I recently watched the mother of all demos from 1968 which did an excellent job of showing how computers can be personal.

Something that stood out to me was the mouse. This device has remained pretty much the same since 1968. The inventors couldn't even remember who first called it a mouse and they said they had created about 5 different devices to help a user point at things on the screen but everyone in the lab preferred the mouse.

About 12 years ago I had the opportunity to watch an adult try and use a mouse for the first time. It looked incredibly awkward and frustrating.

What is it about the mouse that makes it a good user experience? If you disagree that the mouse provides a good user experience then why do people seem to prefer it over other pointing devices?

One final question, what would it take to make a computer mouse obsolete?

(I don't recall ever seeing a mouse used in Star Trek or Star Wars)

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    While at University we took several days to talk about why the mouse actually rated low on a scale of usability. I'm trying to locate a paper or two that actually discusses this (over my "a professor once told me" story). Another personal experience is watching adults who never used a mouse before, while teaching an intro Computer Science class -- "good UX" would not be how I would describe some of their experiences. I should have taken video! :) – Evil Closet Monkey Jan 13 '15 at 20:46
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    As for obsolescence - we starting to see the answer around us: touch interfaces and voice recognition (both of which are very common in Star Trek). – HorusKol Jan 14 '15 at 5:11
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    "I don't recall ever seeing a mouse used in Star Trek" - I do: In Star Trek IV, Scotty, after being told to "use the mouse" to control the computer from the 1980s, picks up that little device and confidently starts speaking his commands for the machine into it... - Yet, voice control, though technically feasible, is not really used today either. – JimmyB Jan 14 '15 at 10:57
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    "I don't recall ever seeing a mouse used in Star Trek or Star Wars" - of course, I don't recall ever seeing someone actually work using the interfaces shown on those shows, rather than just actors pressing a few random button-lookalikes for a few minutes (where issues such as arm fatigue do not come into play). – O. R. Mapper Jan 14 '15 at 14:02
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    To be fair, I've never seen anyone go to the bathroom on Star Trek either. – DaveAlger Jan 14 '15 at 16:57

12 Answers 12

up vote 124 down vote accepted
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Positive aspects of the mouse user experience:

  • The mouse position on the mouse pad is highly analogous to the position of the cursor on the screen. Two-dimensional movement of the mouse on its resting surface translates into two-dimensional movement of the cursor on the screen.
  • The user can take hold of the mouse and can release the mouse without affecting the position of the cursor. Beginning to use the mouse does not reset the position of the cursor (unlike touch screens). Slight movements of the cursor can thus be effected by slight movements of the mouse.
  • Rapid movements of the cursor can be accomplished with precision (unlike a joystick). Once a user is comfortable with the mouse, moving to a specific point in two dimensions becomes very quick. Take note of the quick and accurate input employed in first-person shooters.
  • There is nothing to hold up, so the hand can be at rest when using the mouse (unlike a pen). In addition, the cursor can be moved across the screen a great distance without needing to move one's hand very far (and the movement/acceleration rates can be configurable).
  • The mouse is separate from the screen, so using it does not obscure the display apart from the pixels of the cursor, which are arguably part of the display rather than part of the input (cursors are also used when editing text on a touchscreen, for example).
  • The pressure exerted to click a mouse button is perpendicular to both axes of movement which minimizes unintentional input (trackballs are even better at this, but pressing a button on something like a Wii remote is difficult to do without also causing the cursor to move).
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    Of course, mouse acceleration does its best to frustrate our brains' attempts to understand the correlation between the mouse position and cursor position. – Almo Jan 14 '15 at 0:14
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    @Almo: Some mouse drivers work better than others; someone who uses a decent mouse/driver can generally point to an arbitrary spot pretty quickly with only one or two motions. – supercat Jan 14 '15 at 0:34
  • The first and second bullets are true, but really are more applicable to the limitations of the screens at the time rather than the input device itself. – DA01 Jan 14 '15 at 5:25
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    Excellent answer, but arguably one of the most important features of the mouse is not on your list. You can move, select (via button press) and scroll/zoom (with the mouse scroll wheel) all at the same time with precision and ease and it isn't awkward at all. This is SUPER important in games but applies in other uses also. – Dunk Jan 14 '15 at 16:10
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    @DA01 I was focused on this question: "What is it about the mouse that makes it a good user experience?" That strikes me as the crux of the question. – Dane Jan 15 '15 at 22:12

It was more scientific than one might think. At its inception the mouse was found to provide better speed-accuracy than light pens or joysticks. This is why the mouse was chosen for use in the original direct-manipulations user interfaces. The mouse’s superiority has since been replicated with other input devices, such as styli and trackballs, justifying it’s continued use today. These findings were documented at a time when the mouse was alien to most users, so the mouse’s superiority cannot be attributed to it being ubiquitous and thus very familiar. There is just something neurological and biomechanical about it that makes it better.

Direct touch is the only thing shown to have better speed-accuracy than a mouse. However, direct touch has notable disadvantages:

  • It requires larger targets so you cannot fit as much interactive information on a screen.

  • It can mean the hand occluding the screen.

  • It requires more motion to select things distributed around the screen, which can be tiring. A mouse, in contrast, has gain (I only have to move my mouse 3.5 inches to slew the 25.25" breadth the my desktop monitor, yet I can still highlight the letter "i" in this answer).

  • The display position must compromise between easy viewing and easy touching. With a mouse I can keep eyes up and my hands down for greater comfort, rather than hold my hands in the air, or bend my spine down.

  • You can’t incorporate physical buttons or other controls that provide flexible input and tactile feedback.

  • One word: fingerprints.

Touchscreens are also more intuitive than mice, which is why we first saw them in kiosks. The non-intuitiveness of the mouse was clear to me as well from watching an adult first try a mouse in the early 1990s. As another datapoint, no one has made a successful cat game with a mouse interface, ironically. However, “non-intuitive” in this context means “non-familiar,“ so it’s less of an issue today since mice are so ubiquitous. A mouse is intuitive in the sense that once you learn it, it's easy and never forgotten. Touch remains a serious competitor for the mouse. However, for most uses, a mouse is better, if (a big if) you have flat stable surface to put the mouse.

Unless someone comes up with something completely new, the mouse is unlikely to be replaced for the kind of tasks it’s currently used for. What would be complete new? What could make a direct manipulation UI easier? If anyone knew that, it would be here already. Maybe something like a glove with force-feedback?

Don’t look at science-fiction shows for the future (except for maybe what not to do). SciFi shows hate mice because there is too little motion (the gain again), and therefore too little drama. They want the actor to make big motions. And they like speech so there is dialog.

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    Here's something new: a touchscreen that can dynamically form physical buttons on its surface. (tactustechnology.com) I suppose it's not something completely new as it combines old-style tactile buttons with the flexibility of a touchscreen interface. Still pretty cool tho IMO – IT Bear Jan 14 '15 at 23:58
  • The direct touch disadvantages can almost all be seen as advantages. It all depends on context. – DA01 Jan 15 '15 at 21:15
  • @ITBear I had ideas like what you've linked for a long time now. I've never been a hardware person, so I didn't try to patent/invent such a thing, but I always figured technology would get there some day. – phyrfox Jan 17 '15 at 0:28
  • @DA01 - getting tired/back pain can be seen as advantage? :D – Davor Jan 17 '15 at 13:30
  • @Davor ha, no, but that's not really an issue today anymore. – DA01 Jan 17 '15 at 17:15

The light pen, if you think about it, is merely a stylus. And that has remained a popular method of input--just in slightly different form factors:

  • light pen
  • stylus on input tablets (such as wacom's products)
  • stylus on pressure screens (Palm Pilots, Newtons, etc.)
  • today's touch capacitance styli for most touch screens
  • your finger

So, I wouldn't say the mouse 'beat' it. It's certainly the primary input method on most systems, but the concept of the light pen is still around.

As for why the original light pen didn't thrive, my guess is ergonomics and resolution. Screens back then were heavy, low-resolution CRTs and using a light pen was always awkward. It was like working on a white board all day. Not ideal for the arm, back or neck. :)

As for why the light pen is not the primary input device, well, it is--at least becoming increasingly so as we use touch screens. It's your finger. Your finger is now what the light pen was a half-century ago--a way to interact directly with the screen.

Prior to today, however, most users needed to interact with what was shown on screen--but not the screen itself. Mice were more ergonomic and cheaper for that task, hence we all have mice now.

UPDATE:

jpmc26's comment got me thinking of a way to sum it up. Perhaps one way to put it is that direct input (ala a stylus) has always been the preferred means to interact with elements on the screen, however it was never all that practical until said screens have become adjustable and portable. The mouse was a 'temporary' compromise until we figured out how to shrink our displays.

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    The stylus (and touchscreen) is a reasonable solution only for short term (<3 m) use on a vertical screen or longer term use on a horizontal screen. – Clay Nichols Jan 13 '15 at 23:21
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    Always remember the gorilla! – Jörg W Mittag Jan 13 '15 at 23:34
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    Essentially, what you're saying is that the stylus becomes a viable input method when you can easily adjust the position of the screen/input pad. – jpmc26 Jan 14 '15 at 5:09
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    Your finger is an absolutely dreadful form of input, but there probably isn't a more convenient way to provide input on a mobile device. So that's why it has sustained. My finger tips are always sore because of the "finger" input device method. Unfortunately, a stylus is just another object to lose so it isn't a viable alternative. – Dunk Jan 14 '15 at 16:20
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    Finger and stylus are not the same. While holding a stylus, you can move it freely within your hand. But your finger only moves as much as your joints allow it. Try writing using your finger as a pen for too long. At least I get tired of it quickly. – Arturo Torres Sánchez Jan 15 '15 at 14:49

Everything is hard when you use it the first time. It's hard to use a bicycle if you haven't tried it before, hard to ski if it's the first time, as well as find the pedals gas, break and gear in any vehicle for the first time.

Still, we use the pedals in the car, and the mouse as pointing device. Probably, and without any scientific proof, because this was the way it was first developed. Douglas Engelbart did something no one ever thought about more than 50 years ago which was truly amazing.

Second, there are no real competition of the mouse. Yes, Apple has tried and come very close on there computers with its touch pads. The same with touch controls. But neither of these come close to the accuracy you can have with a mouse. Even on Mac computers, designers and illustrators use a mouse to point to that very specific pixel you need to change. This can't be done (today) on a touch pad or touch screen (unless you zoom in to the extreme, and lose context).

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    Well you can move the cursor via touchpad pixel-by-pixel, but it's awfully slow. – Ruslan Jan 14 '15 at 6:11
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    Also, letting go of the touchpad without nudging the cursor at all is an extremely basic yet challenging task. – l0b0 Jan 14 '15 at 8:10
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    Great answer. Time and time again I see this website questioning somethings lack of intuitiveness and completely forgetting its long term efficiency benefits. Things don't have to be immediately obvious to be better. – Wander Jan 14 '15 at 9:57
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    I disagree that there's no real competition. Very few macbook users that I see bother with mice anymore. The multi-touch touch pad is incredibly robust. I have no problems with pixel precision when illustrating via the touch pad. – DA01 Jan 14 '15 at 16:24
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    The only tools I have found that may be better or offer more precision are VERY job-specific and expensive. For example, in 2D graphics editing I know of graphic design "tablets" that can be as simple as touchpad + pen-stylus that translates control to your monitor, to an actual touchscreen monitor + stylus (goo.gl/MPb0Nk - scroll down for better examples). Then, there's 3D controllers that can be pushed-pulled, tilted & twisted for navigating 3D environments one-handed (3dconnexion.com). Invaluable if you do that work all day, but overkill for the rest of us. – IT Bear Jan 14 '15 at 18:10

What is it about the mouse that makes it a good user experience?

A mouse is very precise. It is controlled near a keyboard, which allows for quick switching from pointer control to typing, and it utilizes your wrist and arm allowing your fingers of your hand to be free for extra controls.

A mouse gives the user options that other controls don't have. You can use as far as your arm can reach to move the mouse, which allows you to have more inches per pixel than a track pad (Say a track pad is 4 inches across, either more 'resets' of picking up your finger are required compared to a mouse OR each cm needs to move the pointer more pixels making it more difficult to be precise.) Your free fingers also give you access to more buttons than any other device except a joystick, which has issues with precise movements since the cursor doesn't stop until you reset the stick back to neutral.

While a track pad does allow for multi-finger controls, such as two finger drag to scroll the screen, or squeeze/widen to zoom out/in, the mouse can do these as well through the scroll wheel (sometimes requiring a modifier button to be held).

A stylus, such as your finger, is great in that you don't need a flat surface and it is always near you. Further it is easy to learn since it tends to be intuitive at the basic level. However it falls apart as you desire to do more complicated controls. Say you want to hover the mouse over an image to see it's title, for a mouse you just move the pointer, but for a touch screen you need to somehow indicate that you are moving the pointer but NOT clicking or dragging anything. Not being able to easily separate moving the cursor and clicking the cursor makes precision with a stylus to be worse than with a mouse. Some websites/browsers get around this by creating a zoomed in sub window when you click a link near other links so you can make a good selection but it is still an extra step not needed by mice. Further, the stylus method has the built in issue of you obscuring what you are clicking. You typically are looking at what you want to click on, but the act of clicking on it obscures your vision of what you are doing!

Finally there is the trackball, which I find is closest to 'replacing' the mouse. The main difference is that it suffers similar to the track pad in distance per pixel. Depending on the size of the ball, you can only move your thumb so far before you need to pick it up to get more room. At that point you either stop the ball rolling (so movement is choppy) or 'push' it which gives different results depending on the friction of the ball (variable even between the same device on different days depending on how clean your finger is.)

One final question, what would it take to make a computer mouse obsolete?

The only thing that will make a computer mouse 'obsolete' would be direct brain to computer interfaces that are portable and universal.

Until then, stylus's will always have the issue of obscuring what you are looking at. Trackpads will always have a smaller size to screen size ratio than possible arm length to screen size ratio. Joy sticks will always require returning to 'neutral'.

However, if you are performing actions that can be done with only the mouse movement, scroll wheel and left click (browsing the web) on a device that is small enough to be portable then the stylus is perfect and is better than the mouse. You no longer require a flat surface, the complex actions are not being used, 'obscuring' your vision typically only happens when you are changing screens anyway, you always have a stylus with you etc.

If you are performing more complex actions and require frequent typing, or if the screen is not portable or close enough to touch (connected to a projector possibly) but you also don't have a large flat surface for the mouse then a track ball might be best. If you don't want to carry a track ball or learn to get used to them, most laptops have built in track pads that would be the best option.

Currently, there are many ways to control a cursor on a screen. Every one of them has their own advantages or disadvantages in certain circumstances. Even with direct brain to computer interfaces, I could definitely see people not wanting to hook their brain up to a public computer and risk getting a brain virus or something. In which case any current device would be superior since they don't include getting your brain corrupted.

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    It's probably too late for me to worry about protecting my brain from corruption. -- :) – DaveAlger Jan 14 '15 at 20:34
  • Actually, using a stylus doesn't have to obscure your view of the screen more than marginally, and it certainly doesn't need to obscure the area of the screen you are manipulating. My experience in this regard with several Palm models was pretty good, for example. Of course, the Palm, its OS, user interface guidelines and its standard stylus were all designed from the ground up to facilitate using the stylus. – α CVn Jan 18 '15 at 22:06
  • I've never used the palm so I can't comment on that. Obscuring the screen is my biggest complaint about trying to select a reddit link on my wife's surface or my phone, or manipulating the 'right click' context menu in GIMP on her surface. Since I'm not that acclimated to GIMP, every time I would 'right click' I would need to move my hand away to see what options were available, then back to select one. – David Jacobsen Jan 20 '15 at 13:47

Precision with minimum effort is one of the main reason why mouse is so successful. There are other reasons, of course. For instance, mouse become more influenced when personal computers were arising. It was the solution but why?

At that time, personal computers were placed in office and business environments. They were on a table and there are plenty of space for expanding units. These devices are designed in office environments.

Mouse suits with;

  1. Human body elements- palm(can have four degree of freedom,shoulder,elbow,wrist,finger-click)
  2. Environment, context of office. It works on a planar surface(table surface)
  3. Sitting posture - main posture of office worker - Between laying down and stand-up position.
  4. Less complex - technological development, carrying a (x,y) signal with a cable was easier than creating a grid.

A good design solution shall be always connected within its environmental context, the real user and his needs.

Todays computer definition is a bit different and mouse slowly integrated with another forms, especially after touchscreen boom. Currently, there is a new product for computers http://eu.swiftpoint.com/, which takes the advantage of mouse and uses the touch action movements.

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Mouse types are not the same. A mouse is pointer but you may need different pointers in different environment and context. A gaming mouse can be preferred while gaming, a cad mouse will work better when designing 3d model, and a small laptop mouse will be the best choice if you have a small bag. Mouse(tools) can have other intentions in itself for creating a better experience.

I think that mouse is going to be evolve into something upcoming decade. Small form devices are going to be accepted by people because pc is no longer staying on a desktop but moves with people.

My use of a pointing tool is almost entirely for manipulating GUI objects while using a device for reading and writing, rather than for gaming or drawing. I have tried all the common pointing tools, and for me, as well as for several other people I know, none are as good as the mouse.

My guess as to why is that one's arms and hands are extensively wired with neurons for sensing and reporting their position, and we have been practicing since birth to use this feedback to move and position our hands with precision, and without having to look.

Trackballs and joysticks do not make use of that feedback, and the 'pencil eraser' (trackpoint) that IBM put on its laptops translates force to velocity, which is not an analog of any action we perform frequently in real life.

Touchscreens do use that feedback, but they have other difficulties for me:

  1. The gestures have to be overloaded to capture clicks, and I keep triggering inadvertent responses.

  2. Your hand obscures the very thing you are working on (a hint to designers: touch menus and the like should go up.)

  3. I find it easier to make precision movements on a firm horizontal surface than on a near-vertical screen at reading height and distance. This does not, of course, apply when using a tablet.

Styli avoid point 2, and for purely pointing on a tablet, I find them very easy to use. Furthermore, they are, by far, the best for drawing, though I would like them to have the same friction feel as a pen or pencil. They also are, like mice, physical objects, and I think I am more in tune with manipulating physical objects than abstractions.

I have used touchpads up to the size of those for Macs, but they are all too small to map a position on the pad to a position on the screen and so don't take advantage of one's sense of hand position; in fact, they work like trackballs. Touchpads with buttons avoid the gesture-overload problem, but unlike mice, those buttons are not at your fingertips.

Because mice are subtle. It was the easiest transition in a world of keyboard-only computers.

You can poke the occasional key with one hand while using the mouse with the other hand. You don't have to sit closer to the screen. The mouse just sits there innocently to the side of the keyboard.

You can also be essentially asleep and operate a mouse. The interaction isn't nearly as physical as a light pen or even a keyboard.

I recently broke my forearm very badly and hurt my wrist, and it was still pretty easy for me to do my job (developer) by turning the sensitivity all the way up and using just my fingertips.

Although most of the other answers probably have some degree of truth to them,I don't think anybody mentioned that it may have to do with the mapping of the movements of a mouse to the movements of the pointer arrow.

With a mouse, you have span a whole 24 inches screen of space with just a small, 4x4 inches mousepad. This greatly saves effort on the part of the user.

With pens this is more difficult and, in a touch screen, you would have to move your hands and arms 1 meter if you want to access a point in the screen that's 1 meter apart form you. This doesn't scale well at all.

I would say three things:

  1. Price - mouse was relatively simple to put together, connect it to a computer and after that it was very easy to mass produce. It was, after all, mostly mechanical design.
  2. Ease of use and precision. First time users required very little tutoring, as the using it was very intuitive. Non-OS functionality offered high precision and speed.
  3. Introduction of mouse to GUI eliminated need to remember any keyboard commands. You still had the advantage if using keyboard, but you didn't have to.

As there were (and are, obviously) better solutions than mouse (I'm partial to trackballs, however not for FPPs), it still won. Not always best solution wins, more often than not price is most important. Back then computers were expensive and anything that helped sell them to Average Joe was worth weight in gold.

As for the last question.

My personal bet is voice interface. Nothing else cuts down on time and cost. However that basically requires, for best performance and experience, an AI. No voice recognition software comes even close to desired functionality (which is adapting to user, not other way around).

  • You make several unsubstantiated assumptions here. 1) Price- Were they cheap to put together? Were they in fact sold cheaply even if they were cheap? 2) Ease of use- as OP says in his question he has witnessed people struggling with a mouse, so what makes you say that first-time users need little tutoring? Moving a bar-of-soap sized block of plastic that is tethered to a PC in order to move a tiny arrow on the screen isn't that instinctive. And thirdly- I disagree that voice interface will replace mouse. An office of people talking to their PC? And how would you use voice to draw pictures? – JonW Jan 20 '15 at 15:24
  • Price: yes, they were cheap. Again: very simple, MECHANICAL design. I'm not saying they were priced at $5/pc, but compared to other input methods it was most cost effective/ergonomic. Only design - basically - operated 100% one hand (yes, I know of joysticks, paddles etc., but early versions often required both hands. 2. Ease of use: stand by mine experience. I also have seen awkward users, but after PROPER INSTRUCTION on PROPER USE they got it. 3. "Bar of soap block of plastic" was not mouse - it was used to read position of cursor. Basically reversed utility compared to mouse – AcePL Jan 20 '15 at 15:47
  • Mice might have been cheap to build, but they weren't shipped stand-alone. Early versions of the mouse came bundled with whole PCs. And those machines were expensive. So you had to spend a lot of money to be able to use one. – JonW Jan 20 '15 at 15:53
  • Mouse, and basically all pointing devices were at first very specialized hardware, as were PCs.. Remember, history of pc picks up tempo not in 1968 but much later. That's why I mentioned 3. - it went along with GUI OS like lumber mill and fire. Sort of agree on drawing with voice being "awkward". here would be, I envision, a mix of touch and voice. But again: that's why mention of AI. Using voice in office is not difficult (all around me people use Voice Reco Software and it works), especially with modern tech (noise cancel, directional mike etc.) – AcePL Jan 20 '15 at 15:53
  • Well, mouse WITHOUT PC is kinda... weird? Of course they came bundled... Imagine, however, price tag with anything else at the same time offering same or better ergonomy. And IBM PCs and Apple II came WITHOUT mouse... IIRC. So again: mouse's popularity came late, late... – AcePL Jan 20 '15 at 15:54

Something no-one else has mentioned is the fact that mice are cheap and simple. Money is always a major driver.

The question is not "why is the mouse better", it's "why did the mouse beat its various competitors".

Add "cheap and simple" to the functional merits already thoroughly examined and you have an unbeatable combination.

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    Is that the reason it is popular though? Were mice especially cheap to make back when they were first invented? Just because they are cheap now that doesn't mean that has always been the case. – JonW Jan 20 '15 at 13:20
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    Compared to the other options, yes. It's easier to get a crude mouse to work fairly well than to get a crude light pen to work well. – Peter Wone Jan 20 '15 at 21:08

I somehow do not like the learning that a user has to do before using the mouse. Understanding the movement and the impact on the screen.

For me best pointing device would be my fingers. The movement comes naturally, and there is not learning curve for it.

In 1968, computers were not as natural as they are today. I believe its high time, touch screen should become the primary pointing device.

  • Can you really see people in a offices with their right arm outstretched touching and sweeping their fingers over the screen all day? That would just be exhausting and incredibly impractical. Not to mention the fact that by doing that it means your arm is blocking loads of stuff on screen so you can't see everything, unlike a mouse cursor which only blocks out a few pixels. – JonW Jan 20 '15 at 10:59
  • Agreed with the perspective. But, I would still wanna give it a try. Prior to creation of mouse, people didn't expect something like mouse to be part of the personal computer. I understand that a lot of information may be hidden by the hands. But the interface would evolve. They always have. – warcops Jan 20 '15 at 11:37

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