I first fell in love with the wheel as a UX tool on my third-generation iPod.
Rubbing my thumb in a circle, it flipped through my list of early-aughts tracks. It was fun and efficient in a way the Walkman’s clunky old buttons weren’t. Later, I began video editing inside a professional studio; I still remember twisting a hefty jog wheel to scrub through archival footage on an aging betacam machine (which had, technically, already been discontinued by 2001 ). The smooth analog wheel offered a silky ramp up and down through the magnetic tape. Every now and again, the machine itself would clunk and clank like some military armament, but the jog wheel never lost its sensation of fluidity.
Radial controls in electronics have been around since the infancy of electronics themselves. You can find knobs in 1930s home radios, during the broadcast medium’s golden age. The knob was no doubt familiar for the consumers of the day, given their ubiquity in turn-of-the-century gas stoves. Over time, as technology advanced, those knobs evolved into more sophisticated interfaces—including jog wheels found in the audio and visual hardware of the ’60s and ’70s. Later, Apple would design a click wheel into its fledgling iPod line, paving the way for the home button.
Though you can still find knobs in cars, where they offer a tactile way to control your car while keeping your eyes on the road, the jog wheels seem to have mostly disappeared from popular UX over the last few years. After all, who uses iPods, stereos, or pro editing equipment these days, in the era of touchscreen everything?
But while jog wheels are no longer popular among tech giants, Ikea has quietly made the wheel its interface of choice for its burgeoning line of connected homewares.
In 2017, the company introduced a $20 plastic wheel to control its smart lights; when you twist the coin-size wireless knob in your hand, it dims any paired light. This week, the company announced another wheeled product. This one is a $15 sound remote for its Symfonisk speaker line, designed in collaboration with Sonos. The remote launches October 1 in the U.S.
The remote is a pretty traditional jog wheel, controlled from a table or counter. You tap it once to pause or play the music. You tap it twice to skip ahead a track. You tap it three times to go back a track. And you twist it to turn the volume up or down.
There is a price to all this simplicity, though. You must still pair the wheel with Ikea’s smarthome Trådfri gateway—basically a Wi-Fi router for your Ikea gadgets—and install its corresponding app. But as Ikea continues to wade into home electronics, it’s encouraging to see that the company is shying away from sticking LCD screens and glowing displays on its products.
Instead, it’s adopting quiet, joyful UX—like the trusty old jog wheel.