Enter the maze

Perfect usability: The one-button machine?

One of my favourite Dilbert strips goes something like:

"I've done it! I've invented the world's most usable machine. It only has one button...and we press it before it leaves the factory".

One-button machines

The nirvana of one-buttonness is here. One-button machines are everywhere. Oddly my life seems to be becoming ever more irritating as a result. How can such simple devices have usability problems? Here are some of my experiences with one-button machines including those pressed before I get to them. No doubt they just show what a dork I am, but there is no reason why modern technology shouldn't work for dorks too.

I recently stayed in a hotel room with electronic locks. The key had a fob with the room number on just like normal hotel keys linked to an molded plastic "key". The key even had a thumb pad that made it naturally point as you held it. I waved it at the smooth black box by the door. The red light turned green. A click. It turned back to red immediately. Door still locked. I held it still, pushed it and touched it, turned it and waved it. Nothing worked. 10 minutes later I gave up and sheepishly asked for help. Ahhhhh! The molded-plastic thing isn't the key! The key is the thing I thought was the fob. I never even considered it might be the key, even though I use an identical card key every day at work. Dork.

Speaking of doors at work - to save us fumbling for key cards when leaving you just press a switch next to the door to release the lock...which is next to the identical light switch. Guess how often I switch off the lights by mistake.

More doors. I'm tall. I have a long stride. Automatic doors that open as I approach eliminate all those problems with pushing doors that have to be pulled. So why am I always striding at automatic doors only to find them open a fraction too late as I walk into them. Very irritating even when it doesn't hurt.

I go to the toilet. Oh no. It's those sinks that switch the water on automatically - or do if I am lucky, having waved my hands everywhere I can think of. Move to the dryers and I automatically push the "button" that is actually a label where the button normally is but says "Auto Start". In Montreal even the toilets flush themselves automatically - except they didn't during the disaster inducing ice storm of '98 when the whole city lost power for the week that I was there. No power, no working toilets.

I take the lift. Many just have a single call button, but no light to give feedback. I press it a few times never quite sure if it is coming or not. Add a light and everything is ok, though...isn't it?...So why do so few people trust the "Please Wait" lights on pelican crossings? How often have you pressed the button even though "Please Wait" is lit - or repeatedly pressed just to be sure? And I bet you have a sneaking suspicion the button doesn't actually do anything anyway. Oddly I don't mistrust or get impatient with the lollipop man outside my daughter's school in the same way. He has no buttons either. I also never go before he tells me to, unlike the little red men that I frequently ignore. Somehow a human doesn't induce the same emotions.

I want a drink. I use one of those totally simplified vending machines. Insert money. Press button with picture of choice. Take item. Forget change.

Surely I can't go wrong with an escalator...I thought not until late one night in Lille. I came to the top of a broken escalator in the station. I strode down it, only to find 10 paces down it starting to move, taking me back to the top feeling very silly...all the way back to the sign way below my field of vision saying no entry. Not broken, just waiting to be triggered no-button style by someone stepping on to it.

I may or may not be a dork, but gadgets don't have to be designed that way. The above examples all break design rules that are well-known to computer scientists. Designing gadget's is not just about coming up with great ideas and making them work. Designers of new technologies must also make them usable which means understanding people.

Even when the usability problems are sorted, machines still seem to naturally make us impatient - as James Gleik discusses in his book "Faster". In only 45 seconds, anger rises in people waiting for a lift. Waiting 2-4 seconds for the door to close is too long for many... which is why the door-close button can't be eliminated. Good design is also about giving people a positive experience and that takes really good design skills.

Hopefully the part of the computer science community interested in the human side of the subject will win over those just pampering to our love of gadgets for gadgets sake. Maybe you could be part of it too. Our lives are stressful enough over important things without trivial things like badly thought out lift buttons and the like making it worse. In the meantime, I want to keep fit anyway. I'll take the stairs, if I can only get through those double doors.

The Maze

The maze

Looking through a small hole everything looks gigantic - even the mites.

The maze

You take the lift. On each floor is a strange world full of wierd life