Apple The impression of a satisfying button press

How to Build a Button

My Touch Bar rage has peaked.

It is a point of pride for me how I type. I am proud of the fact that I can sit in this here chair, stare at the screen, and let the words flow effortlessly. I very rarely look at the keyboard, and when I do, I have a word that describes this state. It is an interruption.

Productive work is the successful chaining together of uninterrupted minutes. The longer the chain, the higher the productivity. Interruptions break the chain.

In week #3 of actively using the 15” MacBook Pro, I am delighted by its build quality. I love its weight. Last night, I found myself admiring the machining of the aluminum notch that allows me to open the computer. I type deftly on this hardware.

I am also equally deft at randomly muting my music, unintentionally changing my brightness or volume level, and jarringly engaging Siri.1

It is maddening. And it’s not improving.

However, the essential law of technology is evolve or die. This means it is worth my time to deconstruct the Touch Bar to infer design intent. To do this, we must answer the basic question: “What is a button?”

My Button Definition

Let’s start with my brief definition of an efficient button:

  1. It has a perceptible boundary that makes it findable.
  2. It exists in an expected location relative to its container.
  3. It is “pushed” to achieve an obvious purpose.

To understand this definition, let’s test it against buttons, button-containers, and button-like-things:

A keyboard button. Your classic button. It’s got an edge you can both see and feel. It’s in a fixed location. When you push it, you normally see the result immediately. This is a button.

The home button on the iPhone. This button has gone through significant mechanical and design changes and is another classic button. As the iPhone is a far more mobile device than a keyboard, the importance of the perceptible boundary that makes it findable is increased. Close your eyes, grab your phone and unlock it. No problem, right? Keep those eyes closed and launch Safari. No fair using Siri.

Minor point. On the newer iPhones, you don’t push and physically move the button. The button doesn’t move, but it gives you the impression it does with haptic feedback. To fully experience this, “press” the button an iPhone with a dead battery. Apple has done an admirable job creating the impression of a satisfying button press.

The Force Trackpad. It has a perceptible edge, it is always in an expected location, and you do press it. However, the Trackpad serves a multitude of functions. Its purpose changes based on application, the number of fingers on the Trackpad, and the gymnastics those fingers perform whilst on the Trackpad. There is an argument that mechanically it’s a button, but due to its myriad functionality, I would say it’s not a button, but a Trackpad.

The Apple TV remote. I’m bringing this one up because the Apple TV buttons are a frequent source of frustration for me. When you look at my button definition, the flaw is clear. The Apple TV buttons are just fine provided that you understand which end of the remote, the container, is pointed where. It’s when the bottom of the remote is pointed forward, and your fingers start to the explore the remote when you realize, “Something’s wrong” and you glance at the remote to orient yourself.

The Apple TV remote has a pleasant feel in my hand. It’s by far the most visually appealing remote that I own. It offers a sensible set of useful button options. However, this grace is interrupted each time I have to stop and ask, “How am I holding it?” The buttons are fine; the flaw is that to work, you must visually inspect the remote. Even my worst remotes with their plethora of buttons easily convey which end should be pointed forward.

The Touch Bar The Touch Bar buttons fail my definition in a couple of ways. I’m going to give it partial credit for the perceptible boundary because, yes, you can look at the bar and see the buttons. However, try the close your eyes test and turn up the volume on your MacBook Pro. How’s your brightness looking? Did Siri say hi?

When you combine this difficulty in tactile findability with the fact that the buttons on the Touch Bar are gleefully changing position when you move from application to application, it appears the Touch Bar has more in common with the Trackpad than the keyboard. The buttons on the Touch Bar are most certainly buttons; my issue is with their container.

Grace Interrupted

In the history of keyboards, I have never been as inept as I’ve been with the Touch Bar keyboard. I’ve been finishing this piece for the last hour and I’ve been keeping track of the number of times I’ve accidentally hit a Touch Bar button, and that number is nine. The total number for this article is likely 5x the number.

Developers were the ones who originally raged on the Touch Bar because it contained one of their most frequently used keys – the escape key. The absence of the clear feedback of a physical key press is a violation of perhaps the most important word in my definition we have not explored “efficiency.”

The Touch Bar is gorgeous but is inefficient.

Apple’s job has always been to courageously lead the charge on design. Apple has a strong defensible opinion regarding where we should go versus where we’ve been. The Touch Bar hits common Apple Design high points. It cleanly integrates the keyboard and extends it. The gentle animations with occasional splashes of color are a joy to share with others.

… but it’s inefficient.

Apple, I am with you on this design journey. I am cool with the dongle explosion that accompanied the MacBook Pro because your opinion is one universal port and I get that. The future is shaped by those who lead.

However, the role of a well-designed keyboard is to stay the hell out of the way. A good keyboard is a tool designed to be unnoticed because its job is to get the ideas out of my head, through my fingers, and into the computer as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It’s called a Mac Book Pro. Pro. For professionals. I’ve worked under the assumption that professionals were interchangeable with developers. After multiple weeks of usage, I can’t see how a developer or a writer would choose the Mac Book Pro.

  1. You can arrange the Touch bar buttons via System Preferences. 

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27 Responses

  1. David 7 years ago

    The Samsung Edge. I am glad I turned that annoying and useless feature off. I absolutely hated it. Love the rest of the phone.

  2. Matthew Wills 7 years ago

    The real frustration with the Touch Bar is that it was tried before – and it didn’t work.

    The X1 Carbon was (and is) an amazing little laptop. Lenovo switched to a ‘Touch Bar’ style of function keys, and many hated it (especially developers). So they switched back to real function keys.

    It seems very odd that Apple was either unaware of this, or chose to ignore it.

  3. Completely agree.

    This is my 5th generation Apple notebook since getting a Powerbook 12″ in 2002, and the third 15″ model Mac notebook I’ve owned. After a few months of using the rmbp15 with touch bar, I find myself using my wife’s mb12 instead.

    I think I’m done with that laptop.

  4. All real coders use a mechanical keyboard with Cherry MX Blue SuperClick switches so that everyone else in the open area seating knows how much code they are crushing.

    Perhaps the Macbook ProPlus will have this proper nod to the modern developer.

  5. Alain 7 years ago

    Samsung TVs have had the same problem for years : buttons with no boundaries and no physical feedback just don’t work!

  6. I’m a “Pro”, and I primarily use my Macbook Pro with a USB keyboard. I suspect I’m not alone in this approach. The touch bar is simply not an issue.

  7. The MBP needs to drop the Pro from its name. In 2017, not having a 32GB memory option is not a pro machine. The touch bar is just more evidence that it is a consumer machine and more of a toy. I am happy with my older 15″ retina, but I’d really like to be able to increase the memory.

  8. ChrishrisChrt 7 years ago

    Man I feel your pain… “The Touch Bar is gorgeous but is inefficient.” – nailed it. I compare it with the 3D TV glasses gathering dust in the cabinet. Used once, demo’ed a few times to interested observers, never used afterwards.

  9. Barry Williams 7 years ago

    Technology has such a unique (and healthy) conflict between speed and taking the time necessary to create intuitive design. Innovation at speed often comes at the price of usability. Only a genius like Jobs could keep pace while also delivering high usability and I fear that Apple will need to slow down a little now to deliver at the level they used to.

  10. True, true.

    Every time I see Touch Bar it reminds me of Ballmer’s legendary:
    “Developers. Developers. Developers”

    Tim Cook in some sense did something very similar with their product.

    There is an option to get new Macbook Pro with “real” keyboard – unfortunately it’s performance is just retarded.

    You can get separate keyboard from Apple – you don’t even need dongle for that!

    But that’s a hack.

    Developers love their hacks – especially those with few years of life-span.
    Until new Macbook line will (possibly) fix it.

  11. Most function keys (physical or not) suffer from a lack of “findability”.

    When a touch typist learns QWERTY, Dvorak, or some other keyboard layout, the exact location of keys is burned into their brain. This is why I can put my hands on a keyboard in the dark and start typing comfortably.

    Function keys lie outside the scope of these well-known layouts, and aren’t something that most people commit to muscle memory. This is why I can never find the backlight controls on my 2014 MacBook Pro in the dark without fumbling with the screen brightness, audio controls, and app switcher buttons.

    Yes, it’s possible that the Touch Bar is worse than the status quo, but the status quo was already lacking.

  12. Matthew Passell 7 years ago

    I’m so glad to hear that I’m not alone in accidentally triggering Siri. It happens to me several times a day.

  13. Eric J 7 years ago

    I get not liking the touch bar. I get that it might be a flawed idea. But I don’t get how you ever accidentally touch it. I’ve been using the same model for over two months and never once accidentally touched it.

  14. This is why I bought a refurbished 2015 MacBook Pro instead of the touch bar model.

    The touch bar is an obstacle, it is not an improvement in any way.

  15. Daryl 7 years ago

    I agree with you – the touch bar was the main cause of me recently switching back to windows and buying a Razer Blade instead of a new macbook.

  16. Alan Forkosh 7 years ago

    About the Apple TV Remote:
    I have solved the ‘which way is up?’ issue by adding a leash, also known as the remote loop. A short charging cable plugged into the lightning port would also work.

  17. Mayson Lancaster 7 years ago

    Seems like this calls for a Kickstarter to make a button bar which could be mounted on the keyboard, with real buttons to touch the touchbar. Rube Goldbergian, but feasible. Probably not practical or economically worthwhile.

  18. Christian 7 years ago

    Same here. I cannot find a good use for the Touch Bar.

    My current workaround strategy:

    1. I only use the extended control strip. The constantly changing Touch Bar display drove me nuts without providing a tangible benefit (I can access most Touch Bar functions more comfortably by keyboard shortcuts – for novice users it might be however be more helpful).

    2. I removed the Siri button from the Touch Bar.

    3. I inserted a blank space above the delete key in order not to hit this area of the Touch Bar by accident.

  19. Shai ShamirShaifff 7 years ago

    So true, I’m using my bluetooth keyboard with my new Mac Book Pro.

  20. “I’ve worked under the assumption that professionals were interchangeable with developers”

    Though I’m not a developer, I work with, and associate with many. It seems that much of the criticism- the loudest, at least – comes from them. It’s all about the escape key and Function keys.

    Perhaps the assumption that Professional developers are the “Pros” that Apple has in mind is flawed.

    As a photographer that is also a professional, I find the new 15″ MBP a perfect fit. I like the touchbar, don’t really need the escape key more than once or twice a day, and have never accidentally triggered the touch bar while doing work, whether that’s photo editing, writing or anything else. Perhaps it’s because as a pretty good touch typer, but non-developer, I never touched the top row without looking anyway. Those aren’t on a typewriter and that’s how I learned.

  21. I’ve disabled the Touch Bar in most apps through the undocumented NSFunctionBarAPIEnabled option, removed the default items, and put the relevant things in the expanded area to prevent accidental hits. I’ve have also remapped the ~ key to Escape (I use a custom keyboard layout where ` and ~ are accessed through
    different means). I would very much prefer to have the physical keys back, but my current setup is at least tolerable.

    Here’s my Touch Bar setup:

  22. Kaleberg 7 years ago

    I guess a lot depends on how often you use anything on the function key row. I maybe use the ESC key a dozen times a day and maybe one or two of the other buttons. I have a preferred brightness and usually have the sound on mute. I just don’t reboot all that often.

    If you use a lot of function keys, then I can see the touchbar being a problem.

  23. The Great Laptop Stagnation: Thoughts on the latest MacBook Pro. Finally. – linked to this.
  24. TechOfficials linked to this.
  25. While this doesnt help everywhere, it helped immensely when writing via WP in Chrome:

    I removed all the buttons for Chrome, so the bar is a dead zone.