Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Are the New Elevators Bad Design?

Ask Don was just sent this description, with an implied question. 

Yesterday I had business to attend to in a city building downtown Portland. The building is new and this was my first visit. I was a bit baffled at the elevators, two banks of five to a side. But no up or down button. OK, so I waited for the next to open. It arrived and I got on. No buttons to select my floor. What is going on? Is this machine supposed to read my mind? I got off and re-evaluated. At the end of the I discovered a touch screeen stating "Welcome". I touched and it wanted my floor number and offered a numeric pad. I entered 12 and an elevator "pinged", the door opened and "12" was displayed on the edge of the door at eye level. I got on and went to 12.
 
If the story ended there, I would not be sharing this experience with you. It turns out, I had to re-visit the same office about an hour later. On the first encounter I was alone in the waiting area, so there was one elevator, one person. Good, a match. The second visit however, there were a dozen people and four elevators open. Finally in frustration I went to the lobby security guard. I give him credit for his courtesy, he demonstrated that when you pad in your floor number, the display also shows the letter for your ride "A-J". His next comment demonstrated how little people understand the problem. He said "It's easy once you get used to it". It may be easy for those who work in the building, but the offices there are to serve the public. Most of the public visitors will only come once or twice and will never get past the learning curve.

Here is my reply (slightly enhanced)

Actually, the elevator system you used is a new design that makes for far more efficient use of the elevators. Less elevators are required and for the elevator user, the trip is more efficient. This is called the "destination control system," and it was first introduced by the Schindler Elevator company in 1992: so it has been around a long time, although it is just becoming visible.

You enter the floor you want on the pad outside the elevators and it assigns you an elevator. It batches people in groups so that the elevator minimizes the number of stops --no more stopping at every single floor.

Yes, you have to get used to it.

But you may not realize that you had to learn how to use the more common scheme. For example when you are on the first floor and want to go up to the 10th, why do you hit the "up" button on the wall?  You think it obvious?

No, the elevator is one of the unique devices where you enter your intention rather than a command to the system. It would be just as logical to hit the down button -instructing an elevator to come down from its current location in order to pick you up. Obviously, this would require you to know where each elevator was located, but early elevator systems (and many modern ones) always displayed this information.

I could go on.   

This happens to be a positive example of "you will get used to it."

I have long argued that it is perfectly reasonable to have to learn how to use a novel device.  After all, if we never changed anything how could we make thing better? We used to drive shift cars. We then had to relearn our habits for automatic transmissions. Anti-skid brakes have to be used differently than the way most people were taught (pumping the brake when skidding used to be taught -- now if you did that, it would be harmful).

My point was that you might have to learn something, but that you should only have to learn it once. Once you learned it, you should say, "oh, I get it," and remember it forever after -- that's what a good conceptual model is about.

So, welcome to the new world of improved elevator service. Enjoy the increased efficiency.
  

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