In Praise of the One-button Mouse

After two decades, Apple announced today that it would manufacture a multi-button mouse. (You can read more about it here.) This wouldn’t even be news coming from any other company, but it’s notable given Apple’s pivotal role in popularizing the device, it’s impact on the birth of the graphical user interface, and Apple’s steadfast (though solitary) adherence to the one-button concept for all this time. A lot of the design issues surrounding this humble little button are tied up with some pretty hefty luminaries and institutions in computing history, Jef Raskin and Xerox PARC among them.

I switched to using a Mac full-time with the advent of OS X. Since then I’ve really come to appreciate the elegance of the one-button setup, particularly when mated to the current Apple Mouse (née Apple Pro Mouse–a beautifully executed piece of industrial design either way). Moreover, I’ve even grown a tad irritated by the right-click. Well, not the right mouse button per se, but the way it’s commonly used.

As an UI instrument, the primary purpose of a mouse is selection and activation. It enables direct manipulation of interface elements, typically with immediate visual feedback. A mouse works fantastically well for manipulating windows, or for games–software where the metaphor is basically an extension of your hand. Click, drag. Click, shoot.

But right-clicking in GUIs has developed an unfortunate association with esoteric contextual menus that largely strays from this path, and the right mouse button has been dragged along for the ride. When I follow all the steps to use a contextual menu it generally requires multiple distinct operations, most of which focus on abstract commands buried in nested menus. Add to this the fact the typical right-click contextual menu has become synonymous with a dumping ground for all the commands a developer couldn’t find a home for somewhere else. (It’s a contextual menu, right? Then start acting like it, cut out the clutter, and show me what’s relevant to the task at hand.)

Somehow I’d rather just use a keyboard shortcut (faster) and save the mouse for what it’s really good for, whether it’s one button or twenty-five.