Bring Back the Dials?

These are notes I made that never really became a blog post, but I wanted to get them out there, mostly so I’d have them when I looked back…

In this article, the author makes a fairly compelling, and I have to say pretty obvious, observation that for a limited set of functionality, analog controls are more “natural” for humans to use than digital controls. Analog controls lend themselves more readily to the kind of kinesthetic learning our brain-body system is best at (think: riding a bike–initially frightening, eventually trivial). And I agree that controls you’re actually going to use often should be right there on the outside of the camera, not buried deep in some menu structure.

The point this article misses is that dials are expensive. My old Canon (film) SLRs had great interfaces and controllability. But to make analog controls versatile and robust requires a lot of added complexity and weight. Yes, even the cheapest Polaroids had a brightness wheel, but it wasn’t to make the user happy. Remember, Polaroid had a lock on both the camera and the film. The film had narrow exposure latitude, so if you wanted to get the exposure just right you had to play with the wheel. And keep taking pictures with each new setting. The brightness wheel was there to make you spend more money on film! This was an “expensive” feature the manufacturer could add and actually make money. This doesn’t work with digital cameras, where the film is effectively free.

As well as being cheap, menus also level the usability playing field. This is the whole point of the GUI menu metaphor. This is why anyone can sit down at a Mac and use it pretty much instantly. It’s also why, 10 years later, they won’t have gotten much more efficient at using the thing. Menus trade away any hope for long-term kinesthetic efficiency for up-front, instantaneous functionality. Look again at the bicycle metaphor–menus reduce the initial terror, but they’re like training wheels that never come off. This was exactly the debate we had back in 1990 when word processors started switching from key commands to menus. You used to have to take a class to learn how to use Wordstar, but after that you could touch type everything, every command, every font function. Of course the invention of the mouse and software with 20 times as many features virtually ended the key-command paradigm. We’ve retained the obvious cut, paste and Ctrl-S, but who remembers the key command for double spacing or numbered list? One notable exception is Photoshop. A Photoshop neophyte never touches the keyboard; an expert uses it a lot.

Which I think cycles us back to the original implied questions: how much functionality do you need, how usable do you want it, and how much are you willing to pay? Experts will pay the money up front and put in the time at the beginning to get great equipment and learn how to use it. A $200 digital camera is not for these people. A $900, four-pound digital camera covered in indestructible dials and levers is, but that’s really not what most people want or need. Ultimately, I think this author has a somewhat empty complaint–he wants professional equipment a consumer prices. He sees a way to achieve this: drag consumers kicking and screaming up toward demanding professional features. I think this has already happened. You’ll find the results in the $400 to $600 range where you have a thousand features, a big menu and only one dial built into the cameras. On top of the base cost of attaching a lens to a CCD, the extra features cost you $300, the dials another $300, and the high-end consumer sweet spot is right there in the middle.

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