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I see a lot of people discuss the order of buttons (e.g., should OK be on the left and cancel on the right? or submit button on the left or right?) but something that I wonder:

Why do volume controls place the down button on the left and the up button on the right?

I'm mostly interested in the horizontal button placement, not the more popular vertical placement.

tv remote with left/right down/up

Where this becomes problematic for me, is in my car. I always press the opposite volume button than what I am expecting/wanting!

steering wheel volume controls

On my steering wheel, the top row is the volume control and the bottom row is for cycling through stations/CD tracks.

Every volume slider I have seen also has less volume on the left and more volume on the right.

youtube volume slider

Why not place the up-volume button on the left?

Is this just because someone made this design choice a long time ago and it stuck? Are horizontal controls actually bad and they should be vertical? Do our brains intuitively think left is down or decreasing?

My left thumb sure doesn't understand.

For the record, I am left-handed.

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Because 0 < 100. In the western world, we read left to right, and it would only make sense for our volume control to follow that same methodology. The same is true with vertical volume as well (we read up to down, left to right). – Jeremy Boyd Feb 26 '14 at 21:50
My question is, why would you put the up-volume button on the left? I can't think of a single situation (not just in volume, but in anything I can think of) where "more" is on the left, ans "less" is on the right. – JHixson Feb 26 '14 at 22:16
@JHixson Like I said, I often press the opposite button. Seems like a good reason to me! – Austin Henley Feb 26 '14 at 22:26
I found some research when answering a related question that is relevant here. – Charles Wesley Feb 26 '14 at 22:34
I fail to understand why it would make sense to put it the other way around. We read alphabetically, and I can't think of any other reason why it would be reversed. – Keavon Feb 27 '14 at 3:18

Every answer so far is way too far fetched in my opinion. The answer is in fact very simple.

enter image description here

In which direction do we turn the big wheel when we want to turn down the volume? And in which direction when we want to turn up the volume? Even when the UI does not have any indication such as on the great piece of hardware pictured above, nobody will have a problem telling which direction to turn.

It is a convention that turning a wheel to the left (i.e. counter clock wise) means LESS and to the right (i.e. clock wise) means MORE. Compare it with a screwdriver, a clock, a heating system,... Why this is? Have a read here. But it's not important since it is a fact anyway.

So if you are designing a remote control with pushbuttons for volume adjustment, it is more natural to put "less" to the left, and "more" to the right than the other way around.

This being said... It is more natural to put the "volume up" button above the "volume down" button like the great people from Cambridge Audio knew when they designed the remote for their machine.

(People from Pioneer, take notes, because your remote is awful).

enter image description here

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A number line is way too far fetched? I'm pretty sure number lines predate any sort of volume knob. – Code Maverick Feb 27 '14 at 14:47

My brain immediately processed it alphabetically with down coming before up.

After thinking about it though, it could simply be that it's number line based:

(Left) Down <---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---> Up (Right)
               -5  -4  -3  -2  -1   0   1   2   3   4   5
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That seems counterintuitive to me. Does my brain really process the first letter of the word when thinking about an action? – Austin Henley Feb 26 '14 at 21:52
I don't know about yours, but mine did. =D – Code Maverick Feb 26 '14 at 21:53
@AustinHenley If you really want to know the answer to that, I reccomend reading this When it comes to reading, you take in and parse whole words as a single unit, but you then stream each word one by one to be processed as a thought, with the thought string being cut off once you hit a closing punctuation. – JHixson Feb 26 '14 at 22:07
@CodeMaverick This doesn't answer my question, this is another example. The number line could just as easily be drawn so that right is decreasing. – Austin Henley Feb 26 '14 at 22:39
I wish I could up vote a comment chain. :) – Evil Closet Monkey Feb 27 '14 at 21:55

Good question! I'd say this is a two-fold answer.

First, as others mentioned, in the western world we read left to right, so the right-side is subconsciously greater than the left-side.

But where does this come from? The second part to this equation I believe comes from psychology of design. While studying design, I learned there is always a tendency for any layout to appear to push from left to right.

So if movement is left-to-right, then it can be interpreted that going forward is left-to-right, and going forward is a positive direction, so that equals "plus" or "increase".

Now since this pattern has become popular and ubiquitous, I can only imagine that it's further enforced by our brains. I imagine a volume-up direction from right-to-left just wouldn't look correct to me. It totally could be if it was the first one I've ever seen, yet my experience of what I've come to expect subconsciously would tell me that right-to-left would be wrong.

I'm wondering, might the OP - Austin - be left-handed? Does this design pattern affect your intuition with other controls as well, or just the steering wheel? If just the steering wheel, I'd guess its because your thumb needs to travel farther to get to that volume-up buttom. Perhaps a poor ergonomics choice on the car designers' part?

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Aha, I meant to point this out: I am left-handed and these controls are only accessible by my left hand. However, like many other lefties I have learned to operate most things using either both hands or my right hand (so I think it is just the steering wheel). – Austin Henley Feb 26 '14 at 22:21
Maybe the reason why you get it wrong on the steering wheel is because up is further away from the hand while down is closer. Pushing something away from you should intuitively have a decreasing effect. If the volume buttons had been controlled by the right hand the position of the buttons would probably make more sense. – Josef Engelfrost Feb 27 '14 at 23:00

One explanation could be:

  • We have been conditioned for right meaning 'go' or 'increase' case in point - accelerator and break pedals in a car with manual transmission or traffic lights. (below)

enter image description here enter image description here

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Horizontal traffic lights exist!? FWIW, the order of those lights actually irks me somewhat. I think it's because I don't parse them as: "Stopped, Slow, Moving" (states), but as "Stop, Slow Down, Go" (actions/changes of state); so it feels out of order ("You can't slow down AFTER you stop!") – Chris O'Kelly Feb 27 '14 at 3:00

We in the western world naturally perceive horizontal progression as being from left to right (left is less and right is more). Thus, a button that represents more of something is more commonly placed to the right of a button that represents less of something.

As mentioned, this conditioning comes from our written languages.

Austin, I think that part of your confusion comes from visualizing volume adjustment as being a vertical slider even when the buttons are horizontally aligned, and hence you tellingly refer to "Up" and "Down" buttons instead of "Increase" and "Decrease" buttons.

The fact that your car's "More" and "Less" buttons actually resemble up- or down-pointing arrows certainly don't help. The only thing that I can say is that Plus and Minus symbols are less ambiguous than arrows.

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The notion that I "naturally perceive" a left->right progression as less->more because I grew up in the western world, and because of the way I read seems suspicious at best. Do you have any studies looking at this supposed phenomenon? – Evil Closet Monkey Feb 27 '14 at 20:17
I don't have studies but I think it's self-evident. By "naturally perceive" I mean as a result of conditioning that's reinforced over years and years of reading (from early childhood for most people) and from visual cues in the physical and digital world (progress bars, sliders). I didn't meant that it's evolutionary inherent. – Tim Huynh Feb 27 '14 at 20:54
To pin any human behavior as "self-evident" is a dangerous proposition. – Evil Closet Monkey Feb 27 '14 at 21:03
@EvilClosetMonkey I know I've heard of at least one study showing a relationship between reading direction and seemingly unrelated perceptions and habits. Doing a Google Scholar search for 'reading direction' turns up a couple of these. (I have a professor who would be able to find better studies, if you want me to ask him.) – Tanner Swett Mar 22 '14 at 23:11

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