Laptop Design, Too Many Options

I recently got a new work laptop, since my old one’s USB ports had started to go. I depend on USB to do backups and to run my KVM.

Since the rise of the Macbook, I had hoped that the pointing device mess that exists on most non-Apple laptops had been simplified. Nope. Dell still offers both the rubber nubbie and the trackpad for driving the cursor, just like they have for years.

I don’t understand this design. Why support two methods?

If anything, this causes confusion about which to use and odd behavior, e.g. if you use the rubber nubbie, the trackpad picks up trace movements made by your wrist, causing phantom cursor bounces.

When I ran Windows and used the old laptop frequently out of its dock, I had to disable the trackpad to corral my cursor and prevent ghost movement caused by my wrist brushing it.

And why are there so many buttons?

You’d think one set would be for the nubbie, the other for the trackpad, which seems correct. If so, then why does one set have three buttons, whereas the other only has two?

Yeah, I suppose I could RTFM, or figure it out by using Windows, but this layout is highly unfriendly. Frankly, I don’t want to know what they do. Plus, the first thing I did was install Ubuntu.

I was hoping that Apple’s success over the five years since the last time I got a new work laptop would have positively influenced hardware design.

I’ve watched n00bs use a Macbook trackpad, the one with no buttons, with minimal instruction. This mess features two ways to move the cursor and potentially five other actions.

Then there are the odd glyphs on the trackpad. No idea what they’re meant to indicate.

Everyone copies everyone in technology. So why not copy something that works better?

Find the comments.




  1. first thing I do is plug in my ergonomic keyboard and USB mouse.

    if that is unavailable, I experience many of the issues you describe; it’s not my wrist though, it’s one of my other fingers. I contemplated removing the offending fingers, but that seemed a bit overkill.

    They probably don’t study Apple at all, they create commodity products. Macs are “high-end” products. Not an excuse…just a possible explanation.

  2. Another possible explanation – it’s easier to change course when you only have 10% market share, and when you control the hardware.

    I have not used a Mac since the 20th century, and I have had to borrow my daughter’s Mac a couple of times. Every time I do, the one question that always arises in my mind is “Where’s the mouse?”

    Apple has more flexibility in telling its users, “We’re putting this feature in and taking this feature out. Deal with it.” However much a Mac user may complain, it is relatively difficult for a Mac user to go somewhere else without going through a huge learning curve.

    The Windows ecosystem (Microsoft, Dell, HP, et al) has to be more sensitive to its installed user base, which is much larger and possibly (I don’t know, but I’d guess) somewhat older than the Mac population. Microsoft can’t tell Dell to remove the nubbies, and if Dell removes it they have to worry that HP will take market share. (One advantage of bloatware is that on paper, all non-bloated solutions appear to be inferior.)

    One could argue that Dell, HP, et al could release multiple configurations – some with trackpads and some with nubbies. But perhaps their overall manufacturing costs are lower if they just throw both pointing devices on all laptops.

  3. I’ve always disliked the nub/trackpad combo for the exact same reasons. The thing that always burns me with the trackpads is the tap-to-click. I inevitably forget about it, get completely mystified at the seemingly random selections, realize what’s happening, and disable that feature… within 30 seconds of using a new laptop 🙂

    As over-engineered as that whole layout is, manufacturers have been making that component configuration for a long, long time. The status quo is always cheaper than refactoring, right? Right?

  4. I take that same first step too, unless I have to dink around with it before plugging into the KVM 🙁

    Everyone in tech studies Apple. The consumer laptops follow the Macbook approach. The enterprise model I have doesn’t get the good design treatment bc it’s likely contracted anyway, and enterprise users don’t matter and probably don’t care.

  5. So, Apple hasn’t changed course for a decade or so wrt to pointing devices. They started with a trackball, then went to the trackpad in the early 00s. Does it matter if this was easy or hard?

    The question here is why duplicate? It’s just bad experience.

    As I mention to Chet, the Dell laptops targeted at consumers (vs. enterprises) follow the same approach Apple does with Macbooks. So, apparently some of Dell’s research suggests that a single way to mouse is good.

    I don’t understand your point about bloatware. I also don’t understand how the ecosystem of old users matters. I could argue that older users have much lower tolerances for confusion, making two mousing devices more annoying.

    The fact is that there are multiple configurations between the various manufacturers, but having both is bad experience, regardless of Apple or any other competition.

  6. Having both is just bad. I’m guessing it’s not a cost saving bc the Home line of laptops has only a trackpad. It seems like a nod to Thinkpad users who might have been switched to Dell, but again, having both is terribly annoying.

  7. and that’s why exists…in part anyway.

    I’ve watched 37signals do their design blog posts about changing the font size or style…it’s crazy, but a good learning experience for us on the outside. I guess the only thing I could say really, is that it is tough to get a big company to change course, the whole Navy carrier analogy applies. This despite the overwhelming evidence (in this case) that a better design might lead to a better experience might lead to better loyalty.

    I’ve always, always hated that nubbie thing. I end up hitting one of the surrounding keys, first, and then get frustrated, turn it off swear uncontrollably.

  8. Ah, the beloved Apple way: Do it the way Steve wants or KISS OUR A$$!

    Look, Windows supports options. Get over it. Most of the world, >85% at last count, like options. They like a little flexibility and creativity in their products. And yes, if you can’t figure out the button optimization scheme Dell chose to support the two primary input options, RTFM. For the life of me, I don’t know why WIIN gets all the criticism when Linux supports all the same options — its only MSFT that seems to get it wrong with the Mac faithful.

    PS: choice is NOT bad experience. if you don’t like one — disable it. if you don’t like ‘tap to click’ — disable it. i know options confuse people who are used to blindly have the “right” path shoved down their throats. but if you actually tried options periodically, you might remember the “right” path is not right for you every time.

  9. I suppose I should have included this in the post, since I’m having to say it in every comment. Dell’s consumer laptops have only trackpads. So, I’m guessing the nubbie is a nod to Thinkpad users. Again, I don’t get why they have both.

    Don’t tell me to RTFM on how to use which pointing device. That’s total rubbish. It’s like offering two ways to steer a car for flexibility. Something critical to operating the device should be simple. I’m not saying trackpad is the right one; I’m saying pick one.

    Linux does not support all the same options, e.g. Ubuntu has no idea what that middle button does. I use and support a lot of hardware and software (Android, iOS, Linux, Windows, Mac); I’m aware of what works and what doesn’t work.

    Choice is not always a bad experience, but in this case, it is. And for the record, I’m not confused by options. I know how to use a computer; I design and build software and have done so for more than a decade. This is what qualifies me to criticize bad design.

  10. c’mon Jake, you’re floundering here.

    i, like you, am forced to use Dell by my company. i like the nubbie so i have no difficulty understanding why they have both.

    i too get annoyed at the ‘tap-to-click’ and phantom wrist movements of the trackpad — so i disable it during initial config and am never bothered by it again.

    i’m quite confident you can figure out how to configure the dual setup in any way you like. but if the annoyance continues to stymie you then yes, RTFM applies. bitch’in about choices when they’ve given you complete control over the options is the rubbish.

    i’m struggling understanding how you can say the choice didn’t confuse you?
    – as you say, choice should not be a bad experience — but in this case it was for YOU. why?
    – you were faced with a standard set of options that thousands of new users are faced with every day. one that Dell (and several other leading manufacturers) have built a successful business model around.
    – any competent user, which i know you to be, can easily find the config options
    – they provided complete documentation (in 3 places no less!) to assist you in making your choices.
    – the config is quite flexible — up to and including completely disabling the nubbie (and physically removing it if you desire). i can’t think of any significant artifact of disabling one input method or another that would include longterm utility impact.

    yet instead of simply configuring the laptop, you’ve chosen it as a headliner for poor design. i’m failing to see a problem you don’t have easy and almost complete control over. nobody likes RTFM — but in your next decade in this business, you may want to try managing a Doc team. manuals exist for specific reasons. on of them being: periodically, everyone will become confused by something simple.

    PS: you seriously think you can’t find a Ubuntu driver? one of a plethora of options: check Dell’s website — they’ve supported Unix for a long time…)

    PPS: if you still think these options are a bad choice, you’ve got to cover how the Apple approach of a single button with no alternate options is better design? yes its simpler & more artistic — but that only passes for better in design school. there must be a successful utility measure.

  11. How am I floundering? My point is having both is bad design. Your point is that it’s not bc of all the software built to support both point devices.

    So, your point is that the having choice is better even despite the weight of the solution. Oh, but you say people can figure it out, etc.

    I say, why should they have to do that at all? Why not pick one? Probably easier to manufacture, easier to design software for, easier to support, easier all around, for everyone.

    It’s bad design to have both. Period.

    The general point about options being good does not always apply, and having multiple pointing devices causes the average user headaches. I’ve seen this happen. Having both is a nice-to-have at best, but when having both causes problems (e.g. phantom clicks), it becomes a must-not-have.

    Besides, if this pair of options is so awesome, why doesn’t Dell offer them on all their laptops?

    PS: Not sure what you’re on about Dell and Ubuntu drivers, but Dell has never supported Unix. Not ever. Linux is not Unix.

    I don’t think these options are a bad choice individually, but they suck together though.

  12. Apparently Dell did push a Unix variant in the late 80s, but that’s not what you meant. And yes, sometimes you can’t find a Linux driver if you’re running something very new.

  13. – all things equal, choice is better than not. it is the designer’s responsibility to ensure choice benefit is not outweighed by the cost.
    – this particular design choice indeed causes some initial confusion. the designers have gone out of their way to help one get around that — again, to the point of completely disabling either option!
    – you have complicated your situation by making a secondary choice (Ubuntu). fine i still don’t see an issue although my info is somewhat dated. back in ’06/07 when we used **Dell laptops with Ubuntu pre-installed** we used drivers found in the Linux support forum on Dell’s website that understood the Synaptics 3-button mouse config. other than a slightly annoying delay in updates for current distros, no issues.

    regardless, my primary interest in your original post is the illustration of “Design by Anecdote”. or, in its more common form since the .com boom: “Design by Frustrated Anecdote”. both are cardinal sins of design IMO.

    beyond some admittedly non-negligible confusion/frustration cost of this option, nothing has been demonstrated in this thread that rises to the level of design gaff. even before noting that the question of whether this is ‘good design’ can only be answered by filling in the blanks on the “why do they do that?” question that’s being ignored. good design has to be a balance of all the inputs for success to be achieved.

  14. So, if choice is better, why only one style of door opener on a door? Why not offer the choice of a knob and a pull handle, maybe even a push plate?

    What else do I have to demonstrate beyond confusion/frustration? Isn’t that enough to qualify for a design gaff?

    Answer the question then, why did they do that? I can’t think of a really good reason that overrides the confusion/frustration that you so happily marginalize.

  15. you demonstrated personal confusion/frustration — not general. and the point i’ve been making — it was transitory, new product confusion. a common type that is impossible to fully eliminate. so how does demonstrating an instance of something that is a virtual certainty for a complex product equal design gaff? IMO, you’ve got to demonstrate it was non-personal, unintentional, unmitigated and with long term effects. only the 4th remotely applies and i’ll argue that having config that reduces the ongoing cost to zero mitigates it as much as necessary.

    so the only thing left to explain is the intentional choice — why DID they do it? simple: corporate users use Powerpoint.

    PPT requires a better input experience than trackpads offer. this creates mixed demand in their target segment. leading to the overriding design factor — inventory management. its simply too costly and error prone to maintain both models in the corporate supply chain (note that applies more to customers than to the designing manufacturers). to balance ALL their competing design goals, they made a decision to offer a UI choice. one that saves inventory headaches (mostly of the return variety) but admittedly brings a cost. because of that cost, they went out of their way to reduce the initial impact to near zero and to eliminate the long term cost TO ZERO. this allows most companies to have only two laptops in their supply chain: lightweight/low power and heavyweight/full power.

    your door question is actually quite ironic — the question is almost verbatim from first year Design School final exams. and the answers are pretty relevant to this thread. a similar question that is directly relevant: why does your building have a push/pull door AND a revolving door? how big a design gaff is that? you’ve never felt, or seen, confusion over which door to use? you’ve never used the wrong one (quick: which IS the wrong one?). you’ve never had that revolving door give you a Phantom kick in the butt when you weren’t paying attention? and yet, just like laptops, every major building has both. the reasons for durable goods are not always localized to the new/casual use scenario which is the primary source of UX confusion.

  16. I’m not the only person who has found this frustrating, it’s not transitory, and this most recent iteration is not my first encounter with it. The mitigation only serves to complicate the overall experience, e.g. check the user experience when the setting, long ago forgotten, somehow gets reset, forcing the user to find it again or for the first time.

    IT sometimes disables one of the pointing devices in the their stock image to prevent confusion.

    “Their competing design goals” says it all. Make a choice, based on what your users need, not necessarily what they say they want or what you think they want. See Homer’s car for why needs over wants.

    My door question is purposeful bc I’m aware of the design training applications. Not every building has both a revolving door and standard doors. Buildings in cold or very hot climates employ these doors to control the temperature inside; they are required by disability law (and by utility for large deliveries) to provide standard doors as well.

    I don’t really care which one is right or wrong bc my answer, right or wrong, won’t change the fact that dual pointing devices is bad design.

    Period. The reason this design has hung around for the better part of a decade is bc no one questioned it, and there is no overriding reason to do so. Design for cars, buildings, etc. has been honed over decades and must comply with real requirements that don’t apply to computers, e.g. legal and safety.

    Not so with the laptop, which has only existed for a couple decades. Give it time, and this bad design will disappear.

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