Under the Lens #8: Can’t find that button

Have you tried changing settings on a modern flatscreen TV lately? Tried doing it only with the button(s) present on the TV itself and not the remote? If yes, you will easily relate to this article; if not, let me tell you this: it is really easy to do so, if only you could find that darn button…

The buttons on TVs, just like on many other appliances, have been disappearing with improvements in technology and an overall increase in focus on aesthetics and design. While this might sound like good news for a designer, it is not; there are multiple design decisions which haven’t been implemented appropriately resulting in a sub-par user experience and the end user blaming the desinger. I’d like to focus on one of those here: the buttons, or increasingly, the button on TVs.

Lets take a look at a few stages in the gradual disappearance of buttons:

Button evolution
From buttons in the front to side to capacitive buttons to no visible buttons

The current trend in smart TVs from electronics giants like Samsung and LG seems to include only one button which behaves like a joystick, to access and control all aspects of the TV. Since this joystick is hidden from sight for aesthetic reasons, many users are left confused about how they are supposed to change settings or even do something as simple as change the volume.

 

Samsung behind11
Samsung SmartTV button

When one user in a forum brought up the issue of not being able to find any buttons on his TV, the situation boiled down to this: “Have you tried talking to it OP?” asks one commenter referring to the chance that it might be voice activated. This is hilarious! All this trouble just to change the volume? (1)

So, lets get this button Under the Lens and look at some methods to overcome it’s shortcomings. In conclusion I’ll discuss about what we can take away from this analysis.

What works for the design

Ease of usage:

Is the button easy to use? Definitely. Since there are only 4 directions you can move the joystick in and one click action all built into the same object, you don’t have to deal with identifying the right button among a row/column of buttons to press. This is especially useful in low visibility conditions.

Samsung behind1

Even actions to be performed are mapped well on to the joystick. For instance, to change volume, you move the joystick right (increase) or left (decrease). To change the channels, move the joystick up (next) or down (previous). This leverages our intuition and makes for an effective design. It is quick, learnable and memorable.

Multiple functions:

Apart from the volume and channel changes, the button can also be used to change other settings such as brightness, contrast, selecting input source etc. The ability to access, navigate and modify all required settings with just a single joystick makes the experience better.

Now, we don’t have to learn to use multiple different buttons. Once an action is learned, using it in as many scenarios as possible reduces the cognitive load on the user and allows them to focus more on achieving their task.

What doesn’t work

Consider the situation when you have to use this button in the dark. It’s size makes it tough to find in the first attempt. We are forced to grope the TV’s surface to identify it and then engage it. This is my main problem with this design: there is no clear indication of its location. In the case of LG’s design, it is easier to identify than in Samsung’s since it is in the middle and under the screen.

Samsung back button
Joystick button in Samsung TV
LG Under
Joystick button in LG TV

The joystick is difficult for elderly or users with dexterity limitations to operate. It requires fine motor control and not all users have that capability. In the case of Samsung’s joystick placement, it will become even tougher to use when the TV is mounted on a wall. Small hands might be able to easily reach and manipulate it but larger hands will find it tedious since there is not much space between the wall and the TV once mounted.

Users not familiar with a joystick will be left clueless and assume that the TV has no buttons. The markings of power, volume and channels is minute, has poor contrast to the button color making it unreadable and exacerbates this issue. Also, these joysticks are so small that even people with experience using joysticks before might not realize what this is. This is especially true in designs like the one below where it is easy to mistake the joystick for a screw or bolt due to it’s color and location. Is the user to blame for this? Of course not; it’s the designer’s fault. Granted, there are multiple layers of bureaucracy which might have forced the designers to make such a decision but it needs to be pointed out as a bad outcome for us to learn from and to avoid.

Now that we’ve understood the positives and negatives of this joystick button implementation, let us look at what we can learn from this.

Making life simpler is good but it should not be at the expense of ease of use. We have to remember that apart from the necessity to look good, to differentiate our product from competitors, it still has to be usable and practical for daily life.

We  must be aware of our target population, their expectation, experience and capability. The majority of the population buying these TVs at present are used to physical buttons, and to a good extent, capacitive interfaces. But the location of buttons on a TV is a well established mental model. Just think about where you’d first grope for a button on such a TV. It is almost certainly going to be behind the bottom right corner and if not present there, the bottom of the TV, under the bezel. Its good that these TVs have their new joystick buttons placed in these areas, but there needs to be an indication of their exact location. I don’t want my users to search for the button’s location everytime they need to use it.

I think buttonless TVs are still too futuristic for the current generation, but will be the norm for the next. In fact, I think the iPad wielding, smartphone toting kids today will expect their TVs not to have buttons and expect to have an alternate mode of interaction such as voice or gesture recognition by default. Though advances in technology are always beneficial and welcomed, we should know and understand if/when the market is ready to embrace it.

Let us keep these in mind and design better for our target population.

Until next time, cheers!

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