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Design Defined: How Should “Mapping” Determine Your Controls?

(This post is based on the video, “Mapping,” in the Design Defined: Design Principles Explained series.)

When’s the last time you were driving in your car and your favorite song came on the radio? How did you turn it up? When it comes to volume controls, you can assume that turning a dial to the right or pressing the top of two buttons will make your music louder. That’s thanks to a design principle called mapping.

Mapping is the relationship between controls and their movements or effects. When you turn a wheel, flip a switch or push a button, you expect a specific outcome. And when you’re designing a product, your users will expect controls that are intuitive or familiar. Good mapping is when the effect corresponds to your users’ expectations.

Design Controls That Mimic Their Real-World Effects

Controls should always correlate with their real-world effects. When you turn a steering wheel to the left, your car should turn left. When you press down on the switch that controls your car window, the window should roll down. When you pull up on the switch, the window should roll up. Anything else would be disorienting and possibly dangerous.

Unfortunately, mapping is not always so straightforward. Have you ever tried to use a stovetop you weren’t familiar with? Did you need a minute to orient yourself to which knobs controlled which burners? If so, you experienced poor mapping.

The stovetop is a classic example. Often, burners are laid out in a rectangle and the knobs are placed in a single row below. It can be hard to tell which knob activates which burner. But if the four burners are laid out in a trapezoid and the knob layout mimics that shape, it’s easier to understand the controls.

The latter is highly user-friendly, and if you’re presented with the choice to use either stovetop, you’ll likely pick the one with more intuitive controls. So will your users.

Present Users with Controls They’re Familiar With

While mapping can be a function of behavior — i.e. turning a wheel turns your car — it can also be learned through the use of other existing products and contexts.

Learned mapping is when something is not necessarily intuitive or natural, but the action becomes expected through repeated interactions with a similar product. Most people understand that when you twist a pen, the pen nib will extend or retract. The twist doesn’t relate exactly to the in-line movement of the pen nib, but we’ve seen this so many times, we expect it.

Another example is the water faucet. The handle on the left usually controls hot water. The handle on the right gets you cold water. If you reverse this, the controls won’t match users’ expectations. You’ll end up with poor mapping — and a cold shower when you want a hot one.

Designers can map controls with colors and visual language, too. For instance, hot water controls are usually red, and cold water controls are typically blue. In the same way, we assume red means stop or signals some kind of important alert. Green generally indicates things are good to go.

Shapes and icons are another type of learned mapping. You’ve probably used the on/off icon on several different products. No matter where it is, the icon has a clear meaning because we’ve seen it so many times and learned what it does.

Consider How Controls Vary Between Countries

This is all complicated by the reality that conventions change depending on culture and circumstance. In England and Australia, people flip a light switch down to turn it on.

This can make mapping tricky when you’re designing for global audiences. In most cases, designers should either find universal controls — like the on/off icon — or invent new and intuitive gestures that transcend cultural norms.

Of course, expectations are always evolving. As more products are marketed globally, some design differences are disappearing. For instance, European appliances are sold in America and Asia (and vice versa), often with the same controls. And while phones used to vary in appearance from country to country, today there are only a handful of major smartphone manufacturers. For the most part, their designs don’t vary across borders.

Keep Controls Safe and Simple

When possible, it’s best to avoid using a single control for multiple effects. This is becoming increasingly challenging as physical-digital devices attempt to ditch as many buttons as possible. When Samsung released its Galaxy Buds, each wireless earbud had a touchpad. With a quick tap, a long press, or a double click, users could control different features. But reviews quickly proved that users found the controls troublesome and frustrating.

When we designed the Alcon cataract surgery scalpel, we realized surgeons needed to be able to remove the blade guard while keeping their eyes focused on the view through a binocular microscope. We chose a simple sliding control mechanism that is so intuitive, users don’t even need to see it. The control has one function and keeps both doctors and patients safe.

Good Mapping Leads To Brand Loyalty

Mapping is all about making products easier and more intuitive to use. When it’s done well, it can create a powerful connection between a product and its users. And it can be the difference between users buying or recommending one product over another.

Can you think of examples of good control mapping? How about poor design mapping? Think about this as you use the products in your daily life. Which products do you like best and what controls do they have? If you’re a designer, how can mapping inform your products? Remember to keep your controls simple and straightforward. Good mapping should always be your goal.

Learn about more product design principles when you download our free eBook, Design Defined, vol 1.