Retractable pens typically have a rather noisy mechanism. Some users periodically start pressing the pen button frequently (while they're talking on the phone or while they're waiting for some result on their computer - in other words when they are holding the pen but not writing for whatever reason) and this can be rather annoying to the people nearby. They are not doing it for any purpose - it's just a repeated motion being done with the pen.

I've heard claims that some pens are "virtually silent" but I've never seen such myself and I'd take any such claim very suspiciously - "virtually" can mean virtually any level of noise.

Assuming making a retractable pen noiseless is impossible and assuming we need the pen to be retractable (because that's convenient - you cannot lose a cap) how can the pen design be enhanced to discourage users from mechanically clicking it for no reason?

  • 12
    Just wondering wouldn't a screw un-screw mechanism make the pen retractable and virtually silent? – Okavango Feb 16 '15 at 14:05
  • 28
    Removing the clicking noise would reduce the therapeutic effect of clicking the pen repeatedly though wouldn't it? – JMK Feb 16 '15 at 14:37
  • 9
    Make the clicker pointy so it hurts when it's pressed. Not sure how many pens you'd sell though.. – SBoss Feb 16 '15 at 15:00
  • 45
    stop people clicking their pens and they just start tapping them on the desk – the other one Feb 16 '15 at 15:19
  • 40
    Just in case this ever gets implemented and spread widely I ordered 5000 pens with a nice audible click for backup. – PlasmaHH Feb 16 '15 at 16:05

I think the first thing to do is to break down your premise that they are doing it "for no reason."

You are correct that clicking the pen does not engage the pen in its role as a writing implement. But if so many people are doing it (this writer included) it must serve some purpose to them.

The Wikipedia article you link to includes a list of causes of what it describes as "habitual pen-clicking" (sic), ranging from boredom and idle thinking to harassement to autistic self-stimulation.

Looking at these causes, I would suggest that the two best strategies to avoid pen clicking is: 1) remove the feedback from the clicking mechanism, and 2) where possible provide a more tempting (but less annoying feature).

  1. The clicking sound, while the most annoying part for other parties, is only part of the feedback mechanism when retracting your pen. There's the sensation of pushing in the button, and a small physical kick that is felt in the pen button and throughout the pen when the retracting spring is called into action. I'm not an engineer, but supposing you couldn't suppress the sound I would focus on somehow suppressing the sensations.

This, however, comes at a cost. The feedback also serves a benign purpose of telling the user his action has taken hold without actually looking at the pen to see if the ball point is in or out.

  1. To enable a user to displace his need for fidgeting, you could offer a silent little mechanism. Imagine, for instance, a ring around the top of the pen (just below the "clicker") that you can slide around silently without any other repercussion.

Anecdotally, I know myself to be a "fidgeter" someone who plays with his hands while working or listening. When I married I purposely got a textured ring so that it could be something for me to displace my energy and fidget with.

  • 26
    yup, the OP is trying to solve the wrong problem – JamesRyan Feb 16 '15 at 14:20
  • 10
    If you succeed it will be a great invention - and an invention I'll never use. I simply pick pens that I like to hold, write AND fiddle with :) – Henrik Ekblom Feb 16 '15 at 14:39
  • 1
    "if so many people are doing it (this writer included) it must serve some purpose to them." -- although perhaps only in the same sense that fingernail-biting, alcoholism, and failing to find the right control in a bad UI, "serve some purpose" to the many people who do them ;-) – Steve Jessop Feb 17 '15 at 8:14
  • 1
    @SteveJessop Interesting analogies. The first two are user behaviours that design choices can try to compensate for or displace, the third I think is a design choice that the user is trying to compensate for. Nail-biting is a particular challenge because we can't design the user's mouth, teeth or fingernails, so it more about introducing something new than adapting an existing design. – Tim FitzGerald Feb 17 '15 at 13:55
  • 1
    @TimFitzGerald: I'm trying to highlight that in disagreeing with what the questioner says, "done for no reason", you've said that anything many people do must be "for some purpose". But the reasons people fidget despite that they know for a fact their habit makes others less productive because it's so irritating, is not necessarily a "purpose" so much as a "compulsion" (and the need to stop people doing it can be compulsive too). Your example of autistic self-stimulation is strong though, since it points to the possibility there's a genuine conflict of interest rather than just a bad habit. – Steve Jessop Feb 17 '15 at 14:38

I have seen pens where the user must press the top to reveal the nib but to retract it again they must release a latch on the side. This certainly makes the process of habitual clicking slower.

My solution would be to rethink the model entirely - I have used pens in the past that operate on a twist mechanism which is entirely silent but still offers a retractable nib. Although, this also requires a two-handed operation instead of the one-handed operation offered by the standard (widely accepted) model.

With micro motors and actuators there may even be a way to motorise the extension and retraction of the nib but this would likely use a lot of room the could be taken for ink and would undoubtedly result is an extremely expensive pen that didn't write for very long before running out of ink or batteries or both.

Maybe there could be a small valve that controls the flow of ink rather than moving the nib...

However, the greatest selling point of having a pen with a retractable nib is convenience. If you make it as difficult as possible for users to click their pen out of habit then you also make your pen as difficult to use as possible for all users.

  • 5
    I can do the twist one handed, and I do so all the time. I actually find the twist pen more fun than a click pen (I am one of those people who likes to click pens a lot) because of the feeling of twisting it one handed. – Justin Feb 16 '15 at 16:13
  • I also extremely enjoy the push-down, side-click type pens. – Wayne Werner Feb 17 '15 at 17:49

1. Keep what works and has stood the test of time

The current mechanism for extending and retracting a pen is super easy to use. It's so easy, in fact, that some people extend and retract their pen repeatedly without even thinking about it. Most people don't do this. We shouldn't alter a familiar thing in order to prevent a certain behavior by just a few. If a person wanted to stop they could always buy a pen that quietly twists open and close but this requires 2 hands to operate and isn't as simple. Remember that what is annoying to you could be therapeutic to them.

2. Improving the parts that could be better

It's possible to make the existing clicking mechanism a little quieter. It isn't possible to prevent rapid clickers from buying the cheapest loudest retractable pen on the market and clicking all day (if that's what soothes their soul).

3. Focus on the experience you can control

I really don't think that pen clickers are trying to annoy others on purpose. Politely let the clicker know that your concentration is suffering and they will usually stop at least for a while. You could also give a nice pen that quietly twists open and closed as a gift to all your clicker friends.

Headphones or earmuffs may be the universal UX solution to this problem that doesn't require any interaction with another person.

☻ ☺ ☻ ☺ ☻

  • " It isn't possible, unfortunately, to prevent rapid clickers from buying the cheapest loudest retractable pens on the market", well, if "the company pen" is silent but some of your colleagues deliberately go out to purchase something louder instead, then it's a lot easier to make the case that their choices are callously anti-social. Which might be the goal here. So perhaps you can "prevent" them doing that in the same sense they're prevented from bringing their drumkit to work. – Steve Jessop Feb 17 '15 at 8:17
  • 1
    I'll just bring my IBM model M ;) – Wayne Werner Feb 17 '15 at 17:51

There's more than one type of mechanism for retractable pens. As others have said, besides the click-open, click-closed mechanism, there are ones with an end button to open and a side button to close.

I have seen some pens (mainly high-end metal body, Parker I think) that are opened and closed by a screw mechanism: about 1/2 turn clockwise to open (shorten) and 1/2 turn to close (lengthen.)

With a bit more force you can unscrew them completely, which is important because you can buy ink refills (biro type complete with ball) to go inside these high end pen bodies.

Click-ability and its side-effects

The habit of clicking on a retractable pen is just a evidence that the design of the retractable pen was done with affordance in mind. However this has had some side-effects where users will hijack a specific affordance to satsify conscious or a subconscious needs which results in the habitual pen clicking behavior:

Solution: Removing the Click-ability

We understand function from form

So, to avoid habitual clicking you need to maintain the function (retractable nib) and modify the form (Click-ability) in which case a two-step screw mechanism (twist) preserves the function and removes the click-ability affordance while also eliminating noise.

enter image description here

  • +1, I was about to add this answer myself. These twist-type pens are silent and still quite fun to play with, for us habitual fiddlers :) – Jon Story Feb 17 '15 at 12:18
  • I Agree. unfortunately not OCD friendly :) – Okavango Feb 17 '15 at 13:11

Make the pen button very sharp so there is a cost in pain or discomfort in clicking the pen. While some people might still habitually click the button (especially once their thumb is safely wrapped in band-aids) at least there would be quiet while they were looking for the first aid kit.

Also, it would be convenient if your business consists of a lot of blood oaths in that there would be a ready source of ink.

  • 5
    Make the pen button very sharp and users will use the table to press the button. – A.L Feb 16 '15 at 17:16
  • Or have a hole in the button with a spike inside, and a carefully calibrated mechanism so that a gentle push is capable of clicking the pen without breaking the skin. – Chris H Feb 17 '15 at 16:48
  • Then we'll just defeat the mechanism either by taping a penny to our thumbs or growing our thumbnail out long. \o/ Victory – Wayne Werner Feb 17 '15 at 17:52

I would posit that the problem is annoyance to the other people around the person clicking the pen. Assuming that in all other regards the pen meets the purchaser's needs and wants, what about the pen isn't taking away from the quality of the experience? Based on the scenarios described by OP, the annoying clicking sound. Just like Mercedes Benz engineers the sound of it's door shutting, and Apple has a patent on it's boot-up tone, the best experience design includes engineering the sound the product makes. In this scenario, the only thing the pen needs is a more pleasing, less irritating click. Would anyone care if someone were manically clicking their retractable pen if it were a satisfying, quiet, almost organic pop, versus the usual high-pitched, irritating click?

protected by Community Feb 17 '15 at 5:22

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.