Buttons That Don't Work, Even Though We Think They Do

I read an article the other day all about buttons. Not the sort that keep your shirt closed, nor the round ones with a pin attached that you can wear on your coat or a backpack to show who you’re voting for. No, the article was entirely about the type of buttons we push.

As a parent there are few universal rules more crystal clear than this: children love buttons. The function, color, size, shape, or illumination status of the button does not matter. If a kid sees a button, they’re going to push it.

If we pull into the driveway and my kids make it to the front door before me, they’ll ring the doorbell—repeatedly—even if there’s no one else home. They like listening for the bell, but the main reason they press the button is the same reason people climb Mt. Everest: because it’s there.

Adults like buttons, too, we just aren’t as upfront about it. And our interest in buttons has more to do with convenience than entertainment. If you doubt how much adults like buttons, just stand outside a bank of elevators as people arrive for work. If the elevator is the least bit slow someone will push the elevator call button again, even though it’s already lit up. Impatience drives adult button fascination.

Which brings me to the article that I read.

Much to my surprise, there is a button in an elevator that is almost universally worthless. The door-close button.

After the American with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, elevators had to remain open for a period of time long enough for people with crutches or a wheelchair to enter. So shortly after the act passed, elevator manufacturers stopped making functioning door-close buttons.

Most elevators have a working life of twenty-five years, so by now most elevators you ride in will have been replaced or refurbished, and the door-close button will not work.

Not to worry though, the doors will obviously close by themselves. But when that impatient person near the control panel presses the door-close button, he’s not making the doors close more quickly. If you want to have an entertaining conversation you should point out that little tidbit.

The door-open button does work, however. So if your co-worker tries to make it onto the elevator and gets crushed by the doors you can’t blame your inaction on the door-open button.

Crosswalk buttons are another worthless button. With the advent of computer-controlled traffic lights, the vast majority of crosswalk buttons have become obsolete as well. Most cities will have a few of the buttons that still control the crosswalk, but for the most part your opportunity to cross the street won’t depend on pressing that button.

I suspect the buttons remain for two reasons. One, they’re simply too expensive to remove, and nothing’s harmed by leaving them, even if they don’t work. But the second, more important reason is that kids like to press them. I defy you to find a kid in America who won’t immediately gravitate toward the crosswalk signal button as soon as they stop on the corner. Crosswalk signal buttons may not be operational any more, but each one still serves as a mini playground for children.

There are other buttons that I suspect don’t work as well as they should, if they work at all.

The rear defrost button on any car ever. Why does that thing time out? Am I not to be trusted with such heat-generating capacity? And what would happen if it didn’t time out and I forgot to shut it off? Is my car going to catch fire?

The power button on a Nintendo Wii remote. Does the power button control the power to the console, or the power to the remote? What happens if I press it? I don’t play video games, but apparently nothing happens, because somehow my kids always leave on the Wii console and the remotes.

No matter what the future holds for mechanical buttons, we can always be sure of one button that will never stop functioning: the human button. As in, “She really knows how to push my buttons.”

In fact, we have perhaps the greatest exhibit of this in the person about to move into the White House. Review his Twitter account and you’ll see just how easy and effective it is to push his buttons.

Finally, a button just as entertaining for adults to push as that crosswalk signal button is for kids!

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