Capacitive buttons… They are those easy to touch little buggers that register a press simply from being brushed against. I hate them. So very much. This is one of my biggest pet peeves in the world of mobile device design. I’m continually surprised more people don’t complain about this. Maybe it’s just me. But every time I have to use these things, I get annoyed.
I had a Samsung Focus for quite some time and it sported these little demons. I’ve been using a Galaxy S3 in order to become more familiar with the world of Android. I’ve been playing with the Surface RT, to get acquainted with the new Microsoft platform. I’ve played with countless other Android devices on and off and played around with the Lumia 920. In each of these devices, I universally hate those buttons.
Well, to summarize: accidental taps and poor physical feedback.
Capacitive buttons send a mixed message in the world of mobile design. People generally say that it’s best to put frequently used controls at the bottom of the screen, in the magical “thumb zone” where things are easily tapped. It’s no wonder that every platform places their keyboard in this space, since plinking away at keys is clearly easiest there. But you never want to put something in that zone which could either be destructive, or could significantly change your interaction state. For example, on iPhone, there’s a reason the send button for email is in the upper right – that’s a very, very intentional tap. It’s also quite final, so you don’t want to accidentally hit it.
Capacitive buttons violate all of these design considerations. Many of them remove you from your active context and can sometimes be destructive (depending on how well someone implements their app’s state management). But worst of all, they rest within that mythical thumb zone and are surprisingly easy to hit on accident, due to their proximity to the screen.
Windows Phone actually doubles down on the proximity flaw. While sending text messages or emails, not only do they have capacitive buttons below the keyboard, they also have charms right under the keyboard. These charms can add attachments, send the email, cancel it, etc… And are only a few pixels away from the spacebar button. I can’t tell you how many times I accidentally hit the attachment button when sending text messages, back when I was on Windows Phone 7.
Oh, and what about accidentally putting your thumb on the Windows button, while using the Surface? I frequently rotated that beast and accidentally hit that thing. Or the back/menu buttons on Android? I have accidental taps less on Android, generally, but it still happens.
So yeah, accidental taps… But let’s not forget the physical feedback issue. Capacitive button feedback is so poor, most devices kick off their vibration to let you know you actually pushed a button. If it weren’t for this, they would be even less usable. Microsoft spent a lot of money advertising the satisfying “click” that their Surface RT makes when connecting the keyboard cover. But they figure a soundless vibration is ok for their home button? What ever happened to the satisfying feeling of a button being pressed?
But here’s the thing I don’t understand about these buttons… Why do they exist? What advantage do they have over physical, push buttons? I’ve never once thought “Oh man, I really appreciate this little flat surface that I can touch as a button.” Are they just supposed to be cool? Is it just for aesthetics and a simpler visual form? I am seriously baffled why anyone would make this design decision.
So yes. Death to capacitive buttons. Please. They have no reason for being and I’m sick of them.
So, I wrote this long ass rant. But my friend Nathan Rabe sums the whole thing up in two little tweets: