In defence of mechanical buttons

A few years ago, when I was still an automotive journalist, I test-drove a Ford Edge with a purpose-built Sony audio system. The sound quality was excellent, but there was one huge problem: in their infinite wisdom, the designers had used touch-sensitive buttons for most of the dashboard controls. Because, y’know, touch-sensitive stuff was cool and cutting-edge.

So what if they were totally useless?

The buttons were little metal studs, similar to what you find on a lot of new home appliances nowadays, and gave the dashboard a very slick and refined look. The problem is, you couldn’t use them without looking away from the road, because you couldn’t find them by touch (is that ironic? yes, yes it is), and you couldn’t tell if you’d actually pressed them. Moreover, they didn’t work with gloves, which I distinctly remember as I was testing the vehicle in the winter. Overall, pretty useless. And as a result, I recommended in my review that buyers stick with the base sound system and it’s mechanical buttons.

So, let’s get this straight. Touch-sensitive buttons and screens are great when you’re already looking at a device. They’re great when you have more controls and settings than you have available space. Most of all, they’re great when they don’t impede your ability to actually use the device you’re controlling. Tablets and smartphones, yes. Microwaves and coffee makers…sure, why not? Digital cameras? Well, kinda-sorta. Some manufacturers go way too far with their onscreen camera controls.

Remote controls? No. Using an app on my phone or tablet to control my TV will probably never be as easy as using a remote with clickable buttons.

And in a car? Umm, no. I’ve always preferred to have a traditional dashboard with dials and buttons that you can find by their little raised edges and a quick glance. I hate when I have to hunt for them, or cycle through a menu to get to what I want. There’s absolutely no difference between doing that and looking at your smartphone while driving, and yet the auto manufacturers keep trying to do what’s cool, rather than what works. This is form over function at it’s worst.

It’s fair to point out that touch controls are often less-expensive than mechanical buttons, but that’s still not a good enough reason to use them in vehicles. It’s ridiculous that automakers talk about safety equipment, but continue to favour user interfaces that distract drivers from driving. It’s okay to admit that the dashboards we’ve had for the past few decades work just fine.

Really, it is.

You know who I blame for this? Star Trek: The Next Generation. Every single button on the Enterprise was touch-sensitive, whether it was the helm controls, a datapad, or an underwear drawer. And the people on the ship had such amazing spacial awareness that they could touch exactly the right spots on the touchscreens without even a glance at the tiny button labels…no feedback whatsoever.

That was pretty awesome in the late 80’s, and I’m willing to buy that the people of the future will develop their brains to the extent that they don’t require any feedback. After all, we’re already learning how to control games on our tablets with a degree of accuracy…how is that any different from a giant starship?

And yet, there’s a funny moment in one of the movies (Insurrection), when Commander Riker decides that he needs to take manual control of the ship for a precision manoeuvre. And what happens next? A podium rises up into the middle of the bridge, on top of which is a $25 joystick.

I know this, because I owned the $25 joystick that they glued onto the podium. And y’know, it was a really good joystick. I used it to fly spaceships in Wing Commander, so I can’t argue with it appearing on the Enterprise.

The thing that I find the most amusing about the joystick gag is that it’s the same damn thing as we’re doing now. After all, if the joystick provides the best possible control for your starship, then why have you been piloting by touchscreen all this time???

Even in the future, touch controls are both cooler and less useful than manual controls. I guess starship designers also favour form over function…which really says a lot about humanity, when you think about it.

I’m certainly not a Luddite, and I look forward to a future innovation that really makes touch-sensitive controls superior to mechanical buttons. We have to keep testing the waters and trying things out (or we’ll never get there). But we also have to admit when the cool new ideas don’t prove to be as valuable as the existing ones, so that we don’t go down the wrong path.

There’s nothing wrong with failure. But there is something wrong with failing to recognize it.

Russ