Design with Intent to Avoid Errors

Interesting how the world around us can teach us many design lessons. In particular, I spent some time with my family in the California area, where I had a chance to experience design without intent.

This happened at a sea-themed park where after watching some shows and enjoying some rides I started noticing the overwhelming amount of “Do not” messages all around me — “do not put the hands inside the tank”, “do not let the children sit in the fountains”, “this is not a bench”, etc. — which really made me think about whether the original designers considered how their creations would be used in the real world, or if they simply had to craft “error recovery” strategies afterwards once they saw how people were using (and abusing) their original creations.

And not only that, but I also ran across an interesting design choice which even my 5 year old couldn’t completely understand. We were on a ride that allows you to move up and down using a simple lever. Here’s a snapshot of it:

The interesting part is that before the ride started, the prerecorded announcement instructed users that in order to go up, you needed to pull the lever down, and that if you wanted to go down, you simply needed to release the lever. My son, after looking at the shape and freedom of the joystick (8 directions), went for the obvious choice and attempted to pull it up to go up, and push it down to go down, unfortunately that had the exact opposite effect — pulling it up didn’t trigger the switch so the ride would go down (same behavior as releasing it), and pushing it down triggered it so the ride would go up.

I can understand how sometimes technical limitations force you into making certain choices, but I think this is a great example of how form should follow function — if the lever goes up and down, each position should perform an action, and if you can only support one action, then why not changing the lever for something that would look more like an on/off switch? Maybe a big button you can push? On the other hand, I’m amazed by how nobody has suggested the “crazy” idea of simply rotating the lever! Pulling it up would trigger the action (go up) and pushing it down will not trigger any action which is the same thing as releasing it (go down)

Not surprisingly, this same park had all sort of issues in other places where the shapes, colors, materials, sizes, etc. used in their design triggered all sorts of undesirable results: confusion, premature wear, graffiti, and an overwhelmingly amount of “do not” messages (both visual and audible) in a sad attempt to revert those behaviors.

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