Tuesday, January 9, 2007

Seen, but Not Observed

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.

14 comments:

Karrick said...

The one I hate most of all is when one side of double doors in public places are not unbolted.

Felix said...

I can't stop laughing at your description about a toilet!

I remember when I have my 1st bbq party, I have to bring hot dogs, I was surprise that when I bought that buns and the hot dogs.. I found 8 hotdogs/package but only 6 hot dog buns/package.. I thought I bought the wrong package..

Before 9/11, I remember during the checkout, the staff asked me if I pack my own luggage, and ask if I carrying any weapon or explosion material, I thought she was kidding, but she is not...
I was wondering if any terrorists have been captured, by answering honestly!

Couple weeks ago, I read the article from WSJ, new x-ray machine being use in Phoenix airport. This x-ray can see everything of your body, except the private parts. The technology will block out sensitive images from the security personnel. Now, since the security can't see what's going on around the “private” area, don't you think bad people use the “block” area without being detected?

Joe B. said...

The item I hate the most is a set of knives we received as a gift. The knives came from Target and were designed by a pretty well known architect... the problem with the knives look the same on the cutting edge and the non sharpened edge (at quick glance). never fails when I'm not paying attention, I always use the wrong end.

peterjames said...

how about pots or pans that have no thermal break between the handle and cooking surface...?? I know that I need oven mits on if I am reaching into an oven, but when you are cooking on a range, constantly grabbing the handles of various frying pans, or pots, I dont want to be wearing some cumbersome oven mit..... but after scorching my hands a few times, do I really have any choice??? It just seems to me that, if we can put a man on the moon, we can make a stinkin frying pan handle that isn't going to give me third degree burns when I am cooking a steak.......

Karrick said...

Maybe we could all pitch in to get peter some new pans from target. ya know the ones that have the powder blue handle, and you can't tell which way your supposed to put your soup in.

peterjames said...

tell me about it....thats the choice the consumer has....overpriced wolfgang puck pots that scorch your hands.....or pots where you can't tell where to pour the soup......

Tim Shremshock said...

Speaking about pots and pans. I grew up in a family of five boys, my dad, my grandpa, and my Mother (who should become a saint some day for putting up with us). Anyway, some of us boys naturally needed to learn to cook. As younger and smaller person, I never understood why the controls had to be located so far away, why I had to reach over the hot burners!

Tim Shremshock said...

Here's another one. Someone needs to come up with a double door mailbox (one at each end) so you don't have to stand in the street to get your mail.

rbutera said...

My mailbox has a door at both sides! Interestingly enough, I prefer to walk in to street when its wet out to avoid tracking wet grass into the house. It's a pretty ugly mailbox and I plan to replace it one of these days.

Ken Ballard said...

All of these are great! My wife and I have a debate about the Ipod on/off feature. She really wants a "off" switch, I prefer the way it is....

Has anyone used the "GREAT STUFF” insulation in a can? After using the can(which is a large can and you can get a lot of coverage) for the project you can store it away for the next one. By the time you are ready to use it again, be it 10 minutes or 3 weeks the dispensing nozzle is plugged (it is a sticky insulation) and you have to throw away half a can or better. It can be quite expensive....

Ken Ballard said...

Here is a great site for "bad Design" or poor inventions....

http://www.baddesigns.com/examples.html

pgarland said...

Ok, Ok, another bathroom story... One feature I see over and over again usually takes place in small town diners or restuarants. You go into a bathroom with a 2'-0" wide door with a standard round door knob and the toilet has grab bars for ADA. Besides the fact the paper towel dispensor is over 5' above ground, the sink is underside, the room is underside, and the faucet has small round knobs. I just don't get it.

pgarland said...

Tim, they do make the dual door mailbox. I've seen them in use while driving down semi-major roads in southern ohio.

Tim Shremshock said...

I guess I bettter call the patent office and retract my appplication :(