Operators Are Standing By

I heard a phrase the other month that summed up a lot of my operating abilities. I was listening to the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast #93, (from May 3rd, 2007). About 40 minutes into the show they had an interview with Bug Girl concerning Colony Collapse Disorder. One of the hosts (I believe it was Dr Steven Novella) summarized bee navigation abilities by stating, “They’re very precise, but they’re easily confused.”

Yeah, I get confused. The world is a confusing place, and bad design just makes it so much worse. I may at times be very precise in how I approach the things I need to do, but that doesn’t always help.

It’s not just me. Everyone has processing blips; some of us just have them a lot more often than others. But in any regard, this is why our tools, the machinery and electronics of our lives, needs to be better designed. Poor design just makes so much stress damn unnecessary! Crappy design takes a lot of things out of the realm of accessibility — people simply cannot use things, people cannot get to places, people cannot do the things they need to do.

When human beings cannot operate well (or at all) in human environments, it is not the fault of the people, it’s bad design. And bad design is just so damn unnecessary.

Possibly one of the most fabulous qualities of computers is not just that they can do so many different functions, that they can be configured to enable us in so many different ways, that they can aid in communication, but because there is the sweet, sweet Undo function. We can undo and reverse many actions, whereas in the rest of life few things are undo-able. Undo. Rewind, edit, delete.

Good user interface design has several necessary qualities; it must be obvious, intuitive, accessible, responsive, and most of all — forgiving!

It’s easy to come up with bad examples. Everyone can complain about the VCR or DVR they never did completely figure out, because each set had different controls and were programmed in different ways. Even if you figured out one set, you ended up with a new one later on, or found yourself staring at one at a hotel, school or work that you had to start poking at to determine how to run it. But here are different kinds of examples.


Toilet stall doors that open into the stall. Honestly, who installs them this way? There’s no bloody clearance space. The average toilet stall is a very small space to begin with. I have trouble manœuvering into one with my briefcase, and I’m a notably scrawny person. I don’t want to bend over the toilet just to reach behind me and shut the door, or have to sidle around the door. What if I were larger, meaning merely average-sized? What if I had a briefcase or other luggage on wheels? The “handicap” stall has a door that opens outwards, so why not the others? And would it be so freaking expensive to install a hook inside the stall for purses or coats? If you don’t want to risk having the hook hear the top inside of the door (where presumably a thief could reach over and snatch the bag, leaving the owner stranded with knickers around their knees), then put it on the wall. By the way, get rid of those horribly fiddly stall-door latches that are a depressed dial which must be rotated.

Speaking of doors, there are those double sets of doors in building vestibules that have two sets of push-buttons to open the doors via power mechanism. Think about this — why would anyone want to simply hang around the vestibule between the doors? When you’re waiting for a friend or a ride to show up, you wait fully inside the building because otherwise you would be in the way of everyone passing through. To use the power door function, one almost always has to break out of the direct pathway, push the button, then go back into the entering pathway to go through the doors. Upon entering the wee vestibule, one must again break from the direct pathway to push the second button for the second set of doors. There should be one button outdoors and one indoors, but not another one in the middle. I don’t use power doors very often, mostly just when I’m schlepping an absurd amount of gear. But if it is really awkward for me to use when I am on foot, how much more profoundly awkward is it for someone using a mobility aid?

The touch-pad controls of my microwave are not very forgiving. The idea of a touch-pad is good as far as cleaning goes – it is a smooth surface, so there is much less bacteria-infested ooze encrusted on there. On the other hand, the buttons are not very accessible in that it is difficult to see which function each button has, and the tactile/auditory feedback is muddled, so I am not always sure if I have entered my commands correctly. I don’t know how someone with a vision impairment would even begin to navigate these touch-pad controls. (I assume that one buys textured stickers or some such to mark the important spots, like the Add-Minute and Start buttons.) In some ways, I miss the old style microwaves that had a dial one turned for the length of cooking time. I would simply turn the dial a certain amount of rotation and punch the start button, and then when the food looked appropriately melted or smelled sufficiently warmed up, I would return the dial to the zero position to stop the cooking process.

The blender is another source of contention. I actually have one that works well, unlike this poor fellow. But the seat for where the pitcher anchors during operation is a terrible design. It’s always getting gunked up and is a pain to clean. Ditto the buttons. Why DO they have to put so many buttons on, anyway? We could get by with slow, medium and fast, or just a variable-speed knob that is also the start/stop button.

I’m personally picky about devices being easy to clean. I really, really, dislike grooved or deeply textured surfaces (e.g., faux alligator or cowhide, or edging ridges around control and display panels). Interior corners are also bad, because they are damn near impossible to dust or wipe off, especially if something splatters on them. I own a number of small kitchen appliances, and not a one of them was designed with cleaning in mind. Some are easier to clean than others, but not a one was actually designed to make it easy to get clean and keep clean.

Last week I saw an advert in a fancy-schmancy design magazine for a chandelier and nearly swooned. Not for the shape of the chandelier, but rather because they advertise it as a a chandelier where you can put the parts into the dishwasher to clean them! OMFG! What a concept!

Just why are controls designed so badly in general? Take buttons. Junk clots up around buttons, even when the appliance isn’t in the kitchen. When the function is printed on the button, it eventually wears off, much in the way the alphanumeric characters wear off of keyboards. Ideally, the function of the button should be obvious from its design (shape, color, form, placement on the mechanism). Iconic descriptions are best, because they remove language barriers. This is especially helpful when selling items internationally, because only the voltage adaptation & plug shapes need to be changed. It also makes the device easier to use for people who have difficulties with reading, or are to some measure illiterate.

Therefore, the controls must correspond to the cultural references we’ve established for them, so the users don’t have to engage in a new learning curve with each new piece of equipment. The “affordances” or design of the object should tell us how we’re supposed to use it. A “pull” should be a handle you wrap a hand (or couple fingers) around, a “push” should be a flat plate for the palm, a “tuning dial” should be a ridged knob, a “make something more or less” should be a slider knob, an “unlatch door” should be a lever, and so on.

That means that ideally, no function should require more than one control (button, lever, knob or dial) to make it happen! There’s nothing intuitive about pushing combinations or sequences of buttons. Figuring those out requires that learning curve, and not everyone can do multiple buttons.

Although making all the buttons identical colours, shapes and sizes makes equipment cheaper to build (there are fewer kinds of parts to order from the supplier), the is also makes recognition much more challenging on the user’s end. Rows of shiny identical buttons might make something look “high tech” (whatever the hell that means — it’s a fleeting cultural construct), but they don’t make things easier to actually use.

We want controls that are large enough for the dyspraxic or arthritic to use, and also contrasting enough between background: foreground colors for the visually-impaired user. (Remember that slider knob? Color the bar it’s attached to, so there’s a “thermometer bar” that let’s us know at a glance how loud the volume is set before we turn the music on.) We want controls that can’t be accidentally changed, such as when sleepily smacking at an alarm clock. We want controls that can be used ambidextrously.


The microwave beep that goes off a minute after cooking to remind me that my coffee’s done being re-warmed or that I was heating up some lunch. Yes, I have an ADHD brain and can forget about food in less than 60 seconds. Honestly. But you know what? I’m not the only one! Because Samsung built a microwave with that particular function because someone realised that their consumers needed it.

My electric kettle with an automatic shut-off once the water’s done boiling. So it doesn’t boil dry and wreck the kettle, threaten to burn down the house, or simply use excessive amounts of electricity. Is it just me, or is this kind of function a “Duh!” ?

The magnetic power cord coupling on my MacBook – if you trip over the power line draped between the laptop and the wall outlet, it doesn’t drag the laptop off the table to go crashing to the floor. (Did I mention I’m clumsy?)

The fuel reminder beep on my VW Beetle. When the fuel gets really low, it beeps at me to let me know, just in case I’ve not glanced at the fuel gauge recently. Even better, it beeps at me again when I re-start the engine later on, to remind me that I still need to refuel it!

To borrow a line from television advertisers, “Operators are standing by.” Only in this case, we are all the operators — we’re the ones operating the machinery of our lives. And we are standing by, waiting desperately, noisily, impatiently, for tools we can use!

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.

~George Bernard Shaw


  1. 2 January 2009 at 0:29

    […] bathroom stalls, and brailled room-number plates.  But the doors to the regular bathroom stalls swing inward, making one do-si-do around the toilet, and the seating areas in the floor lobbies don’t have […]

  2. qw88nb88 said,

    13 July 2007 at 2:46

    LC, Yes I did read that book, some years ago. I recall some of the examples being dated, but that sad part is, we still have these same damn design issues! As I said, anyone can complain.

    One of my interests is in figuring out how organisms (insects or people) respond to and interact with their environments, and what we can do to improve those interactions.

    One of the cool things about IPM (Integrated Pest Management) programs is that we try to tip our agri-ecological environments to favour (or at least not harm) the beneficial pollinators, predators & parasitoids.

    In educational (and other) environments, we use Universal Design to make environments more accessible from the beginning, rather than trying to retro-fit things or having to set up a lot of “special” education features to make up for the deficiencies and inflexibilities.

    As for Macs, well, putting Windows on a box doesn’t make it much less of a box. It’s easier to think outside the box if you don’t let them put you in there in the first place …

  3. LC said,

    12 July 2007 at 23:38

    Have you read “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman? He makes a lot of similar points.

    And why am I not surprised that Macs are well designed…

  4. Bug Girl said,

    12 July 2007 at 15:50

    Oh, the door into the stall is one of my absolute pet peeves. I can’t tell you how many times I end up straddling the toilet just to get into the damn stall, much less close the door.


  5. 12 July 2007 at 0:42

    Dryers that buzz more than once are good too, except when the kids are so engrossed in video games, etc., that they can’t manage to drag themselves away long enough to get their clothes.

  6. mcewen said,

    11 July 2007 at 14:24

    The difference between the two experiences is due at least in part, to the designer’s skill or lack there of. I am always moaning to my techy husband about such things, and like you say, it’s how your brain is wired [complete with blips].
    Best wishes

  7. Justthisguy said,

    11 July 2007 at 7:54

    Controls in airplanes have been required to make sense for decades, such as requiring the landing gear retraction lever to have a wheel-like shape on the end of it, the flap-control lever to be flap-shaped, etc.

    People had to die before those standards were made standard.

    I wish people would use their heads and do things right without people getting killed to make them pay attention.

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