August 8, 2011

UX Failures

A mini rant for y'all today. I was doing my laundry today and as much as I hate that process deeply and overall, it occured to me that there's a fundamental design flaw in most washing machines. The ones in my apartment building for example have buttons for setting the cycle type that are labeled “BRIGHT COLORS” and “WHITES” and so forth. Thinking back, this is pretty typical of most of the washing machines I've ever had the displeasure of having to use.

I can only assume this kind of labeling began as an honest, genuine attempt to make the whole business easier for some group of people. I'm really an optimist and assume people have good intentions as a general rule. But still it's baffling. Clothes don’t generally have instructions like “Wash on the ‘Bright Colors’ setting.” The only exception I can think of is "Delicates", but most of my clothes tell me what water temperature to use (or not use). I'm a technically minded sort and so that just kind of makes more sense to me to begin with, but that's neither here nor there really. It's more that there ought to just be one standard right? These simplifications, in the end, actually make life harder, not easier, because I have to learn how to translate temperatures into whatever words my washer manufacturer uses... each such translation comes with a little frisson of anxiety that just doesn't need to be there.

I think a lot about these kinds of things. It's not like my day is just ruined because I had to figure out what "Bright Colors" means in terms of water temperature. But these little irritations accumulate. As someone who loves to make things, and cares a lot about making them beautiful, elegant and suited to their use, identifying and studying failure modes is really just proper education.

So when I'm at Starbucks, I notice that the labels for the dairy pitchers are stuck on the side opposite the handles. I understand why... it's a big open space, and there's symmetry in the location. But of course, human beings set pitchers down in one way only: with the handles facing towards them. So all the labels end up facing the wrong way, being invisible, which then requires everyone to, in the worst case, pick up and rotate several pitchers before they find the one they want.

It's a small thing. A tiny thing. It probably only takes 2-3 seconds to do. But if that's 2-3 seconds for every single (dairy/soy/almond milk using) person, in every coffee shop, in the whole world, it adds up. And it's one more little annoyance for in the day of each person. One more thing that every so slightly reduces the quality of their day. And one that can be fixed ever so simply by just putting the labels on the side with the handles. I think these tiny things are worth obsessing over, worth fixing when they touch so many lives, even if it's only a little bit.

As for washing machines, what about having two sets of three buttons that say “Cold, Warm, Hot” and control the Wash and Rinse cycles. Perhaps a third set for controlling the strength of the spin cycle. No nonsense, and the benefit of actually matching the instructions on the clothes.

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