The Trouble With the ON Button

December 1, 2020

“Findability precedes usability. In the alphabet and on the Web. You can’t use what you can’t find.” — Peter Morville

Where’s the Button?

I wouldn’t have brought this up unless I noticed a pattern. First, let me explain that I am not a tech novice. In fact, I have run a technology consulting company for 25 years and I’ve always been the go-to, fix-it guy in my family. But recently I have been stumped trying to find the ON button and dealing with some previously simple electronic tasks. How about you? 

Let me give you two examples. First, take the new laptop I recently purchased for its speed and power to replace my older, clunkier machine. In my business career, I have probably owned a dozen laptop computers going back to my 1981 Osborne 1 (Pre-PC) with two giant floppy disks. And in all those years, I never had a problem finding the ON button. However, when I cracked open my brand new Dell laptop last week, it was nowhere to be found! 

Usually, a laptop has a power button above or to the right side of the keyboard. Look at the picture below. Where’s the power button? Can you find it? Where's the ON button by Charles Levin

Where’s the ON button?

Not finding the button in the usual places, I turned the new machine over and checked the sides and the back. No button. To get the darn thing started, I found a workaround online where you press CTRL + ESC keys and plug in the power cord at the same time. That worked, so I could perform the typical twenty-two steps to set up Windows 10. The laptop is great and I love it, but there’s got to be an ON button; I thought. 

ON Button Icon

Oh, and I learned that the unidentified key is the fingerprint reader too. Even a fingerprint symbol on that key would be helpful. How intuitive, not.  Now, why would they make the most basic and simple step of owning and using a laptop so confusing? I will share my theory momentarily. 

Chainsaw Conundrum

Example #2. I would have let the laptop ON button escapade pass, but then another wonky thing happened when I tried using a new chainsaw for the first time to handle the ongoing tree issues around our house. I probably have hundreds of trees in the woods that make up most of our property and occasionally they fall across the lawn, the driveway, and unfortunately, on the power lines. In case you think I’m exaggerating about the trees, see the picture below of my trees that came down on power lines during Hurricane Sandy. They blocked traffic for two weeks until the power company got around to us.

Our tress fallen across the road - Hurricane Sandy - October 2012
Our tress fallen across the road – Hurricane Sandy – October 2012

So you either own a chainsaw and handle the issues yourself or get a second mortgage to provide room and board for a tree surgeon. After owning several gas chainsaws, I learned the beauty and pleasure of the newer electric chainsaws that seem to have all the power without the noise and the frustration of yanking on a starter cord. I tested this alternative by buying a small electric chainsaw from GreenWorks last year. It worked beautifully, with very little hassle. So, I bought the larger model to handle bigger trees this year. I got it this past Spring, but was so busy with work and writing and painting some columns outside my house, that I didn’t have time to use it until yesterday. It looks exactly like the smaller chainsaw in color, green naturally, and design but has a larger battery and a bigger saw blade. After assembling it, I put in the chainsaw oil, pressed the same two buttons–the safety, and the trigger–and nothing. What? My first thought was that there is no way I will be able to return or get this replaced if it’s defective after all this time. I checked the user manual. No enlightenment there. With some careful inspection, I spotted a subtly camouflaged ON button. The smaller saw of similar design from the same company didn’t require any such button. I pressed that newly discovered button, then the safety and trigger. To my relief, it kicked in with a pleasant whir and no smell of gasoline.

Am I just a complainer or is there a pattern here? I could go on with other examples like the printer cartridge that wouldn’t fit in my HP printer and don’t get me started on shrink wrap and child safety caps on medicine bottles. Pardon my rant, but these occurrences are particularly frustrating for someone like me to whom others have looked to fix their broken items, open stuck bottles, and solve almost any mechanical or electrical problem over the years. If Mr. Fixit is having these problems, I can imagine what the average user must be encountering.

Hey, Usability Engineers

OK, why is this happening now? Let’s charitably assume I don’t have early onset dementia and am thereby losing it. It’s an iffy assumption, but let’s go with it for the moment. I believe the more likely scenario has to do with product designers making assumptions without regard to usability, i.e. how you and I will use these things. It’s what usability engineers (yes, that’s a real science and profession) call the User Experience or UX. Remember when things you purchased came with detailed user manuals that included diagrams and step-by-step instructions? Not anymore. I think the beginning of the decline started when companies opted to make their devices “intuitive” to use or made the user go online to try to figure things out. Now, to some degree, they were successful. For example, most Google software makes it easy to figure out which buttons to push when you want to do something. Youtube is also very helpful with How-Tos. Yet, as theirs and other companies’ products evolve and get more complicated with more options and more choices for the user to make, usability suffers–things breakdown.

The second reason I believe things are harder to use is they’re replacing English with icons. The ostensible reason for replacing “ON” with the circle and vertical bar sticking out the top is the limited space on a single small button or keyboard key–really? How much space does “ON” take up? So the usability engineers assume everybody knows what the circle/bar and other cryptic shapes mean. Still, I know people, many dear to me, who don’t know what the circle/bar signifies or even the > or >> or || mean on their remote controls or DVD players or that three dots or four horizontal lines on their iPhone apps indicate tap-to-see-the-menu. Apparently, Dell has taken it a step further into the abyss–a blank, black key now means ON. Don’t believe me? See the figure below.

The ON button by Charles Levin

At Pathfinder, we think a lot about usability and build it into every website we design. Our clients’ customers can find what they’re looking for in multiple obvious ways — a clear button, a search query, or an identifying image — click and go. No getting lost — no frustration. Check out one of our latest websites and you’ll see what I mean – The Stone Center.

So here’s a shout-out or more like a cry-out to all the other gifted companies and their usability engineers who create the products and UX that are supposed to make our lives easier every day. Give us a real user manual, separate the ON button from the other buttons, and put “ON” on it. While you’re at it, cut out the shrink wrap and childproof caps. That will truly make our lives easier and, over time, give us years of our lives back. Are you with me on this?


Do you have any usability bugaboos? Please share in the Comments below. Maybe the people who can do something about it are listening. And if not, at least I’ll know I’m not alone or nuts or both.

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