Pictured below is a screenshot from an iPhone. It’s of one of the least-used features of what is, nominally, a phone — the phone’s keypad. Ignoring the fact that the owner has an unlistened-to voicemail, there’s nothing out of the ordinary about it.
Now, let’s take a look at another screenshot of another feature from the exact same iPhone — the calculator. Again, nothing out of the ordinary.
But compare the two and something’s amiss. The telephone keypad has the numbers in order from top to bottom, at least for one through nine. (Let’s not worry about zero and let’s totally ignore the asterisks and pound sign; those are a story for another day.) The calculator? It has the numbers flowing in the opposite direction, starting at the bottom and working their way up.
Why can’t our electronics be consistent?
What we know for sure is that the calculator keypad layout came first. Bell Labs developed the phone keypad for their new innovation, the touchtone phone, in the mid-1950s. Mechanical calculators at the time had already adopted a keypad layout similar to the one seen in the calculator screenshot above. But those calculators were rare — most households didn’t have one. As consumers weren’t already familiar with that layout, Bell decided to start from scratch. A team focused on usability tested many different designs and published their findings, here. Like the calculator, a layout of three columns of four rows was the most comfortable. But unlike the calculator, having the numbers run from low to high, zero notwithstanding, was the way to go.
And this differed from the direction that the adding machines employed. Why did the calculator world go high to low?
Some speculate that the research team at Bell Labs was similarly puzzled, if not concerned — the fact that an entire industry (and a scientific one at that) had gone in the opposite direction called Bell’s research into question. So they polled the various makers of such devices, asking what research they relied on in deciding their calculators’ layouts. And, as ABC News reports, they found out that these companies did no research on the question — the layout was arbitrary, and then everyone in the calculator biz just followed everyone else.
From the Archives: Let’s mix it up with a quiz: What country is being dialed? (Keypad image provided.)