I am reminded this morning of much I like working out what all the buttons do on a machine. Quite often the machines we use, be they an oven, a sports watch or a computer, have many more functions than we realise. Not all of these devices have the levels of user interface design that you might get from say a modern phone. While I’m a fan of good user design, I quite enjoy pouring through manuals to discover these more obscure functions… or better still, trying to discover them for myself.

This morning’s discovery was of the metronome functions on my keyboard. I have what is described as a ‘furniture electric piano’, in other words, a simple electric keyboard in a wooden case. It is precisely to make it look more like a piece of furniture and less like an electronic device that is has hardly any buttons. Of course it does have plenty of buttons of a sort: the 88 keys that allow you to play music. By providing some sort of ‘alt’ or ‘function’ key on the side, these 88 keys provide lots of options to the front-end designers for controlling the functions of the keyboard.

For example, this morning I discovered that if I hold down the metronome key on the left-hand side and play bottom E, I can switch to a 6/8 time signature. Keys in the next octave up can be used to select various pre-set tempi. The next octave becomes a control panel for setting the tempo at any number between 20 and 250 bpm. And the top octave can be used for setting the volume.

All of that and lots more, hidden under behind a keyboard that Schubert would recognise. But therein lies the paradox. To make the machine look more simple requires more complicated operations. The controls are complicated to use becuase to they don’t map to the outcome that they produce, as Donal Norman describes in his book ‘the Design of Everyday Things’. There is no obvious reason why one octave should activate a certain set of functions rather than another. And there it is not necessarily obvious what all the functions are.

But despite the challenge, I like trying to figure these things out. It forces us to pay attention to these machines, rather than to take them for granted.

When you try to figure out how something works, to use the language of philosopher Matthew Crawford, we submit to how the machine works. This is a humbling experience. We have to get ourside our heads and look for evidence for how action leads to consequence.

In a sense I feel there is a kind communion with the designer: at one point they were trying to envisage how you would use this object, and now you are using this object.

I remember recently figuring out how to set the time on a microwave clock without the instructions. There is usually a combination of buttons to press to access the second-level functions like setting the time. There was one key to press to scroll through all the possible times, and when I realised that the longer I held the key down the faster the numbers would scroll so that I could get to my target quicker, I had a feeling of gratitude to the designer that build that extra convenience in.

Delving into machine functionality also presents the opportunity for learning, for it is likely that you will come across some function that deals with a phenomenon that you have never dealt with before, and about which you can go and find out.


  • Crawford, M. (2015). The World Beyond Your Head (1st ed.). VIking.
  • Norman, D. A. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things. MIT Press.

Related training

In the training that I run at Constructivist, this concept of mapping controls and functions falls into the category of ‘having better ideas’. It’s part of a collection of thought steps we go to help assess whether an idea is a good one. If you are interested check out these two courses:

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