where it describes how to change stations.

      In my mind, new features are pointless if they're not highly usable. My mom, god bless her technophobic soul, can pick up an iPod and use it right away. Put her in front of an iDrive and she'd spend two weeks trying to figure it out. Meanwhile, she could jump into just about any car made before the 00's and be perfectly at home. Sure, there might be a new button or two, but for gods sake, she'd at least be able to turn on the radio! "The users are ignorant and should read the manual" is no excuse. If 90% of your customers are horribly confused, you have NOT done your job.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Gordo_1 ( 256312 )

      Once you get used to it, it's actually pretty easy to use.
      The problem with analog controls is that you can't add/remove them easily once a device is made.

      Do you work for BMW? You should.

      IMHO, the most backwards way to develop a user interface is to make it as flexible as possible, just in case someone thinks of a new feature to add after the product's been delivered. I've been using computers, gadgets and technology in general for 25+ years and I'm getting to the point that I'm sick of so-called flexible, complex UIs. I use Kubuntu at work -- I understand complex, but when I'm driving, I just want to turn the damn heat down and don't want to have to navigat

  • The knob? (Score:4, Funny)

    by sczimme ( 603413 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:30PM (#18549567)

    from the long-live-the-knob dept.

    Well, there's a sentiment we don't see every day.

  • Putting aside for the moment that you shouldn't be dialing while driving, the solution is voice dial. I used to use it on my Nokia phone all the time. Unfortunately, Motorola can't do voice-rec worth a damn, so it's back to the address book for me. :(

    The upshot is that the address book can play back the name of the person I've selected, so I don't need to look down. :)
    • by slapout ( 93640 )
      That's true. It makes me wonder about the iPhone. With any phone now, I can pick it up and dial with one hand. But with the iPhone, will it require two?
      • by dgatwood ( 11270 )

        One day, your car will be driven by the computer, and then this will be moot. For now, though, I'd imagine you'd get a car with an in-dash or on-steering-wheel bluetooth device to provide mechanical controls. I can't imagine trying to dial on a touch screen device while driving. It's hard enough to dial a normal cell phone.

        You need dedicated analog controls if you are expected to be able to operate things without looking, either to avoid distraction or because you need to do something very quickly by r

  • Voice recognition (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:31PM (#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 Cyberax ( 705495 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:34PM (#18549619)
      Car, open the door!

      I'm sorry, Dave, I can't do it.
    • by Ant P. ( 974313 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:48PM (#18549789) Homepage
      But what happens when you tell the car to "double killer delete select all"?
    • by pilgrim23 ( 716938 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:54PM (#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 dgatwood ( 11270 )

        It doesn't matter which way it points as long as it points towards the gauge. When you're flying, what matters is whether you have selected the tank that has fuel in it, not which side the tank is on. Left versus right only matters when you're refueling it... and presumably if you stick the filler into a full tank, it will automatically shut off, and you'll say "Oops, that's the full tank" as you put the nozzle into the other one.

        • by pilgrim23 ( 716938 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @06:26PM (#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.
    • Oh, and gags to keep the kids quiet.
      You misspelled "wife".
    • by antdude ( 79039 )
      That car has a name: KITT. :P
  • We need a mixture of the two. We need a setup of buttons, nobs, etc that the developer can tweek.

    In a lot of car stereo's have a control where you change the bass and some other feature like fade by depressing a turn nob.

    Give me a simpler nob, and then let me change what I'm changing on the flat screen by picking volumes settings versus picking surround sound settings versus some other set of settings.

    The default up and down control will be the temperature, but a simple change on the touch screen will make
    • "We need a mixture of the two. We need a setup of buttons, nobs, etc that the developer can tweek."


      That's why aircraft cockpits are designed with a mix of manual switches (with positive DETENTS you can feel for position), analog guages (easier to read for general information), Heads Up Displays, and MFDs (Multi-Functional Displays) whose switches can have different functions depending on the page selected and "tweakable" br reprogramming.

      Controls or displays that take your concentration away from vehi
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by eln ( 21727 )
      It's gratifying to see that you're already taking the first step toward simpler interfaces by eliminating unnecessary letters from the word "knob".
  • by stratjakt ( 596332 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:35PM (#18549625) Journal
    I can speak to this somewhat, because I am a moon man from the future and have been dialing my phone via touchscreen for a couple years now.

    My futuristic moon man technology is called a "Treo 650". You guys arent advanced enough to pronounce that correctly, but trust me, it's a complete rip off of the iPhone in every way. In my time only the richest kings of the undersea realm of europe can afford a true iPhone.

    This device I speak of, has a touch screen, and dialing with it requires you to look directly at it.

    However, it is fortunate I am so poor and underprivileged, as this device also has an analog keypad, with numbers affixed to some of the keys. The central of these numbers is marked with a little nib, enabling my advanced moon man fingers to dial by my tactile sense alone.

    I wish you great success with your iPhone, this is a new technological age for humanity. You are about to behold the awesome power of "a phone that can play mp3s and also has a camera in it".

    I pray you use this technology wisely.

  • Good example (Score:5, Insightful)

    by MobyDisk ( 75490 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:40PM (#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.
    • Re:Good example (Score:5, Interesting)

      by L. VeGas ( 580015 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @06:00PM (#18549953) Homepage Journal
      Yes. Cameras controls are a real problem these days. It's partly an issue of trying to be all things to all people. You want it fully automatic? Sure. You want to set everything yourself? Can do that too. Or try "sports mode" or "night mode" or "fashion mode" or "crowd mode" or "jewel mode" or "monkey mode". Okay, I made that last one up.

      Pre-digital photographers had at minimum a basic understanding of film speed, depth of field, aperture size, and shutter speed. If you knew these four things, you could take any SLR manufactured before 1990 and use it immediately. Now, every camera has to be figured out. Every camera has a different interface. And I'm talking about the point and shoots.

      The worst thing is when they are in some useless "mode" like "sepia/old fashioned" or "birthday candle" and you are missing a great shot because you can't figure out how to turn it off.

      Rant. Rant. Rant. Young whippersnappers. Etc.
      • by Chirs ( 87576 )
        And that, my friend, is why the Minolta Maxxum 7 (and the Sony Alpha, which is its digital SLR brother) are such nice cameras to use. All the important stuff is on a knob, or a switch, or a button. Something tactile that can be located without having to remove your eye from the viewfinder.

        It's always such an amazing difference when I go from my digicam (which is a reasonably decent prosumer model) to my Maxxum 7. It just feels so much more responsive, and I don't have to try and remember how to do simple
      • Re:Good example (Score:5, Insightful)

        by BillX ( 307153 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @09:36PM (#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.
    • Well ... thing thing with the PowerShots like most Point 'n Shoots is that they're really meant to be used in fully automatic mode. Sure, it's got manual mode, but she's gone from an SLR to a fancy toy.

      I haven't used a DSLR, but I'm willing to bet they're a lot closer to what your mom is used to using ... both in form and in function.
    • Re:Good example (Score:5, Informative)

      by skintigh2 ( 456496 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @06:14PM (#18550107)
      I have a Canon Rebel, which is a film SLR, but it has the interface you just described.

      My parent's 1970's Canon is soooooooo much easier to use, it has knobs for the settings, it has a field-of-view diagram on the lens (I have to guess with mine), a split for perfecting focus on what you want in focus (I have to trust the autofocus or just eyeball it) and I know it's been dropped onto rocks in a flowing stream at least once and survived (I have not tested that with mine).

      My camera's interface is a tiny LCD and microscopic buttons. You can see the settings more clearly when you look through the viewfinder, but then you can't see the tiny buttons you need to press. And the worst part: if stop pressing buttons long enough to arrange your shot (10 or so seconds) the camera times out and deletes all the settings you spent the last 5 minutes perfecting.
    • Re:Good example (Score:4, Insightful)

      by AaronW ( 33736 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @06:23PM (#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.
    • Re:Good example (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Headw1nd ( 829599 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @10:18PM (#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 Sunburnt ( 890890 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:40PM (#18549701)

    Fund a study of these things as a driving distraction. If they're equally as or more distracting than cell phones, you should be able to lobby a bunch of key, high-income municipalities into instituting an eventual ban on operating touchscreens while driving. Voila, the engineers of taste rediscover analog charm.

    OK, maybe it's not that simple. It's still possible.

  • Money (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Detritus ( 11846 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:42PM (#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.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by 91degrees ( 207121 )
      That's true. I recently bought a cheap radio. I was surprised that even though it had an analogue tuning knob, it had a digital frequency display. Presumably LCDs and chips can be made so cheaply that a sliding plastic indicator actually involves a significant increase in the cost.
    • Maybe if you are designing a budget car, but I don't think that money is a valid excuse for a BMW's user interface. They can afford to use industrial grade encoders and slides.
    • 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-shap
  • by Pfhorrest ( 545131 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:49PM (#18549805) Homepage Journal
    What's really needed to solve this dilemma (dialing-while-driving issues in general aside) is a technology which will allow software to subtly deform a touch screen to give tactile feedback. So buttons actually stand out from the screen a bit, etc. I seem to recall there being a technology like this in one of the later of Asimov's Foundation books (Foundation's Edge of Foundation and Earth, I don't recall which): the main character had an inclined, desk-like board on his ship which was a tactile touch screen. I imagine some combination of flexible (and probably elastic) LCDs and something like those toy pinboards (where you've got thousands of tiny dull metal pins arrayed on a board, and you can make impressions of your face and whatnot in them) could accomplish this. The hard part would be controlling all those tiny pins electronically; making the LCD elastic enough to keep snug to the contours of the pinboard would probably also be tough. But imagine the possibilities! You could actually feel the smooth, round curves of... er... those shiny Aqua buttons in OSX.... yeah, that's it. Though other possibilities may help popularize it faster. :-)
    • I've been asking for that all of my life. I have no idea how to do that, but my thought was always some sort of electrically responding gel, rather than pins. In any case, PLEASE SOMEONE make that. I would gladly pay a large amount of money for it.
      • How large is large?
      • PLEASE SOMEONE make that

        Something like this []?

        Its getting there, anyway. I agree totally about tactile feedback. At night, in my car, I want to know the wiper settings by feel. Is too dangerous to look.

  • the folly of youth (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tverbeek ( 457094 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:52PM (#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.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by hazzey ( 679052 )

      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

    • 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.

      I'd never noticed that the click wheel behaves like a digital knob, but you're absolutely right. Thanks for pointing that out. I had noticed that the thing I like so much about my iPod and that makes it stand out so much to me vs. other MP3 players is that, with a single circular gesture, I can move as far up or down an arbitrarily long list as I want

  • This just in time for my modern mobile phone rant. [] As I say there, I want some controls to be for one single purpose, so I know exactly where they are and what they will do each time precisely. Likea volume control. Or a tuning control. Or a button that switches between ring modes on a phone (please make them hard to push, it is ridiculous that these buttons are always pushed by themselves when the phone is in the pocket.)

    I bought a car two years ago, that came with a CD player that was also an MP3 play
    • I have always found knobs to be much easier and less distracting to use. When I was younger, most products only had knobs and switches. I learned to drive in a 1965 Volvo which had ergonomically located knobs and levers which were designed to easily be located and adjusted without the driver taking his eyes off the road. I soon knew where everything was without looking. I when driving in rain or snow, I never needed to take their eyes off the road, or think much, just to turn on and adjust the defroster,

  • 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 was
    • 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.

      You can feel color?

      • No, but I can feel turning clockwise and counterclockwise. Clockwise is warmer, counterclockwise is cooler; I can remember that without even looking at the control. Simple, effective, and I don't need something complicated and expensive that'll break.

        Chris Mattern
    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by sconeu ( 64226 )
      Yep, the Chevy Astro van would say, "Ruh-roh, Reorge! Roor is Ropen!"

      Ok, so it's a cheap laugh and an old joke. Mod me down. I don't care.
    • There is a classic study on this [] in airplane cockpits. At one point, airplane companies tried to use digital readouts, but the pilots had a much harder time with them because it wasn't the numbers they were focusing on, it was the angle of the hand on the dial, which is easy to see at a glance. They even set minimum speeds while descending by marking the lowest safe speed on the dial and watching the hand to make sure it doesn't get near it.
  • by fred fleenblat ( 463628 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @05:58PM (#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 @06:02PM (#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.

  • Get one of them newfangled touchscreens with active tactile feedback. It's the wave of the future.

  • On a similar vein, I sure wish DVD player makers like Sony would put all of the controls on the console as well as the remote. I hate the fact that losing the remote means only being able to play, stop, or eject.
  • More buttons, knobs, and bring back switches! I wanna here the clack of my radio dial changing. I wanna here a clicking noise to tell me the volume's on but the channel's out. The sound of little keys eching out a slashdot post as I dri...

    ...that's odd, my car seems to be losing altitude. ALTITUDE!? AAAHHH...+++Carrier Dropped+++
  • car menu (Score:4, Funny)

    by Khashishi ( 775369 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @06:27PM (#18550267) Journal
    Main Menu:
    a: Accelerator (30%)
    b: Breaks (0%)
    c: Steering (+23 degrees)
    d: Extra menu

    Please select a control: [abcd]
  • Back in the 1970s (yeah, I know) I was working for the automotive group of $BIG_SEMICONDUCTOR_COMPANY and some genius had the idea of replacing the speedometer dial with a digital readout. Some of us pointed out the (now obvious) drawback that tenth-of-an-mph precision isn't valuable, but read time (as in, eyes off the road) most certainly is.

    Needless to say, the customer ended up with way-cool digital readouts. For one model year.

    I don't know if they quietly settled the lawsuits, if any, or what. No

    • Back in the 1970s (yeah, I know) I was working for the automotive group of $BIG_SEMICONDUCTOR_COMPANY and some genius had the idea of replacing the speedometer dial with a digital readouty is.

      I remember around the same time this was promoted in the media as a road safety thing because apparently people who speed just want to see what the needle looks like all the way over on the right side of the gauge.

  • As a scientist I am repeatedly amazed at how converting the interface of a piece of equipment from analog to digital is a huge step backwards.

    Take the lowly centrifuge for example.

    In the analog world, you would turn a knob (rheostat) to an indicated RPM; turn another knob to an indicated time, then turn it on (or the timer turns it on automatically). Speed is indicated by a needle. Fast, but if absolute accuracy is needed then you have to fiddle with the machine once it gets up to speed.

    In the hybrid analog
    • by geekoid ( 135745 )
      that is not a dial vs. button issue. That is a really bad implimentation.

      I can think of a couple of designs that would solve that. hmm.
    • yeah, hybrid interfaces work great. this digital logic analyzer is a pretty good example. []

      been a few years since i used one, but the wheel even operates intuitively on these things, senseing how fast you want to go and adapting speed accordingly. a sort of log-taper effect i guess, kind of like audio potentiometers.

      as for technology these days, i also think a lot of it is useless, being modern day versions of Rube Goldberg devices. if technology makes your job
  • The worst thing about computers these days is how much media stuff they try to do without giving you a good natural feeling interface to something as simple as volume control. e/ []

    Solves my problem. I really prefer being able to twist a knob to adjust volume. I realize it's a simple thing, but it makes the whole computer a lot more human. Clicking buttons, dragging things on screen, or keyboard shortcuts have never felt right. Twist the knob and the volume
  • by Lars T. ( 470328 ) <Lars.Traeger@goog l e m a> on Friday March 30, 2007 @07:06PM (#18550699) Journal
    he dialed with a dial?
  • Just say "Call Bob".
    or "Dial: Now"

    and so on.
  • This isn't an analog vs digital argument as there and be perfectly tactile digital control. The keyboard I'm typing on has a bit over 100 digital controls on it all of which can easily be used without site. Its really about whether controls should be hard or soft and I see it sort of both ways. You need the right number of hard buttons to get tasks done that need to be done with less attention but soft buttons work for other tasks. My PocketPC phone is a reasonable example with the exception that it really
  • by Quiet_Desperation ( 858215 ) on Friday March 30, 2007 @11:02PM (#18552577)
    I gave up on aftermarket car stereos and just get whatever top end factory system is offered. The tiny buttons and Vegasesque displays were just getting too stupid.

    Which would you prefer to set a preset station:

    Factory stereo: Tune to station. Hold down preset button until beep is heard. Afterward, just hit that button to get that station.

    Aftermarket: Run through a sequence of button pushes similar to that required to surface a submarine, and target and launch a cruise missile. Afterward, no less than three presses of tiny buttons are required to access your "convenient" preset.

    I'm serious, too. I had onee once where it took more button presses to go to a station preset than to just tune the radio manually. There should be hard jail time given for interface abominations on that level.

    Sometimes I would wonder if the Japanese engineers outsourced their interface design to institutions for psychotics.

Karl's version of Parkinson's Law: Work expands to exceed the time alloted it.