Baseball Caution Sign - A visceral message...

At a minor league baseball game recently (fun, by the way, everyone should go), I noticed this sign at the border between the field and the bleachers. This is a great design because that explanatory text isn't even a bit necessary - the pictures make the specifics of the danger quite clear on their own. Of course, that also makes this a bad design because that unnecessary text was, in fact, included. The gray area is the word "CAUTION!" - without it, the sign may read as "restrooms," since the universal signs for men and women dominate the design. Something needs to call the attention to the fact that there is danger, before explaining it. Nothing quite does that like an exclamation point - or skull and crossbones, or something similarly bold. My suggestion is below, after a quick bit of Photoshopping... Yeah, probably better to stick with CAUTION.

Driver's-Side Oh-Sh!t Handle - Whaaa?

This is a quick photo of the inside of a rental car on a recent trip - a Ford Behemoth, or whatever those gargantuan SUV's are called. And there, on the driver's side, is what's lovingly referred to in my neck of the woods as an "oh-shit handle" - that thing you reach for when the ride gets crazy and hang onto for dear life.

So, why on the driver's side? Besides being worthy of a mindless snicker, it almost speaks to the decreasing responsibility assumed by individuals. "Sure I drove the car into the dang tree while I was half-drunk and making a phone call, but I held onto that handle and I still got banged up - I'm suing!" From a design perspective, the possibilities I can think of are (1) aesthetic symmetry, (2) manufacturing-efficient use of identical parts on both sides of the vehicle, or (3) intending the handle to be used by shorter drivers to climb all the way up into this monster. All possibly worthy causes.

But mostly, it's just good for a laugh. Like the braille dots on the drive-through ATM, like the locks on the doors of 24/7 convenience stores, and like so many other little design quirks in our world. Enjoy them!

Rolling Water - sometimes designs just make sense...

It's that "why didn't I think of that?" feeling - or in this case, "why didn't they think of that?" - which identifies a truly well-designed product. This one, the Q-Drum from Hans Hendrikse, pretty much speaks for itself - but I'll speak for it anyway so as to heap some more praise on the already-tall pile.

In third-world countries, clean water sources are often far away from residential areas (as a rule, to the extent that residential areas pollute any immediately local water to the point of non-potability). Porting the clean water takes a lot of effort and energy, which is of special concern where sufficient nourishment is already difficult, and even more so when children are sent to do the work.

So all that's needed is a durable, cylindrical water container - low-cost to manufacture and distribute, almost infinitely reusable, even useful for other purposes - and a rope to tow it. There's a lot of potential to help those who need it most, here. Way to do good by designing well!

Car Windows - half the convenience...

When it's a beautiful day outside and I climb into a hot-as-hell car that's been sweltering in a parking lot for several hours, I want BOTH windows down, and fast. And when I want to connect with the outside world while cruising rather than isolate myself in a soundproof shell, I want both windows down, too. (Or maybe my car is the only one that makes a "thub thub thub" sound as passing air resonates when only one window is open?) My gripe du jour is that car designers overwhelmingly seem to assume that the driver only wants the convenience of one-touch-down (and up) on the driver's own window. Why? Well, let's check the logic...

  • Cost? Nah, it's not a cost issue, or at least not a significant one - the price difference between the basic and the one-touch switch (along with related hardware) is on the order of a dollar. That's a drop in the bucket of a twenty thousand dollar hunka steel. Of course, every dollar does count a little bit, and it's possible that the margins are right on the edge... Possible, but not likely.
  • Safety? This could indeed be an issue for a one-touch-up feature which is controlled by the driver, but which controls a different window. Designers can assume the driver is in control of his or her own limbs, but to keep track of everyone else's is a whole different story. Still, one-touch-up windows are equipped with safety stops which will reverse the window if there's too much resistance. And when you really get down to it, this could be one of those user-set features I'm always advocating, which could be turned on or off to suit each user's safety preferences.
  • Confusion? Actually, it seems to me that avoiding user confusion is a reason to put this feature on all window buttons. It's a function that's by now well understood by all users, and pretty much a given that it'll be included on the driver's window. The confusion is when I hit both buttons simultaneously, and the sneaky little buggers behave differently! It's like playing some kind of wind instrument: lift one finger from the auto-down, keep the other one pressed until it's open. The Window-Downing Concerto, first opus.
  • Just didn't think of it? As with many of the bad designs covered on this blog, I suspect this is the case. Since the development of the one-touch switch, I'm guessing nobody every reeeally thought about usage patterns - who does what, when, where, why, and how. The art and science of needfinding are woefully underapplied to consumer products, especially in mature industries where everyone's just gotten used to dealing with the status quo.
To close on a more upbeat note, just imagine the gotta-have-it features that could be added for a few extra bucks to every car out there with a power package: The all-open button for immediate aeration of a hot or stuffy car! The all-close button to lock'er up! A button to "leave the windows cracked" on a hot day! And to hit the jackpot, put all of these functions on the keyless entry. C'mon, car makers. Pay attention to what people do with your products, and help us out a little.

When Your Car Outsmarts You...

Keyless entry is a wonderful thing, no question about it. But I liked the no-frills version on my old car (a '96 Saturn) better than my fancified new car (an '07 Civic). See, the old one never made me feel like a moron.

There's something to be said for simplicity. The old car locked (with a beep, very satisfying) when I hit the lock button, unlocked the driver's side with one press of the unlock, and the rest of the doors with a second press. Simple.

The new car does the same thing - with a few added rules. From what I've been able to determine experimentally (that is, trying to figure out what the heck was going on when it didn't behave as I expected), they are:

-The first locking action is confirmed only with flashing parking lights; the second press adds a horn beep. Handy for those who are coming home late and want to be quiet. But that ain't me, so I wish I could just get the beep every time. With pretty much everything in modern cars controlled by a central computer (is this actually true?), it should be easy to allow the consumer to toggle a setting like this - like the 5mph auto-lock feature, which can be turned on or off. Carmakers, give me the freedom of choice!

-The doors won't lock if any door is open. Sure, sure, it's for my protection, so I don't lock myself out - but rather than patronizing all customers, Honda could allow users to change this setting as mentioned above. Having to wait until everyone shuts their doors before I can lock up is wasting valuable seconds! And hitting that button for the first time and watching nothing happen was very confusing.

-The doors will lock if the trunk is open, but the car won't confirm it; I can hear the doors locking, but that stoic little Civic will neither flash its lights nor beep its horn. I guess this is because it doesn't want to falsely assure me that the car is all locked up if the trunk is open. But I count that one as a bit obvious... am I the only one?

-Finally, just a gripe: there's a bit of a lag. It's just a little too long, too large of a fraction of a second, between hitting that button and getting the audiovisual feedback that you subconsciously, viscerally crave like the drug fix that it is. A car is a quick, precise, responsive machine at its best - a tool of instant gratification. It needs to feel that way all the time, and in every way.

The takeaway lesson for this one seems to be freedom of choice. Cars are durable goods - though every user will start as a first-time user (finding the headlight controls versus the windshield wiper controls, all that jazz), they'll almost all become experienced users eventually. Designing for both is a classic challenge, and the best way might just be to let the users change the product as their proficiency of use develops. When anyone gets a new car, it's a good idea for it to be idiotproof; just don't keep treating the driver like an idiot.