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Spin buttons have annoyed me for many years, and I wonder why it was chosen that they should work the way they do. I can only assume that someone decided that UP means increasing, and so pressing UP takes you from '1' to '2', etc. The problem is that this flies in the face of other UI controls. If I'm in a word processor, or spreadsheet and I want to get from page 1 to page 2 (or line 10 to 20), I press DOWN. So why do spin buttons work the opposite way?

I have a TV remote with an up and down button; if I'm in a menu (listing channels, for example), to get from 10 to 20 I have to press DOWN. If I'm watching channel 10, however, and I want to get to channel 20 I now have to press UP (similar to how a spin button would work).

Why does this inconsistency occur?

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    I'm not sure there's an actual question in here. It's more of a rant "{Thing} sucks, am I right?". What specifically do you need to know about such buttons? What problem are you trying to solve here?
    – JonW
    Jan 13 at 14:16
  • @JonW The question could probably be phrased a bit more neutrally, but I think there's a bit of reasoning behind the apparent reversal of "up" and "down" semantics that merits a response. Jan 13 at 14:23
  • @JonW The problem really is that you have to stop to think 'which way does the device want me to press the button now?', instead of being able to do it naturally. This inevitably leads to a couple of presses in the wrong direction before reversing your action to make it do what you want.
    – shakeshuck
    Jan 13 at 15:41

2 Answers 2

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Short answer: the meaning of "up" and "down" are affected by the context in which they appear.

Numerical context

"Up" is one expression of an increase, so when we "count up," we add to the value. For example, one "counts up" from 1 to 10.

A real-world example can be seen on a digital thermostat, where one would make it warmer by pressing an up-pointing arrow. Clicking through channels would also be a numerical context, as you are on channel 4 and would like to watch channel 12.

Linguistic context

When you discuss this in context of reading order, however, we start at page 1, and continue to page 2. If this is a vertical-scrolling document, page 2 will appear below. You see this same pattern...

  1. with
  2. numbered
  3. lists

...where increased numbers occur below.

If you're reading through the TV listings, then the ordered list above seems like a more natural ordering, because we commonly organize lists in this way.

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  • I see that it makes sense in your digital thermometer example, but to me it doesn't make sense when the same buttons on a device have opposite meanings at different times. You shouldn't have to think about an action such as this, it should be able to be done subconsciously.
    – shakeshuck
    Jan 13 at 15:35
  • Perhaps numerical devices should use left and right buttons to bring it more in line with the written page rather than the size of a value?
    – shakeshuck
    Jan 13 at 16:10
  • Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't you use different buttons when browsing the TV guide, instead of the channel selector? Usually there's a four-directional pad that is used for navigating modern TV interfaces. "Channel up" most directly maps to "up," on the +/- channel selector buttons. It wasn't until much later that TVs began including graphical interfaces of their own. At this point, "channel up = up" was already established. Physical TV guides had also already established that higher-numbered channels were ordered below lower-numbered channels (in the linguistic context)... Jan 13 at 17:06
  • ...so really, the interface on the TV that developed was that which was most natural, and mirrored the established real-world items they were modeling virtually. I don't know what solution you're proposing, but I don't believe it will change any time soon. Numerical sort order is naturally different between these two contexts. Jan 13 at 17:09
  • I'm going to speculate here (without much research!) and say that it might be the digital era that's caused the problem. If you imagine a mechanical counting device (I couldn't find one with a quick search with up and down buttons), then you'd be able to see the drum spinning and it would work the linguistic way, e.g. like an odometer. It's the virtual world that hasn't followed the physical.
    – shakeshuck
    Jan 13 at 17:24
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Spin buttons work the way the do because of the mental model conveyed by their design. In a spin button we operate on the value displayed in the button. "Up" means "higher". A higher value is, well, the higher value, and this is quite straightforward.

In other contexts it becomes more complicated because we don't operate on the value.

When we operate on a list/menu or on a document, the question of the meaning of "up" becomes open for debate. You mentioned that in a word processor you move down to get to the next page. This means that you either work on a PC or on a Mac with the scrolling direction changed to that of the PC convention. Because the default scrolling on a Mac is to move up if you want to move to the next page. And that is because on the PC the mental model is to move the "viewport", scrolling down the document which remains "fixed" in the background, but on a Mac the mental model is to move the document itself up through the fixed viewport.

On your TV remote, when you're operating directly on the channels, you are changing the value (channel number), so up=higher. When you're in a menu, you might be moving the menu around a fixed pointer (up=higher), or moving the cursor around a fixed menu (down=higher).

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