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The Escape button: a key to the psychology of device design?

Posting in Design

Will the Escape key on computer keyboards soon be...escaping? In a short "Who Made That?" column in the October 7 issue of the New York Times Magazine, writer Pagan Kennedy explored the history and the future of the button emblazoned with the abbreviation "esc."

Reading the backstory of the key can help designers and users alike better understand our computing needs and the psychology behind them.

The Escape key "says to the computer: ‘Stop what you’re doing. I need to take control,’" as Jack Dennerlein of the Harvard School of Public Health, whom Kennedy cites as a researcher on human-computer interaction, said in the article. In other words, it reminds us that people, not machines, are in charge.

The button dates to 1960 and was created by I.B.M. programmer Bob Bemer. It was intended to help programmers switch from one computer language to another. Later, the key evolved and literally became an escape tool: users now press it to stop what function they're engaged in, no matter what operating systems and brands they're using. The naming of the key was likely meant to suggest a sense of panic. I personally think the language is effective: it's powerful and to the point, somewhat fanciful and a little dreamlike--and definitely not as alarming as a button that would scream "help!"

Kennedy asked Joseph Kay, senior scientist at Nokia Research Center, for glimpses into the post-Escape-key future. Kay stated that device interfaces will probably feature escape-like-controls that take a cue from Siri, Apple's voice-command system on iPhones, as well as more playful and gestural systems, such as those used with video game consoles such as Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's Kinect. They won't likely be physical buttons.

One of the best parts of Kennedy's column is the art that accompanied it: images of computer keyboard buttons and related accessories dreamed up for specific uses. These included a key created in 2009 with a shoe on it, to be used by dance choreographers to type out steps, and a protective device, invented in 2006, to place over an Escape key to prevent users from pressing it by mistake. Perhaps the shoe was an omen of the future physicality of computing; the prophylactic, a sign of all keys' impending extinction.

Image: weegeebored/Flickr

— By on October 6, 2012, 12:17 AM PST

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure