A plea for gadget interface consistency

Change is always welcome, except when it's where the basic buttons are on your cell phone. CNET's Josh Lowensohn explains why.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
4 min read

Something that has begun to drive me batty in the past few years are the buttons on modern day gadgets. No, it's not how they've gone from real and tangible buttons to the touch-sensitive variety. It's that where they are typically located on the device keeps changing.

Most recently it's been on cell phones, where the standardized buttons that are used on different platforms across different handsets--things like a volume rocker, the sleep and wake button, and soft keys are being moved around from device to device. And for the comfort, and familiarity of both lefties, and righties, they really shouldn't.

One of the clearest examples of the switcheroo is Apple's own iPhone and iPod line. Yes, the iPod is not a phone, but besides a few hardware additions, it's the same device, running the same software. Yet, Apple's designers (the same folks who created a glowing aluminum cube as an award), take these two devices and make subtle changes. On the iPhone, the sleep button is on the right, while on the iPod Touch it's on the left. Then there is these gadgets' sibling--the iPad, which splits the difference, and puts both the volume rocker and the sleep button on the right side.

Apple likes to move around the sleep and volume rocker on the iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad. Images by Apple / Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

While Apple at least keeps these changes standard from generation to generation, other device makers are not so kind. HTC, which makes the Nexus One, and now the EVO 4G, has done the flip there too. On the Nexus One (as well as the rest of HTC's modern day Android devices), the volume rocker and sleep button are on the left, whereas on the EVO, both are on the right.

More than anything, the result of these changes is a comfort issue. When holding a phone with your left hand (which is how it's featured in every Apple ad), the left-side placement of the volume rocker and right-side sleep button means you have easy access to these controls without having to change hand positions. This works on the iPhone when holding it with your left hand because your thumb naturally rests where the volume controls are, while your index finger is right where the sleep button is. Switch to your right hand, and trying to reach the sleep button requires some scrunching.

In the case of the EVO though, the reasoning behind the switch can be traced, in part to Google. According to a spokesperson for HTC, whom CNET spoke with last week, at the time the EVO was being designed, Android did not yet let you rotate your phone to the right to have it switch orientation when viewing Web sites, photos, or videos. This, combined with HTC's want to build in a kickstand to prop the phone up when resting on a flat surface, meant that those little volume keys would have been unreachable.

As a result, HTC's designers put the volume rocker, and the sleep button on the right so that the volume could be adjusted while watching something in landscape mode. This makes perfect sense really, but it might not have been the case if Google had readied version 2.2 of its Android OS prior to last week's announcement. Motorola did something similar with the Droid, putting both switches on the right side, so the rocker could be accessed while the phone was docked horizontally in its "multimedia station."

The curious case of the moving Android buttons
What might be a more annoying change than sleep buttons and volume rockers, is what's occurring with the placement of Android's hard keys. More and more, device manufacturers are taking Android's four standard buttons for back, contextual menu, home, and search, and either changing the order they're in, or simply removing them at their discretion.

For instance, Motorola and HTC feature identical key placement on the Droid and Nexus One respectively, but then have switched it out with the Motorola Droid Shadow (based on the leaked photos this week) and the HTC EVO 4G--two devices that are supposed to represent an advancement on the earlier models.

If you're buying an Android phone now, chances are the keys near the bottom are going to be in a different place on your next one. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

These changes may seem like a small inconvenience, but it really is like moving the Windows, control, alt, and shift keys on a PC keyboard, though with no rhyme or reason. Like any other button that does not change in its location, we learn where they are so we can use them almost without looking. But if that keeps changing, it takes that much longer to re-lean how to use a new phone. Worse than that, it's putting it into consumer's minds that there is no sense of unification between these devices.

To be fair, Google doesn't put any restrictions on the placement of these buttons. In fact, according to section 8.7 of Google's Android 2.1 compatibility program (PDF warning), which a Google representative told CNET holds true to version 2.2, the buttons don't even need to be there in hardware form:

8.7. Navigation keys
The Home, Menu and Back functions are essential to the Android navigation paradigm. Device implementations MUST make these functions available to the user at all times, regardless of application state. These functions SHOULD be implemented via dedicated buttons. They MAY be implemented using software, gestures, touch panel, etc., but if so they MUST be always accessible and not obscure or interfere with the available application display area. Device implementers SHOULD also provide a dedicated search key. Device implementers MAY also provide send and end keys for phone calls

So what to do next? Clearly these are fast times for device manufacturers. Maybe not for Apple, which has kept the same button placement across its three (going on four) iterations of the iPhone, but for the many companies that are now making Android handsets, it's a disservice to customers to not keep some of these things the same. Unless of course, they find a way to do it better.