• The Mouse Factor: How Many Buttons Do You Need?

    February 26th, 2005

    The first mouse-driven computer I used was a Mac, so this may make me a little prejudiced on the issue. So it’s not surprising that I’m annoyed when I see Macs downgraded because they aren’t shipped with a two-button mouse, as if being more complicated is a virtue. I suppose the same philosophy explains why car makers are introducing elaborate computerized interfaces that require ten steps instead of one to switch to another radio station. Of course the same philosophy governs the Windows platform, so it’s certainly not original by any means.

    Now in the early years, you really didn’t need more than a single button mouse on the Mac for any reason except to add custom functions. Perhaps the most insidious example of going button crazy is the Kensington Turbo Mouse Pro, which sports no less than 11 buttons plus the trackball. And by chording, or pressing more than one of the buttons that surround the trackball, you can engage still more functions. I suppose they expect you to go to Mouse School to sort all this out.

    But I’m only half-serious here. Actually Kensington makes some of the best input devices on the planet, but sometimes there’s too much of a good thing.

    Alas, the folks who complain about the Mac’s single button mouse have been trained on other computing platforms and can’t see that it may not always be a good thing. Now I don’t know how many of you still use a standard Apple mouse of one sort or another. I suppose I could take a survey, and maybe I will some day. But the point is that if the fan of the two-button mouse went over to the person who uses the one-button variety and told them they needed more buttons, can you imagine the reaction?

    In fact, I do that from time to time, as I visit clients for troubleshooting or installation sessions. Most just stare at me as if I suddenly lost my senses. Now that may be party true, but I dare say most Mac users probably don’t feel deprived because they don’t have that extra button or a scroll wheel.

    But what about context menus, you might ask? Well, you probably realize that a lot of Mac users don’t even know there is such a thing, and when you show them, they manage to survive quite well with a Control-Click. And to help things along, Apple simply added the Action menu to the Finder, which may or may not make Finder functions easier to use.

    On the other hand, it’s not as if Apple makes it difficult to switch to a mouse with two buttons and a scroll wheel. Mac OS X has built in support for such a device, so you can take the standard USB-based Windows mouse, plug it in and it will just work. At least Apple gives you choices.

    This is not to say that there shouldn’t be an Apple Power Users Mouse for folks who demand the extra buttons and would like to see an official Apple solution. Perhaps there will be such a thing on future Power Macs and maybe a second button will appear on a PowerBook some day.

    In case you’re wondering, yes it’s true. I do use a multi-button mouse. It even has three tiny buttons on the right side, but they largely go unused simply because they are so awkward. I want a mouse, not a piano wannabe. My favorite feature, however, is not the second button, but the scroll wheel, which clearly smoothes the process of navigating through a page.

    But I am not about to go up to someone and say they are inferior because they prefer to stick with one button, thank you. To their detriment, Apple’s competitors have always believed that having a lot more features is the way to go. In Windows this has reached a point where even the setup assistants, or Wizards, often become too complicated to manage.

    The companies that attempt to compete with the iPod make the same mistake. Add a slightly bigger drive, an FM radio, a bell and whistle here and there and the would-be iPod killer is ready to do battle with number one. The more buttons the better. The iPod shuffle? How can Apple possibly build that thing without some sort of LCD display? Who’d buy it? Better to ask where can you find one, since dealers can’t keep them in stock.

    Unfortunately, this “complicated is good” philosophy infects the entire world of user interfaces. Want to beat the competition? Add another button, or give a button a few extra functions. What about just turning the thing on? No, that’s too retro. This is the 21st century, dude!

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