I'm Aza Raskin @aza. I make shiny things. I simplify.

I'm VP at Jawbone, focusing on health.

 

Redesigning the iPhone’s Buttons

In my recent article about the first generation woes of the iPhone, I complained that the volume buttons are difficult to use in landscape mode; that the natural mapping that works so well in portrait mode (up means louder, down means softer) fails after the rotation (left means louder, right means softer). I suggested that the iPhone could detect its orientation and correct the mapping accordingly. In other words, the iPhone should swap the meaning of the buttons based on the phone’s orientation. The result? Widespread criticism. Even the venerable Apple pundit John Gruber weighed in with “I strongly disagree with [Aza's] idea about the volume buttons.”

It’s clear I need to make my case stronger, or else banish the idea to the halls of interface shame (a fate normally reserved for Clippy and Adaptive Menus).

What’s Wrong Now

There are three possible positions that the iPhone can be in: Portrait mode, landscape mode with volume bottoms on top (BoT), and landscape mode with volume buttons on bottom (BoB). The first two positions have good natural mappings, meaning that the position of the volume buttons map well to their meaning.

The iPhone in portrait mode
fig. 1, The iPhone in the portrait position. Pressing up increases the volume, a natural mapping.

When the phone is in the the portrait position, the mapping between the volume buttons and volume is clear: You press up to increase the volume and down to decrease the volume.

The iPhone in both landscape modes.
fig. 2, Depending on whether the iPhone is in BoT or BoB landscape mode, pressing right can mean either increase or decrease the volume — both can’t be natural mappings!

When the iPhone is in the BoT landscape mode, pressing right increases the volume. Is this mapping natural? It might not need to be — the relationship between volume increase/decrease and left/right is certainly weaker than with up/down. But, there is a convention held by everything from stove knobs to number lines that right means “increasing”. On the iPhone, this mapping is further strengthened by the on-screen display. When you press the right button, the volume indicator moves to the right. So yes, the mapping is natural.

However, when the iPhone is in BoB landscape mode, pressing right decreases the volume. This mapping is not natural because contradicts both our conventions and (more importantly) the on-screen display. When you press the right button, the volume indicator moves to the left! You can’t get much more reversed than pressing one way and having the iPhone’s volume go the other.

The Solution

In effect, physically rotating the phone into the BoB landscape mode has swapped the meaning of the buttons. The button that used to be in the position that maps to “increase volume” is now in the position that maps to “decrease volume”. The solution is to use software to swap them back.1. I implemented a demo and after some simple testing, I found that people don’t notice the software trickery: the volume buttons just work. It’s only when the software doesn’t correct for the physical rotation that people get tripped up using the volume buttons. But, as Levar Burton said, “You don’t have to take my word for it.”. A demo is worth 10,000 words, so whip out your iPhones and give it a try. For those of you who hate typing URLs on the iPhone, here is the the short URL: http://tinyurl.com/ytgrtw.



The iPhone Volume Demo
http://humanized.com/weblog/iphone

The instructions are simple. Start in portrait mode and play with the volume buttons and watch how it affects the volume bar. Now, rotate the phone into the BoB landscape mode and try it again. It goes the wrong way, doesn’t it? Click the button to switch from the Apple style control to Humanized style control and play some more. You decide which way leads to fewer mistakes.There are a couple of caveats and remaining questions that I should mention.

  1. The demo only works on the iPhone. That’s because the page detects when the phone switches from portrait to landscape mode. That doesn’t work on the computer (but you can try picking up your monitor and rotating it anyway).
  2. I couldn’t figure out a way to have the demo detect the difference between BoT and BoB landscape modes, so you’ll just have to pretend that in the Humanized style control, the BoT mode doesn’t switch the control scheme.
  3. The 45 degree problem. John Grubber writes, “one of the problems I anticipate with your volume button switcheroo idea is that when my iPhone is in my pocket — especially, say, a jacket pocket (which because it’s summer I haven’t actually tried) — I’m not really aware of its orientation. Imagine an iPhone at something close to a 45° angle in a jacket pocket.”
  4. The natural position to hold the phone while talking is nearer horizontal than vertical (although not fully horizontal). Switching the volume buttons based on rotation will give the wrong mapping while talking.

Let me address the last two caveats.

The 45° Problem

The 45° problem isn’t actually much of a problem. After some experimentation, it appears that when the phone is in a pocket at an angle — even a rakish angle — people press the “up” volume button as if it’s in portrait mode. When the phone is close to horizontal, the left-to-right convention takes over. The tricky part is figuring out at what angle to switch between the mappings. The accelerometer in the iPhone is able to tell quiet precisely the degree of the iPhone’s rotation. Apple just uses it for detecting one of three orientations. With testing, we should be able to find exactly the right angle to make the iPhone’s volume buttons have the right behavior almost all of the time. And even if the iPhone does get it wrong once in a blue moon — how often do you change the volume while the phone is in your pocket? — that’s still much better then getting it wrong between one-half and one-third of the time as it does now!

The Talking Problem

When the user is talking, pressing the button near the top of the device should be mapped to increasing the volume. If you don’t believe me, just trying holding a phone as if you are talking and press the volume button you’d expect to increase the volume. If you are lying down, it’s the same thing: The volume button closer to the top/back of your head is the one that naturally maps to increasing the volume. To accommodate this behavior, if you are holding the phone to your ear the iPhone should not switch the button meanings. How does the iPhone know if you are holding the phone to your ear? It already has a proximity detector that detects just this.2

Conclusion

Is this problem a show-stopper? No. Am I blowing things out of proportion? Probably. The inability to always rotate the phone between orientations is a much worse usability problem. In the end, the volume button mismapping is just somewhat annoying. But little annoyances add up and can make the difference between an interface that’s a joy and an interface that’s a chore.

Will my solution really make things better? Most probably, but real user testing is always the final word.

[1]: As a couple people pointed out, if the iPhone were only allowed to be rotated into the BoT orientation, no software solution we be needed to fix the volume button mis-mapping.

[2]: Thanks to Magnus Nordlander for pointing this out to me.

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View all 175 comments


While I agree in principle, I think your idea is a bad one—it is easier to mentally adjust to a new button orientation than to a new button behavior, especially when there is no audible, visible, or tactile indication that the button function has changed.

Consider also that while I know the orientation of my phone exactly, I can only make an educated guess as to what my phone thinks its orientation is. No one likes to guess at what a button is going to do, especially when the orientation of the phone is in one of those 45º-ish gray areas.


Actually, I don’t think that the detecting when you have the phone to your ear is that difficult, considering that it has a proximity sensor to sense if you’re holding the phone to your ear, and when it does turning off the display.



Alejandro Moreno

You’re not supposed to guess which button is up or down. This whole thing is about your first impulse.

In Portrait? You press Up to raise the volume. End of story.

In Landscape? Aza is stating that you would try the button on the Right, regardless of the buttons being on the top or the bottom of the device.

If you are not looking at the iPhone (i.e. it’s in your pocket), the idea is that you would instinctively reach for the button in the “top left” corner to raise the volume.

Regardless, I think there are far too many little edge cases to worry about, and that’s probably why there is no mapping at all. What if the iPhone is lying on a table? What if it’s upside down inside a pocket? Would the button on the “top left” still be the best solution?

I don’t know. Maybe Apple is quietly gathering usage information and will come up with its own solution in due time.


HI Aza,
Not everything is about visual perception. The volume controls for iPod and iPHone have always been physical in nature for a reason. They are of absolute importance both when holding the phone, accessing on a carrier, or even in your pocket or bag. Whether you are looking at the phone or not, the volume controls have to remain constant.

Physical perception and proximity and context awareness are more important for physical interfaces like these then absolute visual metaphor mapping. Your example of a virtual control is pointless for most use cases of changing volume which usually happen when the screen is off. I.e. I don’t want to have to turn on the screen every time to change volume and w/ the current physical controls I don’t have to.

Not only would I saw that this isn’t a show stopper, but I would also say that it is better than your proposed solution. I also feel you did not really undertake a full ergonomic analysis of this problem.

Now there are a ton of issues w/ the iPhone to discuss, but replacing the volume controls, just isn’t one of them.



BWhaler

It’s funny to run into this article as I had this very thought yesterday on the plane.

But I ultimately decided against it as consistency of use and purpose of buttons is far more important than a theoretical usage thought.

Can you imagine the manual and your Mom trying to understand your suggestion?

No, the Apple way is actually simpler and better. Much, much better.



BWhaler

It’s funny to run into this article as I had this very thought yesterday on the plane.

But I ultimately decided against it as consistency of use and purpose of buttons is far more important than a theoretical usage thought.

Can you imagine the manual and your Mom trying to understand your suggestion?

No, the Apple way is actually simpler and better. Much, much better.


Alejandro, I believe my point was actually similar to yours: it is just not possible to match the intuitive behavior with the orientation at all times—especially in so-called “edge cases”—so there will always be some situations when the user and the phone disagree on what the intuitive behavior is.



Bryan

The button to increase the volume is always closest to the corner of the phone no matter what position you have it in, irrespective of whether you are looking at it or not, any way you flip it. That is about as “consistent” as you get imho. I mentally link audio control with the physical device more than with what is on the screen I suppose, but I think it would confuse my thumb if the button near the corner suddenly turned the volume down. Maybe this will clear things up: “click towards the headphones to add more volume…click toward the dock connector to make the volume “sync” (I know, that was bad).


I really appreciate your idea; people seldom take the time to look at the details and realize the overall impact.

As much as I’d like to offer a different opinion, I agree with the other respondents here, especially Bryan. You want louder? Click the button toward the outside of the case…that’s all there is to it. Hard buttons are very different than soft ones, and IMHO humans are very good at adapting to various physical orientations,



Waldemar Kornewald

One thing I had to learn is that this kind of detail can’t be decided by simply talking about it because too many people have differing opinions. It requires a real user test.

My first intuitive thought was that I’d rotate the buttons in my head and thus map to the current behavior, but when I actually tried imagining it with my phone in my hands (well, it’s not an iPhone, but it works well enough as a “prototype” :) I’d definitely prefer the behavior Aza is suggesting.

I think that the fact that you’ve rotated the buttons with the phone is quickly forgotten, so you’d rather just use the intuitive (beginner’s mind) mapping for each orientation. Also, I can’t imagine that the (rarely used!) volume buttons will be part of your attention when rotating the phone while you’re actually concentrating on work (surfing the web, writing an email, …). When using Aza’s mockup you might indeed concentrate on the buttons being rotated, but imagine you’re not focusing on the buttons (yeah, it’s difficult. you might want to just rotate the phone, go away, do something else, and then come back and quickly try to change the volume).

Also, about those of you who say there are edge-cases like on the table: Wouldn’t you recognize the button mapping based on the sceen contents’ rotation? It’s not really an edge-case except if the screen is off, but don’t you need a sound (and thus activity on the display) to change the volume, anyway?


You have a talent for hyper analysing tiny details. I’m more annoyed by the fact that it’s using non-free software, so that I can’t use the thing like a computer. Yes it does a lot more than any other ‘phone’ but it’s not a phone, it’s a ‘limited’ computer. :D


“It’s clear I need to make my case stronger, or else banish the idea to the halls of interface shame”

I’m afraid the latter is true. People are smart, and they’re better at adapting to something simple, than trying to second guess a system constantly changing.

People are used to hardware volume controls. We know how to use them when devices are upside down, backwards, hidden in bags, or just in the dark.

Keep it simple, the louder button makes it louder, the quieter button always makes it quieter. If you need a better indicator, then just make on button slightly bigger than the other.



LKM

I think the Apple-style behaviour is probably somewhat preferrable even if user testing discovers that most people expect the “humanized” behaviour. Why? Because of what happens when users fail.

For the Apple-style behaviour, it’s immediately clear why the phone doesn’t do what the user expected: He pushed the wrong button.

For the humanized behaviour, it’s not so obvious. The user pushed the correct button with the correct label, but sometimes, it doesn’t do what it should. It may not be possible for the user to discover the rule that governs when the button’s behaviour changes.

For this particular situation, I think Apple’s behaviour is preferrable; especially since it is mirrored by all other devices. I’ve never seen a phone – or any other device, for that matter – that changed the meaning of its hardware volume buttons based on its position.


I have to say I agree with your idea, and being unfamiliar with how the iPhone operates, I was surprised to learn it does not behave in the way you are suggesting.

Owners of V3/m “RAZR” phones would agree- their volume rocker, which is mounted on the top lcd lid, changes function depending on if the phone is shut or flipped open.


Apparently the iPhone uses Left-to-Right visual mapping of the volume?

This would definitely develop some inconsistencies as you rotate. BUT – there is a intuitive mapping that DOES work with the current iPhone volume interface: clockwise vs. counter-clockwise.

No matter how you rotate the iPhone, this mapping will still work. The “Loud” button will always be in the clockwise direction, and the “Soft” button in the counter-clockwise. So I would suggest simply changing the on-screen display to correlate to clockwise = louder, counter-clockwise = softer.

This is like a radio volume knob…only, not a knob.

This would be intuitive, have no inconsistencies, and not require any guesswork on the part of the phone.

-micah


First, let me say that: user testing is the only way to make this decision. Said user testing should include observing the consequences of a misunderstood mapping, but user testing should be performed to see under each design (a) if misunderstandings occur and (b) whether such misunderstandings rapidly disappear after continued use. If it causes less frustration to users to have mappings switch, then that design should be preferred, and vice versa.

Second: you are missing how strongly disorienting it is to press the left volume button, and see the volume indicator go right. There is a simple solution to this disorientation: invert the volume indicator. But Aza’s demo, if you try it out on an iPhone, makes clear that the mapping switch is much more natural than the fixed point.

Please note that, on the iPhone, the volume buttons are not labeled . You can’t change the meaning of the buttons away from their labeled values, because they don’t have any. No other device in the world changes the direction text is displayed on the basis of orientation.

Gordon: “towards the outside of the case” is not a natural mapping that most people can remember. That’s like my old stove. The mapping was “outside means toward the back”. It’s logical once you come to remember it, but even once I remembered it, I perpetually lit the wrong burner.


Thanks for writing in. I am curious… how many of you have actually tried the demo? I think it shows fairly powerfully that our left-to-right mapping is stronger than the “physical” mapping. The iPhone’s volume buttons currently do not feel consistent, which is the problem I was hoping to solve.

Ideally, the volume buttons would be mapped based on how the user was holding the phone. In portrait hand position up means increase; in landscape hand position right means increase. That’s the manual. I do not disagree, however, that true user testing may show that there are too many edge cases that trip people up. In this case, it may be simpler to just swap the direction in which the volume display moves as Andrew suggests.

Do please try the demo. I have been unable to convince people in person via word-only arguments. The demo convinced them instantly.



Andrew Clarke

Maybe they should just stick a more basic version of the iPod click wheel on there (no clicking, just a wheel). Clockwise (louder) is always clockwise.


I don’t need to try the demo to know what it’s crazy to suggest that the “louder” hardware button change depending on the orientation. Especially since the majority of volume adjustments will be done in portrait mode where the hardware buttons are unambiguous.

As noted above… the point of a hardware button is that you can use it “blind” and given the location of the buttons people really ought to know which is which.


    Knowing the key functions is important. If you do not know the function of the button, you can read in the user guide. I was never too ignore button on my newly bought gadgets. I usually learn after I have these gadgets



indolering

Kevin, to use something “blind” is actually reffering to this as habituation. You form such a habit if you can do the same action and have the same result the majority of the time.

The devil is in the “majority” clause. Think about the save dialog. 9/10 of ten you do want to save that document, but every now and then you blindly save over your old draft causing hours of headache. This is a non-conscious event, requiring no cognitive processing on your part.

While Aza talks about “natural mappings” these mappings lead to habituation and this minor incongruence prevents safe habituation.

5:30 AM, no sleep, hope this makes sense : )



Kevin Hill

I think your running in to a paradox of intuition and modes. The demo is certainly intuitive in each individual mode, however it’s uses of modes is non-intuitive on a larger scale.

Andrew has an interesting idea, clockwise is always clockwise, but you want to make sure the interface is wheel like, rather then half a knob.

A half knob might be turned clockwise with a downward finger stroke in one orientation, but COUNTER-clockwise with the same motion in a different direction. Think of it more from a user-action stance than a hardware standpoint.

Maybe utilize the touch screen itself more for volume?

Hit either dedicated volume button and then use the screen to control the volume; hit them again or wait some ammount of time to go back to normal controls? That way, the volume controls can always be oriented to at least an allocentric constant (even at 45 degrees, louder could still be straight up).



Paul Donnelly

I tried, but I couldn’t stay away from this. I’m willing to accept the idea that for most people, most of the time, swapping the buttons is seamless and unnoticable, but I’m still against it. First of all, there’s the problem that you can’t always tell what orientation the device thinks it’s in. Sooner or later, it’s going to do what you don’t expect. Second, swapping the buttons would punish people who have good spatial skills for having them. I certainly haven’t tried it (no iPhone here), but, knowing the way I work, I suspect I would be one of those people.

Regardless, if making the buttons move on me was really the best solution to the problem I would be content with it. But volume buttons are lousy in the first place. I don’t believe that it’s worth it to get hung up on them so much that we start proposing buttons that change function! A virtual slider on the very bottom edge of the screen (respecting orientation) would be nice, except you can’t work it in your pocket.



Screaser

Tried it, and tried to keep an open mind… but I find that I just *don’t* think of the buttons as “left and right” when in landscape mode…

I guess I think of them as two sides of a “rocker” switch, which — very similar to a dial — has a natural “clockwise” type interpretation no matter the orientation.

I know which is which, and find myself disconcerted when they “do the wrong thing” with the button-switch.



Brad Clark

I agree, an oversite on Apple’s part; they should have made the on-screen volume indication rotate with the orientation of the switch (so in BoT mode, it moves left to right like the buttons). You can also solve this problem with a bump on the up button and a dimple on the other.

Aza, how do you like those adaptive menus? This would create the same problem.

While I agree with your initial idea, in practice it is not so practical. While typically, you wouldn’t want to overide natural mappings (we read left to right, left to right = positive) this is a case where the (your) solution is more cumbersome than the problem was. People are pretty good at learning and adapting to abnormalites so long as they are consitent (and there is a degree of logic). This introduces, as others have pointed out, a degree of ambiguity to the controls. Keep in mind that most people would have learned the iphones controls in the portrait format (with natural mappings) before they rotated it, a pretty simple spatial problem for a human mind that is particular adept at them (spatial problems).



Marlon Bishop

Aza this idea is half-baked. The soft button control for volume is based upon a physical metareference. For example, a hard button or dial located on the device, will work equally well no matter what the orientation, precisely because it always works the same. The mind has it’s own mapping of up and down, based on physical space that it experiences in the real world. Imagine if you suddenly remapped a dial or a hard button volume so that it attentuated in the opposite direction when the device was rotated? People may have lawsuits for blowing their ears out

Remapping of soft buttons just complicates matters and has no real world counterpart.


I first read this weeks ago, but chose to withhold judgment until I purchased an iPhone for myself to see how it felt. And, per the price drops yesterday, I did just that.

You’re absolutely right. When watching video or using Cover Flow, I instinctively wanted to click right / down to raise the volume. Yes, as some commenters have pointed out, us crazy humans will adapt and learn to deal with it, but that’s the whole point of usability – we shouldn’t HAVE to.


Answer: small bump on “volume up” button.
It’s tactile, it’s simple, it’s not going anywhere.



jf

I just got my iphone and i thing the max volume is way to small for me to hear anything when talking to someone. Is there a way to increase the volume?
thank you



André

Demo is offline??



rus

The volume buttons should turn into image capture buttons when in camera mode. Hitting that on-screen button is really a pain when taking pictures.


    A product that looks already perfect, it turns out once in the hands of users, there are still imperfections. A button is small, but has great functionality



Marcelo Lopez

Late as I might be chiming in, I’d never heard of humanized until now ( where have you been Marcelo…in the bowels of the beast making medical device interfaces more accessible, but I digress).

I have to say that Aza’s arguments are arguably right on the money. Case in point, flippable bluetooth headsets. Ever used your headset in one ear and grown tired of it ( as light as these things are, they can get tiring if you use them on the go for extended periods ), and had to switch to another. Only to find that now if you had to raise ( or lower ) the volume, you’d forgotten that the buttons for lowering or raise the volume are now flipped upside down ?

Well, the same logic as Aza is espousing would apply in that example. After all, with a the simplest of motion switches, the headset could realize that “Hey, I’ve been flipped”, and re-map the buttons back to where you’d think.

The position for the hardware volume buttons being awkward this way aren’t just applicable to the iPhone. Practically every Windows Mobile phone as I can think, has has the buttons laid out that way. This was all well as good as long as the perspective for the user was in portrait. But ever since WM5 ( and some WM2003 builds ) supported Landscape auto-flip, they too support from the “which way is up” syndrome. This issue will always remain a problem when applied to physical selectors on a device, since obviously we don’t have “auto morphing” devices. Soft selectors, are a different matter.

While I understand Marlon’s point of view, I have to disagree. Your argument is apropo when applied to a singular selection/action, like the “home” or “back” button, the argument is not as strong for pairs of selectors. Look at most consumer hardware that is NOT dial-based ( left is lower, right is higher ), you’ll see a the familiar up is higher, down is lower. Look at your TV remote, for example. The point is that obviously while none of these is has it’s perspective reference change while in use ( unless you like pointing your remote in reverse at a mirror that reflects back at the TV ), the iPhone obviously does. So as you change perspective on your device of choice, so should those most common controls adapt to maintain the familiar mode of use.

Lastly, consider the “slide to unlock” functionality. Doesn’t the same logic apply to it as well.



Darien

On my iPhone, if I’m using it in landscape mode, I use the onscreen controls to adjust the volume. The hard buttons are for adjusting ringer or speakerphone volume when using it as a phone, and iPod volume when it’s in your pocket and you’re using headphones.

Even trying this out on my own iPhone, though, I found I do not mix up the volume controls. Implementing this suggestion would instantly confuse me.

However, I do agree with the idea of using the volume rocker for taking pictures in camera mode.



directory

I’d just like to thank you for taking the time to create this internet website. It has been extremely helpful



alp

hi,
First of all I’d like to thank u for the effort but unfortunately the page seems to be expired. is it possible to put there again?
secondly, i didn’t get what exactly we r talking about. I mean is there an application to invert the buttons in desired position or was that a video or something that shows how it should have been? My iphone’s volume up button doesn’t work, so there is no way for me to raise the in-call volume. That’s why I am so excited =)

thanks in advance…


While I agree in principle, I think your idea is a bad one—it is easier to mentally adjust to a new button orientation than to a new button behavior, especially when there is no audible, visible, or tactile indication that the button function has changed.


While I agree in principle, I think your idea is a bad one—it is easier to mentally adjust to a new button orientation than to a new button behavior, especially when there is no audible, visible, or tactile indication that the button function has changed.



Sex

Consider also that while I know the orientation of my phone exactly, I can only make an educated guess as to what my phone thinks its orientation is. No one likes to guess at what a button is going to do, especially when the orientation of the phone is in one of those 45º-ish gray areas.


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There is a good reason why innovative products seem to flow out of Apple like water from a faucet. Although they may begin with Steve Jobs’s vision, they are due to the way the company is organized. Whereas many companies have siloed divisions that separate user interface designers and hardware designers, at Apple they work together to create holistic products.
Good.


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Chris Beiser

I once owned an N900, which only supported BoT landscape, and portrait. When I saw the UI guidelines for it, I was flabbergasted; why would anyone switch the buttons for landscape mode? Why wouldn’t they always be the same? (guidelines are here: http://www.forum.nokia.com/info/sw.nokia.com/id/eb8a68ba-6225-4d84-ba8f-a00e4a05ff6f/Hildon_2_2_UI_Style_Guide.html on page 19), but after a while, it seemed natural. That said, I think that due to that the iPhone supports BoT and BoB, the confusion created when it didn’t work would be greater than the issue it solved. In fact, I would argue that the correct design is to replace the mute rocker with one that lets you increase or decrease the volume along a sliding scale, making the button move more freely as it went up, giving you tactile feedback when you’re moving the volume upwards.


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