Anticipatory Design: Make it Better, Not Worse

Bruce Temkin offers some good observations about the elevators at the Marriott Marquis in New York. These elevators have no floor selection buttons inside; you make the choice when you call the elevator and are assigned a specific car (presumably to optimize service time). This is a change from the normal, thought-free experience we have with elevators and as Bruce observes, it doesn’t go smoothly.

But Bruce suggests a solution that really misses the boat. It’s an approach that we’ve all seen many times before, and so it’s natural for someone to simply channel from their environment. People don’t realize the elevator works differently, Bruce says, so let’s put up a sign.

This is a great example of what I call post-design: an unsuccessful attempt to solve a problem caused by a poor design implementation. Think about a corporate lunch room admonishing people to clean up, or any visit to a health-care facility where dozens of signs direct, warn, advise, remind about how to fill out forms, what to have in your hand, where to go, etc. Often, they make something feel more complicated (e.g., 4 steps to take an elevator?).

Some other examples of post-design (click the title to read more of the story):
Don’t Steal Shopping Carts

This Screen Is A Touchscreen

No Skateboarding

No Flavors, Just Sizes

What is needed here is a forcing function – something that gets in the way of business-as-usual interactions, pulls people out of their habitual gestures and alerts them that something is different, ideally directing them on how to proceed.

Some examples of forcing functions (click the title for more):
You Better Be Sure You Want To Turn The Light On In Here

The Familiar Handle Is A Different Color For A Reason

We Want You To See Our Ad Before You Watch TV

While Bruce is right that an intervention is needed, we can look at the forcing function examples to get some clues as to what might work better than Yet Another Sign in a visually cluttered environment. The problem is an interesting one because the thoughtless act is pressing the button but the notable consequences happen a minute or so later, once you enter the cab and realize that there’s no button to press. That suggests some locations for an intervention

  • When the button is pressed/the elevator is called. How could this be different so people are aware that things aren’t business as usual here? How could the next step in the experience be flagged?
  • While waiting for the elevator. We don’t have a lot of data about what the waiting process looks like
  • When first entering the car. What visual cues would indicate how this elevator is going to work, when entering an empty or full car
  • The first moment of confusion. We can imagine after entering the elevator people will do the familiar gesture of peering around the corner to try and find the panel of buttons, first on one side, and then on the other. What visual or other cues can appear right at that moment to clarify and reassure?

While it’s not my goal to “fix” the elevator system (especially when we only have one self-reported user experience to work from, and we don’t have a robust understanding of what the problem even is), we can highlight some other ways to think about conscious and unconscious behaviors and how design can intervene to support, redirect, and optimize. If we understand what people are expecting, or anticipating, we can be right there with solutions right before they know they need them. These clean-up design challenges can be harder, trying to retro-fit against an imperfect original solution we didn’t control, but we’re always going to be faced with these situations, so let’s have a thoughtful set of approaches.


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