- December 28, 2016
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Where The Controls Are
It used to be that controls for an object were on the object. To operate a printing press, for instance, you stood next to a printing press and pulled the lever that opened and shut the press.
Later, starting around the 1890s with the introduction of electricity, controls could move away from the object itself to other parts of the room. Everything from light switches to operation of machinery could be done away from the object it was affecting. Other mechanical processes, such as shutting off the water to a building, could also be done on-site or nearby.
Telegraphs, and afterwards the telephone, radio, and television allowed people to affect objects from afar, but the controls were always on the object itself (to tune in and to adjust the signal).
Networked devices connected via Ethernet extended controls to objects in other rooms and the internet expanded this range to include the entire wired world. You can now fly robot drone planes on the other side of the globe. The controls are nowhere near what is being controlled.
This presents a bit of a problem for designers. In “traditional” interaction design, the rule is simple: if you can’t directly control the object itself (via physical controls or touchscreen gestures), you put the controls as close as you can to whatever it is you’re manipulating. The reason for this is simple: feedback. When you turn a dial, you can watch or hear something being affected; when you click an icon to make a word bold, you can see it turn bold. But when I set my DVR with a mobile app, how do I know the DVR itself is executing the command? Sure, I can get feedback from the app, but some trust is definitely involved. If I get home and Oprah hasn’t recorded, what do I blame: the device, the connection, the app?
There is also a distinct emotional impact the farther the controls move away from the object itself. Do I want to cook on my stove from a control panel in another room? Perhaps there are use cases when that makes sense, but it definitely would change the nature of working with a stove and how users feel about their interactions. Of course, it’s not always a negative to move controls to be away from the device: the introduction in the 1950s of the remote control only brought users more power and pleasure from their television sets.
So another choice then, for designers, is not just which controls to have, but where to put them: on, near, or remote. And the answer should be one of context: how important and immediate is the feedback (especially multi-sense feedback) to the task, and (related) what will it feel like to use this device from afar: is it empowering or dehumanizing?