User Experience Observations: Buttons

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Physical Computing

On Wednesdays I work in a building on Jay st in Brooklyn that must have one of the slowest elevators in the city. Everytime I enter the building I look at my watch and calculate another 6 minutes (at least) — I know there is still some time left between me and my final destination. Each time it’s almost an identical experience: someone will ride the elevator with me and press one of the numbers indicating a floor in the building. Although these buttons have an LED light fixed into them, none of the buttons seem to light up as a result to pressing them, leaving the user (the now very confused elevator rider) extremely frustrated. Interestingly enough, this minor hiccup in technology is surprisingly meaningful and an acute step in completing the User-Experience cycle.

“Feedback — sending back to the user information about what action has actually been done, what result has been accomplished — is a well-known concept in the science of control and information theory.Imagine trying to talk to someone without hearing your own voice, or trying to draw a picture with a pencil that leaves no mark: there would be no feedback.” Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

Feedback is one of the key stages in assuring your design is communicative and understood. Without it, the user is just left to guess or assume that everything up until a certain point is going as intended.

In human-machine interaction, buttons have a huge role. We have been taught that buttons are an easy and simple way to operate things. “All you have to do is press a button” and it works. But what will happen if I press a button and get no immediate feedback? Here’s a glimpse at some of the button-operating objects I observed this passed week and dissected, with an emphasis on people’s reaction to feedback (or the lack of it):

Elevator button

To get the elevator to the floor you’re on
LED light inside button indicating the button was pressed, sometimes there is a soft chime as well. If the LED in the button does not light up, this can cause huge frustration and result in pressing the same button multiple times in an abusive manner.


Blender button

To get the blender to start working or “to blend”
Upon pressing the button, which is usually a big button (the convention, if it is a hidden or small button it is probably poorly designed) the blender immediately starts working.



To get someone on the other side to open the door
Doorbells generally have audio feedback — a ding dong, a chime, a sound. However, when the button is pressed and there is no sound, something similar can happen as in the case with the elevator button not lighting up: the user may become frustrated, assume the button is not working and as a result continuously press the button repetitively.


Button to change stoplight for pedestrians

To control traffic which will result in the change of the stop light, allowing pedestrians to cross safely
None! Once this button has been pressed the user has no indication that the command has been sent, or is in some kind of process. Once again, this leaves the user frustrated and button-abusive.



To open the umbrella
The umbrella is released from it’s lock and the structure opens up (immediate feedback).


Remote control

To control a digital function (ex: turn something on/off, high/low, etc.)
The expectation for change in a digital function is immediate. However, when things become slow and the response is weak (occasionally showing feedback) there is generally a rise in anxiety and anger taken out on the button.


From these tiny observations, I’ve noticed a few remarkable behavior patterns. When feedback is given immediately and the feedback is the actual goal for action, the user is always satisfied. However, when the expected immediate feedback does not appear in these situations, it is immediately assumed the device is broken or will not work. Ex: If a hand blender is plugged to electricity and the button is pressed yet the blender doesn’t work, the immediate assumption is that the blender is broken.

In cases where feedback appears but the goal is not met or vice versa we can find a lot of frustration on the user’s end. The lack of feedback will often result in obsessively trying to retrieve feedback (which is psychologically an interesting case to investigate in itself). Ex: User will press an elevator button, there was no indication the elevator was coming his way but eventually it appeared.

In the opposite case, an operation was successful but no feedback was given. This can cause great confusion and leave the user puzzled as to how to repeat the action next time (“How did I get this to work?”).

To conclude, design meant for engagement that does not respond, lacks more than just feedback — it lacks thought, consideration and a flow of events. Technology can be wonderful and many developments can genuinely simplify our lives — but if the design is poor, the technology will be missed. A clever designer is one who knows to combine form and function, one who knows the user and knows the experience. I hope people get a chance to make small observations from time to time and value good design, because quite often, a good designer is undermined for “just” designing and interface or experience, even though in real life there is brilliance and deep thought behind the product. Design that seems effortless and is intuitive is usually the result of a long process which includes various prototypes and user testings. In a team of many professionals collaborating on a product, and as said perfectly by Norman, I believe this to be true: “The designer may be able to satisfy everyone.”

 Photo by Cory Doctorow 

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