17 Pushbutton Configurations that Didn't Make the Cut

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Ever wonder who came up with the order of numbers on a telephone? Ever wonder why it isn't the same as those on a calculator, or a keyboard, ascending from lowest to highest? After all, adding machines and mechanical calculators were around for at least a few hundred years before the invention of the pushbutton phone.

Turns out, the standard descending 3x3 (plus 1) grid we've grown up on might have been a lot different. Check out the 18 options below presented to various focus groups. They come from a report issued in 1960 by The American Telephone and Telegraph Company, just before pushbutton phones went mainstream.

In addition to key arrangements, other categories of design features were studied, like force-displacement characteristics and button-top size/design.

After the jump, you'll see the first figure, which shows all the arrangements the various focus groups were presented with (n.b. Group I-A "“ the same as the calculator). The second shows the four finalists, plus the original rotary arrangement. (I-A apparently didn't make the cut.)

The focus groups were tested on keying times (error rates were calculated) and asked which they preferred aesthetically. It's especially cool to note how the winner, the now-standard 3x3 plus 1, had a much larger error rate than the two vertical columns. Yet the two vertical columns arrangement was the least preferred overall. It seems the most popular, and the one the focus groups had the least trouble working, was the one that mimicked what they were already used to: the standard rotary dial.
I guess like Ma Bell, the designers got the ill communication"¦ and went with the new one that scored best across the boards, hoping future generations would forget the dials of the past.

They were right.

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December 3, 2008 - 1:38am
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