David Lewis, one of the great interface designers, died last fall without proper attention in the media.
He was the respected designer for Bang & Olafsen in Denmark. He pioneered the wheel and arrow control system that was celebrated on the first iPods as an elegant, simple and approachable interface.
I had a rare interview with Lewis a few years ago and discussed the wheel system, which is now showing up more and more in automobile controls. . He said he first devised something like it for a 1960's audio equipment project for the Danish company. It was inspired, he said, by the big knobs on stereo equipment at the time, but placed flush with the surface of the electronics box and equipped with a "dimple" or depression for a finger tip. He used it on the Beocom 6000 telephone in 1997 and then on the Serene mobile telephone and Beosound 3 audio system, in 2005, as well as the novel but unsuccessful Serene mobile phone, an expensive model offered jointly by Samsung and Bang & Olfafsen.
"That tactile feedback of turning and clicking is reassuring,” he told me,
The idea was to concentrate many functions in one button. T he wheel control, he said, “was not based on extensive user research. Our approach was wholly intuitive. That is an approach that is out of fashion. We were building on established conventions that were known and understood, going back to the early telephone."
"That is terribly important when there are so many buttons."
Lewis called the iPod "a rather nice copy" of the B&O wheel. But he was not proprietary. At a time when high tech companies sue each other relentlessly over patents for email software, interfaces and other ideas, he said, “It never occurred to us to try to patent the wheel.”
On later versions of the iPod the mechanical wheel was replaced by an electronic membrane like a touch pad, with a wheel shape.
“The idea was to develop good ideas,” he said. If they were picked up by others, that was testimony to their success, he believed. He regarded the wheel idea in the same light as the basic arrow and box controls. These were used in the first audio tape recorders and later in disc players and software interfaces. That standard control, known world wide and translinguistic, is one of the basic good examples of a de facto standard, unenforced by government or international organization.
The wheels system was also a triumph of esthetic and functional “haptics” as the science of touch and feel is called. The roll and click produced satisfying, reassuring feelings in the fingers.