(The) DON'T PANIC (Button)
The market is flooding with tablets of all shapes, sizes and software. All of them are trying to gain some ground on the iPad. But Apple’s product engineers still win in one very important regard: the single DON’T PANIC button on the bottom.
In many of the more relaxed civilizations on the Outer Eastern Rim of the Galaxy, the Hitchhiker’s Guide has already supplanted the great Encyclopaedia Galactica as the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom, for though it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate, it scores over the older, more pedestrian work in two important respects. First, it is slightly cheaper; and secondly it has the words DON’T PANIC inscribed in large friendly letters on its cover.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Over the past few weeks, myself and a few team members have been experimenting with various mobile devices in an effort to build out a testing lab for our web properties. We have both versions of the iPad, a BlackBerry PlayBook, a Samsung Galaxy Tab, an HP TouchPad, various smaller smartphones, with a Kindle Fire on its way.
Forgiving all software, hardware specs, and screen size differences between the devices, one design element of the iPad almost single-handedly makes it the most user-friendly tablet on the market: the DON’T PANIC button.
Singular and Absolute
The function of the thumb-sized depressed circle at the bottom of the tablet is singular and absolute: close whatever you’re doing and return to the home screen. No matter where you are in a movie, or how hard an app is running (think graphic-intensive games), or how badly an app is crashing, pressing that button is 100% guaranteed to take you back to the comforting hearth of your home screen.
This key escape route is very important.
Many people that casually pick up a tablet at Best Buy or a phone carrier store are doing so for the first time. Watching them navigate is an interesting experience. The masses are trained to control their computing experience via third-party abstraction: the negotiation of a mouse, a detached stylus, or the tiny trackball of a BlackBerry. These same masses also live in a world of consistently terrible and terribly inconsistent user interfaces, and work in places that demand multi-tasking through a dozen simultaneously running apps.
Interestingly, it’s not the touch experience that throws people. The concept of controlling stuff through dragging/pressing/spreading finger movements is insanely intuitive — just ask any five-year-old with an iPad. People get hung up once they’re inside applications; specifically, when their task is complete. Old habits kick in. Where is the Esc button? Where’s the little red X in the corner? WHY IS THERE NO CONTROL-ALT-DELETE?
The iPad responds to that panic with that easily findable, strangely comforting button set dead center on the bottom — the one, not coincidentally, right next to your thumb.
Arthur C. Clarke (allegedly) referred to The Guides’ “DON’T PANIC” as the single best advice that could be given to humanity. In the case of product design, it’s the single best option that can be given to the user.
Where Other Tablets Fall Short
Every alternative tablet on the market has its merit. All of them have tiny advantages over the iPad. None of them (that I’ve tested) are total wastes of time. But in this area — providing the user a Get Me the Hell Out of Here button, also known as This Shit is Crashing Help Me button, also known as Oops the Boss Is Coming So Quick Close That Naughty Website button — the competition fails.
The TouchPad is the only other tablet that gets close to the iPad in almost any regard. But in addition to the zippy, functional webOS software, the product designers at HP were smart enough to incorporate the singular button design, and even though it doesn’t scream “PRESS ME” quite like an iPad, it works well and its presence is re-assuring for all the right reasons.
The PlayBook has no hardware buttons on its front surface. Instead, the surface itself responds to touch. In theory, this “extra” control space works nicely because screen real estate is at a premium. Swipe down from the top to open extra controls, swipe up from the bottom to close everything. The problem is that if the OS is crashing (because it does), this bottom swipe is not responsive. It’s not an intuitive escape route. It doesn’t always work. A DON’T PANIC swipe-and-pray is not the same as a DON’T PANIC press-and-know.
Samsung Galaxy Tab
Samsung’s “contender” in the tablet space is a competent product, but the OS (currently Android 3.2) has the worst experience in terms of global navigation. There is no hardware return button. Instead, the tablet relies on a software facsimile of the four buttons that typically appear on other Android hardware — the ones where the “home” button is stuck in the middle, at the same size, with nothing to separate it design-wise. Most disappointingly, this four-button nav appears and disappears at whim, and leaves the user begging for some tangible thing to press.
The parallels between this generation of tablets and the Hitchhiker’s Guide are striking. All the knowledge of the known world, a few finger movements away. But that’s a double-edged sword: with nearly unlimited power comes paralysis of movement; panic sets in when the user understands something can be done but can’t figure out how. And in this age of relentlessly evolving tech, it’s the little things like a DON’T PANIC button that give us dumb humans direction.
Arthur, in the novel, expresses this nicely:
“I like the cover,” he said. “‘Don’t Panic.’ It’s the first helpful or intelligible thing anybody’s said to me all day.”