UX Design3 Button Designs that Changed History

3 Button Designs that Changed History

3 button designs from 3 different decades

A simple button… that should be pretty easy to design, right? Well, as you will see, that’s not exactly the case. Even a simple button can prove to be a massive design challenge.

Understanding the “Why” behind Design, Disaster or Discovery is extremely important rather than blaming everything on human error. These examples from American history shows how something as simple as a button design without iterative consumer testing can lead to human made disasters.

Button 1 (late 1970s): Press here to avoid a nuclear catastrophe!

We’ll start with an example from back in 1979. The Three Mile Island accident was a partial nuclear meltdown that occurred on March 28, 1979, in Pennsylvania, United States. It was the worst accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant history and was rated a “5” on the 7-point International Nuclear Event Scale. The following image shows the control room and the wealth of buttons and confusing controls that turned out to be the cause of the catastrophe.

Author/Copyright holder: John G. Kemeny. Copyright terms and licence: Public Domain

The control room where badly designed buttons and labels caused nothing less than a nuclear accident. Here, President Jimmy Carter is touring the Three Mile Island 2 (TMI-2) control room on April 1st, 1979.

The nuclear accident began with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, and was worsened by a valve being stuck open, which allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape. However, the operators of the nuclear power plant did not make any attempts to close the valve. Why? Well, a whole team of investigators spent the following months investigating just that.

During the investigation, they discovered that the user interface in the reactor control room had big usability problems. Despite the critical valve being stuck open, a status indicator on the control panel seemed to indicate that the valve was closed. In fact, the status light did not even indicate whether the valve was open or closed, but only whether it was powered or not! The status indicator thus gave false evidence of a closed valve, and when the control room operators were unable to interpret the meaning of the light correctly, they could not correctly diagnose the problem for several hours. By this time, major damage had occurred.

As Grand Old Man of User Experience, Don Norman, explains: “The control room and computer interfaces at Three Mile Island could not have been more confusing if they had tried.”

In other words, the design of a simple “on/off” button—and accompanying status indicator—can cost vast numbers of human lives and nuclear catastrophes. And when they do, we often do not blame “bad design” (which we should) but instead blame it on the “humans” and call it “human error”. In fact, over 90% of industrial accidents are blamed on “human error”? If it were 5%, we might believe it—but 90%? That means that humans are almost always to blame for accidents.

Don Norman sums it up elegantly:

“Pinning the blame on the person may be a comfortable way to proceed, but why was the system ever designed so that a single act by a single person could cause calamity? Worse, blaming the person without fixing the root, underlying cause does not fix the problem: the same error is likely to be repeated by someone else.”

― Donald A. Norman, in “The Design of Everyday Things”

Button 2 (2000): Press a button to decide who gets to rule our country

Our second seemingly “simple button”, and one that drew enormous attention, were the buttons of the so-called “butterfly ballot”, which was used in 2000 in Palm Beach County, Florida, for the U.S. presidential election. George Bush needed to win in Florida to become president, and he got some unexpected help from the button design of the electronic voting system.

In the image below, the Democratic Party are listed second in the column on the left. However, if you pressed the second button in the yellow column of buttons, you will actually vote for the Reform Party, listed in the right column. To vote for the Democratic Party (listed second), you need to press the third button in the yellow column. Thus, George Bush’s rival, Al Gore from the Democratic Party, lost many thousands of votes, which instead went to the Reform Party.

Poor designs can lead to confusion and—potentially—chaos and major democratic problems when large numbers of voters mismark their ballots. Being a designer is an enormous responsibility, but you should embrace it! Design helps us prevent nuclear catastrophes and it even helps us get the people we trust to run our countries.

Author/Copyright holder: Anthony. Copyright terms and licence: Public Domain

Behold the infamous butterfly ballot, which caused thousands of voters to vote for the wrong party—unintentionally. After an intense recount process and the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore, Governor George W. Bush officially won Florida’s electoral votes by a margin of only 537 votes out of almost 6 million cast, and, as a result, the entire presidential election. The process was extremely divisive, and led to calls for electoral reform in Florida.

Button 3 (2015): Press here to suddenly switch off your engine while driving at high speed

Let’s take a more recent example of yet another seemingly “simple button”. In 2015, precisely 13,574 cars of the American brand Lincoln were recalled because the Start/Stop button of the car had to be moved. The reason? Drivers accidentally pushed their cars’ Start/Stop button while driving at full speed. Turning a car off while it’s driving at high speed is hardly the safest move, especially if you’re not expecting it.

The designers at Lincoln had placed the Start/Stop button right below the “S” button, which stands for “Sport”. Drivers would usually intend to press the “Sport” / “S” when driving at high speeds, and their attention would obviously be limited because they needed to keep their eyes on the road. The result was that some drivers unintentionally pressed the “Engine Stop” button instead of the “S” button right above it. This meant that they unintentionally—and abruptly—stopped their cars while driving at high speed.

Lincoln had to recall the 13,574 cars and then move the button to the top of the column of buttons – as a kind of “usability patch”. By placing the “Sport” / “S” at the very opposite end of the column, they lowered the likelihood of the drivers’ accidentally pressing “Stop engine” while driving at high speed.

The Take Away

The examples we have provided above are not only incredibly interesting to examine, they also provide valuable learning points that tie back to how we create our courses.

They show that designers have, time and again, committed design mistakes because they have ignored or overlooked the way our minds operate. They underscore how important it is for us, as designers, to take into consideration human psychology and sociology. Sometimes, a simple design flaw can cause an extremely costly disaster!

The examples also show that design is way more than learning about the hottest trends, but also taking a considered look at past successes and failures and then distilling timeless design principles from them. This goes back to why we started the IDF, and why we chose to focus on imparting timeless principles rather than chasing the next big design style. Many principles of great design are universal and timeless as they are based on psychology, sociology, studies of our present and past technology, as well as the interaction between humans and technology. Not even the design of a single button is an easy win—but it can be, if you have the right knowledge!

References & Where to Learn More

Hero Image: Author/Copyright holder: Rikke Friis Dam. Copyright terms and licence: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, Introduction, page xv, 2002

Isaac Newton, Letter to Robert Hooke, 15 February 1676, The phrase is most famous as an expression of Newton’s, but he was using a metaphor which, in its earliest known form, was attributed to Bernard of Chartres by John of Salisbury.

Don Norman, Human Error? No, Bad Designhttp://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/human_error_no_bad.html

Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident, 2014, http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/3mile-isle.html

Per Curiam, SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES, GEORGE W. BUSH, et al., PETITIONERS v. ALBERT GORE, Jr., et al., 2000, https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/00-949.ZPC.html

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