Psychologists call the fear of buttons koumpounophobia. At Apple Park the same condition is referred to as “minimalism.” Whatever you call it, the appropriate responses are sympathy, treatment, and hopefully one day a cure.
After years of suffering, there are signs that Cupertino’s button-phobes are getting better. A leak purporting to show CAD files for the imminent Apple Watch Pro indicates that it will not just keep the existing righthand side button and Digital Crown dial, but gain an extra button on the left. (The leaker-analyst Mark Gurman reckons this will probably be programmable for multiple functions.) Instead of removing buttons wherever possible, Apple’s engineers have faced their fear and added one. This is surely progress.
We won’t know if the leak is legit until Tim Cook and team hit the stage for the Far Out keynote tomorrow, or if the design works well in practice until we get try it out. So we must be cautious. But this is promising, because it suggests a change in Apple’s approach to hardware controls. It hints at a thawing in an approach that had become restrictively dogmatic.
Usability vs elegance
Under the direction of Jony Ive–who, coincidentally or otherwise, finally severed ties with Apple this summer–Apple’s design team earned a reputation for creating products that were both visually beautiful and intuitive to use… most of the time. The problem came when those two factors came into conflict with one another, and designers were required to sacrifice either looks or usability.
The Magic Mouse, for instance, is undoubtedly an elegant object, like a pure-hearted alien robot from a sci-fi movie. But it’s not easy to use, in part because it only has one button and no scroll wheel. Buttons break up the clean lines of a beautiful design and scroll wheels get dirty, yet both create easily understood entry points for human interaction. Above all else, a mouse’s job is to enable a human to control a computer, and that essential function should not be neglected in favour of aesthetics.
Apple’s mice haven’t always been as minimal as the Magic Mouse, but as time has passed the company has made a conscious effort to strip back as much physical complication as possible. The same principle applies to the iPad and iPhone ranges, most of which have now left the Home button behind.
There are some benefits to fewer buttons, of course, but removing them just for the sake of it isn’t making Apple’s devices any simpler. Take the Apple Studio Display for instance—it doesn’t have a power button and can’t be reset unless it’s unplugged. The same goes for the HomePod’s lack of a mute button.
What did customers gain, for example, from the iPod’s drive towards minimalism? The third-gen model had a row of dedicated buttons as well as the scroll wheel, and was consequently easy to use and highly popular; but Apple got rid of these for the following generation. A few years later the company released a version of the iPod shuffle that was so bereft of buttons that you had to use the inline controls on Apple’s headphones. This isn’t progress. This is an obsession.
Push the button
If the Apple Watch Pro does have two buttons and a Digital Crown, it will be easier to use than its predecessors. There will be less need for swiping–an action that has always been unreliable on the Apple Watch, particularly in rainy conditions–and users will spend less time delving through menus. It will be a less elegant, more useful product.
And if the Apple Watch starts prioritising usability over looks, there’s no telling where Apple could take us next. Maybe Apple will see fit to give the AirPods Max their own programmable second button on the lefthand cup. The HomePod is sorely in need of hardware controls for those times when Siri refuses to play ball. And it’s long past time for Apple to discontinue the awful Magic Mouse and release something more user-friendly.
But habits as deeply ingrained as this take a long time to die. For now we may have to settle for this small peace offering: an Apple designer has sat down and tried to decide what’s best for the customer, instead of what will look best in an advert. It’s not much, but it’s progress of sorts. And the first step in getting better is recognising that you’ve got a problem.