28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part I

This month I’ve decided to post about one unwritten rule, commonly ignored standard or overlooked behavioral pattern per day, so by the end of February I’ll (hopefully) have a list of things all designers and developers in the User Experience field will be able to access, but just as importantly, a list we’ll be able to show clients who might need a little more persuasion that a certain design element won’t be perceived the way they might think it will.

This list will touch on several rules that are quite obvious, and might not seem to warrant a mention at all. The problem is that many facets of User Experience are so glaringly obvious that they proceed to go unwritten, unspoken, and ultimately unnoticed. But the purpose of UX is to remain conscious of the most unconscious user behaviors and account for them as effectively as possible.

So here we go. Rule number one.

Reading direction should determine button placement.

Mobile communications, like all new technologies, had a slow and gradual beginning, tentatively adopted by a number of companies who had no idea how successful their ventures would become. Standardization in the physical design of the phones and key layout would take many years to iron out, but eventually an acceptable model became popular, and more common than features such as the four-way cursor key and side-mounted volume buttons that most landline phones don’t include, the Send and End buttons respectively found their homes on the left and right sides on the keypad.

This makes sense when we consider the direction in which our culture reads: left to right. Because our inclination is to begin on the left and move toward the right, placing the Send and End buttons in this order stays consistent with the progression of a phone call. The buttons serve as a visual and spacial timeline for the duration of a phone call.

Having tested a number of mobile phones for a research project, I hadn’t found one manufactured in the past decade or so that broke this rule, and figured I never would. But I’d just been lucky. During a trip to the Philippines around 2006, one of the Nokia phones I used had its Send and End buttons switched, resulting in the most frustrating experience I had on the islands: I’d punch in a string of numbers, go to hit Send, and the numbers would disappear. Even worse, when I received calls while typing text messages, I’d try to pick up and would not only hang up on the caller, but I’d lose the entire message which would have been saved during the call. (To say this was my most frustrating experience there says great things about the rest of my travels.)

I didn’t get a picture of the phone, but looking into it, I’ve found a couple more that violate this rule. The Moto V60i, a relatively newer model, is a good example.

Because we also read from the top down, an acceptable alternative to the left-right setup would be to place the Send button above the End button, but the side-bu-side placement makes perfect sense, doesn’t impede on the functionality of any existing phones, and has become so established that changing it at this point would only cause frustration for those who are used to it–which is pretty much everybody. Perhaps hands-free headsets, which are generally slim and don’t have much room for two buttons placed horizontally, would be better off using the vertical layout.

The human mind is unknowingly stubborn. Give it a pattern to abide by and it will remember that pattern without having to really think about it. When such an established pattern is broken, subconscious actions can lead to unexpected results.

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