The video game D-Pad didn't start out as a user experience watershed, but that's what it became. The D-Pad's creation was the solution to an engineering pain point.
The idea that you can invent something that nobody has used before and then for the users to embrace it because it feels more natural blows my mind. That’s exciting to me as a UX Designer. That’s exactly what happened with the video game D-Pad. In 1982 Gunpei Yokoi was working for Nintendo on a handheld Donkey Kong game when he ran into a problem trying to fit four separate direction buttons on the left side of the unit, there wasn’t enough room. Previous methods for multi-direction navigation employed either four separate buttons or a joystick, neither of which would fit on the clamshell gaming unit. His solution was to create a top piece that rocked in four directions, pivoting on top of a sturdy ball bearing, and triggering tiny internal switches.
This new invention saved space and had an unintended consequence, users described playing games with the D-Pad as feeling more natural. A qualitative response backed up by quantitative data, when using the D-Pad players looked at the screen more, their hands less. So enjoyable, useful, and natural was the experience that Nintendo made the D-Pad the standard directional control for the wildly successful Famicom/Nintendo Entertainment System. Since then, all major video game consoles have had a D-Pad on their controllers. For something to feel natural it has to seemingly disappear.
For something to disappear lets look at The Hierarchy of User Needs (From bottom to top: Functional, Reliable, Usable, and Meaningful). The D-Pad is functional because it accomplishes the task of moving your character in four directions. Is it reliable? The design of the D-Pad is more reliable than four buttons because the user ’s thumb puts pressure on a sturdy ball bearing in the rocker pad, not on an actual button. Allowing the handheld unit to control the amount of pressure being exerted on the sensitive buttons. The usability is also high because the size of your fingers don’t matter as much because you rock your thumb versus move it around and press buttons close by each other. With the D-Pad you cannot error and accidentally hit two directions at the same time like with four closely placed buttons. Is it meaningful? I don’t know. If really good usability equals meaningful, then yes. To quote early video game developer Martin Graetz (Spacewars!) from 1962 after he built one of the first controllers and used it (instead of a keyboard) for the first time, “the mechanism improved one’s playing skills considerably, making the game even more fun”.
-Joel Lueders, UX Designer