Efficiency the reason we have the telephone button layout we have today

Bell Labs made a number of important discoveries decades ago including making the choice of how telephone buttons should be laid out:

This layout is so standardized that we barely think about it. But it was, in the 1950s, the result of a good deal of strategizing and testing on the part of people at Bell Labs. Numberphile has dug up an amazing paper — published in the July 1960 issue of “The Bell System Technical Journal” — that details the various alternative designs the Bell engineers considered. Among them: “the staircase” (II-B in the image above), “the ten-pin” (III-B, reminiscent of bowling-pin configurations), “the rainbow” (II-C), and various other versions that mimicked the circular logic of the existing dialing technology: the rotary.

Everything was on the table for the layout of the ten buttons; the researchers’ only objective was to find the configuration that would be as user-friendly, and efficient, as possible. So they ran tests. They experimented. They sought input. They briefly considered a layout that mimicked a cross.

And in the end, though, Numberphile’s Sarah Wiseman notes, it became a run-off between the traditional calculator layout and the telephone layout we know today. And the victory was a matter of efficiency. “They did compare the telephone layout and the calculator layout,” she says, “and they found the calculator layout was slower.”

It is interesting that they searched for what was most efficient. This is not surprising; telephones are pieces of technology and the user is likely to want to dial the number as quickly as possible so they can get on with the phone call. But, efficiency isn’t necessarily everything. Imagine Steve Jobs and Apple, an organization known for their designs, made this initial choice: would they have chosen something more elegant or would they have selected efficiency as well? It is a small thing yet it hints at George Ritzer’s McDonaldization thesis where efficient and rational approaches tend to win out in our world.

A side note: Bell Labs should be better known in the United States for their role in developing new technologies.

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