Psychologists call the fear of buttons koumpounophobia. At Apple Park, the same condition is referred to as “minimalism.” Whatever you call it, the right responses are sympathy, treatment, and hopefully one day healing.
After years of suffering, there are signs that Cupertino’s button phobes are getting better. A leak that supposedly shows CAD files for the upcoming Apple Watch Pro indicates that it will not only keep the existing right button and Digital Crown watch face, but get an extra button on the left. (Leaker analyst Mark Gurman thinks this will likely be programmable for multiple functions.) Rather than remove buttons whenever possible, Apple’s engineers have expressed their fears and added a. This is certainly progress.
We won’t know if the leak is legit until Tim Cook and the team take the stage for the Far Out keynote tomorrow, or if the design works well in practice until we try it out. So we have to be careful. But this is promising, as it suggests a change in Apple’s approach to hardware controls. It alludes to a thawing in an approach that had become restrictively dogmatic.
Usability vs Elegance
Led by Jony Ive, who, coincidentally or not, finally cut ties with Apple this summer, Apple’s design team acquired a reputation for creating products that were both visually beautiful and intuitive to use… most of the time. The problem arose when those two factors came into conflict and designers had to compromise on looks or usability.
For example, the Magic Mouse is undoubtedly an elegant object, like a genuine alien robot from a science fiction movie. But it’s not easy to use, partly because it has only one button and no scroll wheel. Buttons break the clean lines of beautiful design and scroll wheels get dirty, but both create easy-to-understand entry points for human interaction. Above all, a mouse’s job is to enable a human to control a computer, and that essential function should not be neglected in favor of aesthetics.
Apple’s mice haven’t always been as minimal as the Magic Mouse, but with the passage of time, the company has made a conscious effort to reduce as many physical complications as possible. The same principle applies to the iPad and iPhone ranges, most of which have now left the Home button behind.
There are, of course, some benefits to fewer buttons, but removing them just doesn’t make Apple’s devices any easier. Take the Apple Studio Display for example: it has no power button and cannot be reset unless unplugged. The same goes for the HomePod’s lack of a mute button.
For example, what have customers learned from the iPod’s pursuit of minimalism? The third generation model had a row of dedicated buttons and the scroll wheel, so it was easy to use and very popular; but Apple got rid of these for the next generation. A few years later, the company released a version of the iPod shuffle so devoid of buttons that you had to use the inline controls on Apple’s headphones. This is not progress. This is an obsession.
Press on the button
If the Apple Watch Pro does have two buttons and a Digital Crown, it’s easier to use than its predecessors. There will be less need for swiping – an action that has always been unreliable on the Apple Watch, especially in rainy conditions – and users will spend less time scrolling through menus. It will be a less elegant, more useful product.
And if the Apple Watch starts to prioritize usability over looks, there’s no telling where Apple might take us next. Apple might be okay with giving the AirPods Max its own programmable second button on the left cup. The HomePod desperately needs hardware checks for those times Siri refuses to play ball. And it’s been a long time since Apple stopped the awful Magic Mouse and released something more user-friendly.
But habits that are so deeply ingrained take a long time to die. For now, we may have to settle for this little peace of mind: An Apple designer has sat down and tried to decide what’s best for the customer, rather than what looks best in an ad. It’s not much, but it’s kind of progress. And the first step to getting better is recognizing that you have a problem.