A lot our interaction with technology is indirect, through controls, such as buttons and knobs, that affect the behaviour of some part of a system in some way. A common principle for making these controls easier to understand and remember is to make their physical functioning and arrangement analogous to the functions they control. For example, you move the mouse on your computer to the left to move the pointer left. This is called a natural mapping. An example of an “unnatural” mapping is the QWERTY keyboard. Some mappings can’t really be made natural, because they involve non-spatial concepts. For instance, there is no right answer as to whether the left or the right button on your mobile phone should pick up a call.
A popular example for illustrating mappings was given by Donald Norman in The Design of Everyday Things and involves kitchen stoves:
Although some stoves at least use the two knobs on one side to control the two burners on the same side, it is not clear, without reading the labels (usually at the front of the stove, out of a standing adult’s line of sight), how they map to the front and back. Personally, I've been close to destroying kitchen utensils and causing minor injuries more than once. Norman suggests the following as better alternatives:
An obvious reason I can see for not using these designs is the extra space they need. I don’t know about America (where everything is big) but here in Europe, stovetops are usually roughly square, and I can imagine that manufacturers of stoves and of kitchens would prefer to keep them that way. In any case, I’m sure most users wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice precious kitchen space for a more natural mapping of stove controls.
Instead of shuffling around burners, why not leave them where they are and just move the controls instead. A subtle shifting is all that’s needed (I included a version for controls on the stovetop as well):
It’s not a perfectly natural mapping, but the arrangement contains enough information to be unambiguous, and I imagine that you’d get used to it very quickly.