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Analog Angle Article

Pushing buttons, changing habits

Most of us have some fixed habits and expectations to get us through the day. That's part of life. But what happens when technology changes require these to change?

Recently, I was in a new, tall office building where the elevators did not have “floor buttons” inside the box, but only on the outside, in the waiting area. There was a big sign saying “Push the button for your floor before getting in.” It was interesting to see the disorientation and confusion of the passengers who either did not see the sign or did not grasp its significance. They would get in the elevator and then start to worry.

Why the new button arrangement? In tall buildings, elevators add to cost, take up precious floor space, and use considerable energy. Today's processor-based controls and advanced algorithms can actually operate the elevators much more efficiently and cut down on the number needed, if they are informed in advance of boarding where the people are and want to go.

But making this work means a change in long-established user habits, and can be unsettling. Ironically, the system is not asking for anything it didn't ask for before, it just wants to know it sooner.

This is not the first time that technology has expected users to change long-established behavior. For many people (especially those of a certain age group), the first thing they do when they pick up a phone's handset is listen for dial tone, signifying the line is live, then dial. With cell phones, of course, there is no up-front dial tone (except for special phones such as the Jitterbug); you key in the number and hit “go”, a sequence that some find disconcerting.

Then there's our ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard. It's been around since the 1870s, and seems like it will never be replaced by another layout (sorry, Dvorak). Some say it was laid out by C.L. Sholes to slow down typing and minimize mechanical jamming; others say that's a myth. No matter: it has an incredible “first-mover” position!

Sometimes technology advances force end-users to change long-established habits for a good reason; sometimes there is no valid reason, it's just change for the sake of change. Even when necessary, it takes time to make the changes take hold (after all, how many of us want to switch from Windows XP to the very different Windows Vista operating system?). If your design calls for a change, think carefully about the real need for it. Just because it's easy for you, who has lived and breathed the new features and sequences during the development cycle, doesn't mean that your users will be so accommodating.

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