As long as man has been producing tools, there has been a process of figuring out how a human being should interact with the tool in question. How a tool is held, which way a knob turns, what happens when a switch is flipped down, etc. And yet every single day we must stop what we are doing and decipher some poorly designed switch, knob, or other interaction with the physical world around us. Why is that?
When working on some newfangled device, an inventor will look to the past for cues about how to build their new widget. For example, people built the first cars after centuries of boat building. So it was natural that the first automobiles had some boat-like features. The Benz Patent Motorwagen – arguably the first real “automobile” – had a tiller instead of a steering wheel, because that is how a boat was steered. The steering wheel came several years later when it became clear that ground-based vehicles needed much more precise steering than boats.
Just about every single thing we interact with on a daily basis has been designed by one person to be used by another person. From the mouse on your computer, to the shape of a croissant, to the grippy bumps on a parking meter knob, almost everything you touch has been designed for you.
Today I was leaving a building via the elevator, and had the problem that millions and millions of humans encounter every single day: Which button do I push to go back to the entrance, so I may exit the building?
This is an error-prone process that will usually result in two or more buttons being pushed. And, as we all know, once those buttons are pushed there is no way to un-push them! (And why is that, anyway?!? Especially on a device with such a poor and non-standardized interface as an elevator! How many unnecessary trips do elevators make every day due to incorrect button-pushes?)
When I was in Europe I quickly learned that the “First” floor is not the “Ground” floor, like it is in America. In most European countries the First floor is the first floor ABOVE the ground, not the one ON the ground.
So here is the problem: The one floor that every single person in this building will need to access at least twice during the day – The Ground Floor – is labeled exactly the same as every other floor in the building!
To determine which button I need to push I have to look at ALL of the buttons.
Button, Button, Which One Is My Button?
The buttons at the top of the panel are higher numbers (and a letter), so I assume that those buttons will take me to the top of the building. I want to go to the bottom. So I look at the bottom of the control panel: roof = top, so ground = bottom, right?
So do I press the lowest button to go to the bottom? No… the lowest button is a triangle, and it is next to a key slot. I was not issued a key by the front desk, so that must not be it.
What about the button above that? It says, “DH”, which even now, several hours later, I can’t figure out what that is.
Above that are the Door Open and Door Close buttons. Ah. These must be near the button I need, because EVERYONE needs the Door Open/Close buttons. (Unless they are patient and just wait.)
Above that is a button labeled “SB”. Huh?
Then above that we find the “B” button and “L” with a star next to it.
Ah! I get it, there are TWO basements! A Sub-Basement (SB) and a Basement (B), and a Lobby (L)! The “R” button must be the Roof!
Now back up a second… why do I have to learn the ARCHITECTURE OF THE ENTIRE BUILDING to determine how to get out of it? I walked in the front door, got in the elevator, went to the 2nd floor for a meeting, and to earn the right to leave the building I have to know that it has TWO basements, a Roof, and the still-mysterious “DH” level?
…But We Have A Good Reason…
I’m sure the designers of this control panel have a standard jig set up in their machine shop that drills a series of holes in a panel, and they wire up buttons where they kinda make sense.
So let me get this straight… because the makers of this enormously expensive piece of equipment can’t be bothered to drill holes in slightly different locations, every single person to use the elevator since 1889 has had to learn this specific control panel layout, decipher the codes on it, and press wrong buttons some percentage of the time… instead of drilling holes in slightly better places!
Mental Maps of Physical and Virtual Spaces
People are physical beings living in a three dimensional environment. We naturally map our surroundings out in our brains, no matter where we are. If I asked you to get something out of the back pocket in the driver’s seat of your car, you wouldn’t even have to look. You could just reach back and grab it. You have a rich mental map of the environment within your car, so you don’t even need to look to touch any corner of your vehicle, or operate any control.
Now think about your web site.
Humans visit your web site every day (hopefully!). How do they get around? What do you do to help them navigate your site? How do they build a mental map of your site in an instant? Do you force them to understand all the buttons on your site to figure out where they are? How do you communicate with this person, who may have entered your web site via ANY of its pages?
In fact, very few of your visitors will see your home page first. They will be led via Google to the content they searched for, regardless of where that content resides on your web site.
If someone is plopped down onto a random page within your web site, are you going to make them learn the entire architecture of your site, like this elevator control panel? Or do you make it easy for them to construct a quick mental map and get around the site?
What if that elevator’s control panel had looked like this image instead?