18 January 2011

A Brief Comment On Design

There I was, waiting for an elevator to take me downstairs when a ding sounded and a light indicated that an elevator door was about to open. With lightning-fast reflexes honed by years of practice, I whipped out my handy-dandy, oh-so-fuzzy little camera phone and snapped this shot of the indicator light above the elevator doors, moments before they glided open.

Why did I take a picture of an elevator indicator light, you might ask? Permit me to answer that question with a question of my own: Which way is this elevator going?

Tell me - do you think a red light on the right side mean the car is going up or going down? The alternative is a yellow-ish light on the left, if that helps. Any guesses?

This design seems almost willfully wrong, doesn't it? I mean, you've got to really TRY to deliver a signal this ambiguous.There are so many different ways they could have designed this indicator correctly.

For starters, the lights could have been oriented on top of each other instead of side by side. Not enough room to put them on top of each other? Fine! They could have been shaped like arrows or triangles instead of circles. Can't change the orientation or the shape? No problem - just paint arrows, triangles or the letters U and D on the side by side circles. Can't paint on the circles themselves? Alrighty - put an indicator (arrows, etc) next to each circle.

My point is the elevator people had many options... and they picked the worst one.

An indicator that doesn't indicate anything is pointless. In fact, it's worse than pointless, because it creates the impression of communicating something even though the signal is actually content free.

And that's when it hit me. This set of lights is actually a metaphor for formal communication in offices these days, particularly when PowerPoint is involved. Lots of lights & inexplicable colors. An occasional *ding.* And if you stick around long enough you'll eventually figure out that Red means Down. But you'll never discover why they didn't just say Down in the first place.


Dan Taylor said...

Great example of thoughtless user interface! Almost makes me wonder whether it was a bunch of engineers daring each other to try to get away with such an ambiguous design.

When I first read the post, I meant to reply with a pointer to a book recommendation: The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman. It has influenced the way I think of user interfaces. I suspect it'll resonate with you and your readers.

And I'll publicly thank you for the work you do on this blog. I suspect I'm not the only one who benefits from the thinking your blog sparks, even if I rarely rely. Thanks Dan!

The Dan Ward said...

Thank you so much for the comment - glad to hear you're enjoying the blog!

Don Norman's books are fantastic and I completely concur with your assessment. I really should mention him more often because the stuff he writes about is so spot-on and important for anyone involved with designing things. Thanks for the reminder!