Controller Question

Over the years there have been a wide variety of home consoles each with their own (mostly) unique controller designs1. One thing that most consoles have in common is their use of beginning / ending alphanumeric characters. The most obvious exception is the various Playstation controller iterations which have made use of shapes instead of characters. To my knowledge the use of alphanumeric characters began with the Nintendo Entertainment System2.

I would imagine that in the early 80s a usability study was not done to determine if an A / B button label combination made the most sense. The continued use of beginning alphanumeric characters can therefore be explained by tradition or because someone did a usability study showing alphanumeric button labels cause the least cognitive friction.

Which brings me to my questions:

  • Has such a usability study been performed?
  • Does an analysis of the reasoning behind button labels exist?
  • Has the use of alphanumeric characters been explained outside of a usability study?

1 Looking at you Playstation 1
2 I could be wrong please comment if I am.

Controller Reference Images

Nintendo Entertainment System Controller Playstation 3 Controller Super Nintendo Controller Wii Controller

  • Removed a couple images as I don't think they really helped. What do you mean beginning/end alphanumeric characters, just the fact that they're labels? I initially thought this was something about whether labels occured before or after the button (which doesn't matter much for a controller honestly)
    – Zelda
    Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 13:36
  • @BenBrocka The labels themselves being beginning alphanumeric characters. I agree the placement on the controller matters very little.
    – ahsteele
    Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 14:56
  • I know of no studies, but I also can't think of any other way to handle it. The buttons need SOME sort of label, and since they are rather generic (any game could use any variation of the buttons) a simple alpha-numeric label seems to make the most sense in terms of being able to reference them in documentation.
    – DA01
    Commented Apr 10, 2012 at 17:48

2 Answers 2


I believe that the ultimate answer to your question is a simple "No formal studies have been done," but that's fairly boring.

After digging around a bit, the one explanation I came to a couple times was that Atari had a decent number of controllers (along with systems like ColecoVision, Intellivision, and Vectrex) where the buttons were simply numbered 1-N. Nintendo was trying to set themselves apart (especially because of the Crash of 83), but still needed a way to label their buttons, as thus used A and B. Purely anecdotal, but referenced a few scattered places.

From there, it's a case of copy and modify as Sega, SNK, Microsoft, etc. joined the party. (Side note: both the Sega Master System and TurboGrafx-16 used 1 and 2, but their development predates the complete dominance of Nintendo.)

Sony is the exception, and here is a nice interview with the designer where he talks about the design decisions behind many things, button labels included. Note that one of the reasons for the choices of different button labels is the same as the anecdotal one for Nintendo: to set themselves apart. Interestingly enough, it's resulted in some hassles because of the societal connotations of their symbols (O for select in Japan, X for select elsewhere).

As I said at the beginning, I don't believe there have been formal studies done into button labels, but there's definitely an interesting bit of history behind them.

  • David thank you for a very thorough and well reasoned answer!
    – ahsteele
    Commented Apr 19, 2012 at 15:14
  • I could never figure out what the equivalent of "B" on a Nintendo controller was on the PlayStation, because everything kept using different things (square or triangle or circle) for "return" / "cancel" / "no". This is the first time I've heard of "X" being "B" and circle being "A", albeit only in the Japanese market. And it makes so much sense now that I think about it (and I'm not even Japanese myself). There's the added bonus that the B and A are in the same position as on a Nintendo controller.
    – Joe Z.
    Commented Feb 13, 2013 at 14:51
  • "Sony is the exception, and here". The link is broken (404) Commented Nov 13, 2014 at 0:26
  • @rewobs - Updated the link. Unfortunately everything I've found goes back to the old 1up link for the original source, so it can only get traced back so far. Commented Nov 29, 2014 at 22:21

I think this is about giving users multiple ways to associate an on-screen command with a particular button. Looking at the Xbox or PS3 controllers, each of the main buttons have a distinct color and shape (letter or otherwise) associated with the button. I've been teaching friends to play a game and might reference the green button while they might say, "Oh, you mean 'A'" (Xbox). The more ways there are to help a user map an instruction to a button the better. "X" and "Y" may be more popular because of their tradition (SNES) and that "B" and "D" may be hard to differentiate at times.

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