elevators & human–machine interaction

I was attending a design conference a couple years ago, when I jumped on the first available elevator at the hotel where I was staying. I knew the floor I needed to go to and instinctively planned to punch the appropriate number inside the elevator. Much to my surprise there was no way to indicate the floor I wanted. Inside the elevator, the only controls were to open and shut the door, and an alarm. I got off when it stopped and thought I must be on some kind of special elevator—for the staff or something. After all, there’s nothing complicated about elevators. You get in the box. Tell it where you want to go and you get out. I boarded another elevator, with the exact same result.

I had never seen what is known as a “Destination Control Elevator”, a convention-changing but more efficient design. We’ve all experienced the crowded elevator where everybody needs to go to a different floor and invariably it’s not the guy in the front, but the guy in the back that needs to get out first. It’s a slow process. My hotel elevator, on the other hand, grouped passengers, so that those going to the same floor are asked to use the same elevator. I didn’t notice the control panel outside, that asks you to enter the floor you want to go to, then tells you which box to get in. How logical.

I’ve complained for years about the bad design of the things we run into as part of everyday life. So when I saw the AIGA SLC Book Club recommendation titled The Design of Everyday Things, I ordered it. The book is meaty—350 pages of somewhat academic content, talking about everything from the design of faucets (hot on the left, cold on the right?) to the design of iPhones (QWERTY keyboard or another?). The author, Don Norman is a cognitive scientist and former Apple employee who makes you realize that it’s not your fault when you mistakenly pulled, instead of pushed on that door, or hit the wrong button on that new remote. It’s faulty design.

All things are designed, whether it’s the layout of furniture in a room or the intricacies of an electronic device, points out Norman, but the complexities of modern devices pose particular challenges. The book addresses the fields of industrial design—emphasizing form and material; interactive design—emphasizing understandability and usability; and experience design—emphasizing emotional impact.

Today’s deficiencies in human-machine interaction come from a lack of understanding of the design and psychological principles involved. No matter what the design specialization, “the solution is human centered design (HCD), an approach that puts human needs, capabilities, and behavior first, then designs to accommodate those needs, capabilities and ways of behaving”, according to Norman. “After all, why do we make products? We make them for people to use.”

Human centered design is a philosophy and a set of procedures, whereas industrial, interaction, and experience design are areas of focus. The key emphasis of the book is the importance of developing products that fit the needs and capabilities of people.

With today’s rapid rate of technology change, deficiencies in human-machine interaction are frequent. Most of the problems come from a lack of understanding of the design principles of human centered design. This deficiency is because much of design is created by experts in technology, who are limited in their understanding of people, asserts the author. Typical human behavior isn’t logical and orderly. There are problems. We make mistakes and we misunderstand.

Norman self-importantly states that “One of my rules in consulting is simple: never solve the problem I am asked to solve. Because, invariably, the problem I am asked so solve is not the real, fundamental, root problem.” It’s easy to see the surface problems only, without digging deeper to address the real issues.

Designers are better suited to discover the real problem than engineers and business people, according to the author, because designers are, by nature, willing do diverge away from an obvious solution, study and observe people and explore different iterations.

The last chapter of the book calls for designers to help fight the battle for usability. “Design is successful only if the final product is successful—if people buy it, use, and enjoy it, thus spreading the word. A design that people do not purchase is a failed design, no matter how great the design team might consider it.”