Sherlock Holmes, the arrogant fellow that he was, once said to Mr. Watson about some evidence, "You see, but do not observe." But that's true of us all. We go through our daily lives and don't often take note of common occurrences. That's a point that Paco Underhill raises; I'm at work and don't have the book in front of me, but I'll paraphrase him in saying that all of his clients are also shoppers, and yet they're often surprised by the simple observations that he makes. We (and our clients) are immersed in physical environments every minute that we're awake, and yet we often fail to observe things that we see.
I'll use an extraordinarily mundane example -- the toilet. I'm estimating that I've used a thousand or more toilets in my life, all more or less the same and yet mildly different. You've probably specified a great number of toilets in your career; the BAC building, roughly 25K sf, has about 20 toilets installed. But...
I'm assuming that every man has had this experience; certainly those friends of mine with whom I discuss such things have all had this experience. You sit down on a toilet, and the end of your penis touches the inside of the bowl. It's surprising, uncomfortable, and not hygenic. Frankly, it's nasty. And it's a simple matter of the slope of the front of the bowl; if it slopes down sharply enough, and most do, then this doesn't happen. But if it tapers back more gradually, then there's not enough depth for your equipment. When we go to buy a toilet, for ourselves or our clients, do we bring this experience into our professional lives and specify one that would avoid this problem? Is bowl slope even a measurement that fixture manufacturers indicate? No. I can imagine an advertising campaign -- "Stay Clean... with Kohler!"
I can excuse Carli and Anne for not knowing this, but not the rest of us.
Here's another common example: a glass door with identical hardware on both sides. The Golda Mier Library at UWM had this at every floor, a wooden-framed glass door with a wooden tablet mounted a couple of inches out from both faces, so that it can be used as either as a push plate or as a handle to pull. When you look at that, you have no cues about whether the door opens toward you or away (I know, I know, you could look at the door jamb and figure it out, but really, who does that?). I can't tell you how many students I saw come down the stairs with an armload of books and hit that, expecting (from long visual experience) that it was a push plate. BOOM !!! Books everywhere.
Donald Norman, in his book about product design called The Psychology of Everyday Things, said that if you make a mistake with an object (trip on a riser, turn on the wrong burner, etc.), it's almost certainly not your fault, and that countless others have made the same mistake.
The first step at being a good observer in the environment is taking note of our own environmental experiences, and putting them into play when the occasion rises. So tell us about your favorite dumb design feature, one that you see over and over and can't believe so many people designed it that way. (Not necessarily architectural, either... could be in your car, could be your stereo, whatever.)
We'll deal with good ones tomorrow. Today, the dumb ones.