A Brief History of the Button

These days there’s a niche for everything. Within IT we have software development and system design; within system design we have interaction design (not at all limited to IT, of course); within interaction design we have specifics such as usability; and within usability, we now have… the button.

Or, more to the point, there is now a website dedicated to the history of the button, from an interaction design standpoint. That’s quite some niche. But it’s an illuminating website that teaches you about so much more. Buttons are merely the vehicle; a surprising number of interaction design principles center on the humble button.

Recent articles, courtesy of HistoryOfTheButton.com’s creator Bill DeRouchey, include: Pushbutton railroading in 1939; Toddlers love buttons; Pressing the Reset Button (3 guesses which movie that one discusses); and Kodak: You press the button.

But the article that caught my eye was to do with elevator buttons. Elevator design is an ancient(-ish) problem that is often used for the obligatory mind-warping example in systems design texts (both the IT sort and the UI design sort). It’s used so often because elevator design seems simple at first: deceptively so. After all, an elevator can only go up and down, right? People get in, choose the floor they want to go to, the elevator takes them there. But elevator design quickly presents some thorny and convoluted problems. What happens if a button is pressed more than once? Or if half the people want to go up, and the other half want to go down? Or if there’s some old grouch who just wants to stay on the same floor? (Unlikely, that last one). Can the queue be optimized beyond the simplistic “FIFO” to clear the backlog of punters faster? If the elevator is in a really tall building, the design had better be right, otherwise there’ll be queues stretching five times around the entrance lobby. Just like in the Empire State Building, last time I visited.

One of the main benefits of elevator UIs is that they’re familiar (aka intuitive): first you press the Up button or the Down button; when the door opens you walk into the elevator, then press the button labeled with the floor where you want to go. Change that, and the ingrained habits of several billion people get thrown into turmoil.

As if to demonstrate the chaos that can ensue from inverting a time-honored system, the Swiss company Schindler Group has installed nearly 3,000 so-called destination elevators, in which you must first type the floor number into a keypad located outside the elevator, then walk into the elevator. Inside, the walls are flush, minimalist; the kind of perfect, sheer design that can only be achieved through… no buttons. So if you dived into a crowded elevator just as the doors were closing, and forgot to choose your destination first, then you’re basically stuck. That elevator’s going wherever it’s going, like it or not.

The comments following the article are also worth a read, as they highlight another problem with the new elevator design: the keypad located outside the elevator just doesn’t look like the familiar elevator keypad, with its columns of floor buttons. This goes some way toward explaining why so many people reportedly just run into the elevator and then (too late) realize their mistake; and why users are having to be given training just to use a seemingly simple, one-dimensional device.

About the Author

Matt Stephens is a senior architect, programmer and project leader based in Central London. He co-wrote Agile Development with ICONIX Process, Extreme Programming Refactored, and Use Case Driven Object Modeling with UML - Theory and Practice.