Sunday, July 24, 2005

What is it with designers of doors?

I'm working on-site at the premises of a large multi-national company. The entry to the offices, where the cubicle farms are, is controlled through an access card. There are three "doors", each "door" with three panels (or doors), 120 degrees apart, housed in a casing. (I'd have posted a picture, but I am not sure if I am allowed to take one.) You get in by swiping your access card over a card reader (that's almost horizontal) that has three small lights. You swipe when the light is orange. Then, the card reader makes a sound and the green light goes on for an instant. You step into the door area, push the door (panel) and move in. Voila. Sounds simple, except it's not, especially when there's a bunch of people going through. The same doors are used to enter and exit. So, if there's someone at the other end, you've got to watch that they're not swiping. That's the easy part. When you swipe, you may hear the sound from someone else's swipe because it's the wonderfully distinctive, same beep sound that they've used. And, you may not see the tiny green light, because your card is over the reader and display. Superman wouldn't have a problem because he has X-ray vision, but normal mortals might. Also, if you delay in getting into the door area after swiping, or if you have a misstep, you're locked out. If you try to swipe again, the red light is displayed and you can't swipe again for two minutes, so you have to wait. I've been locked out twice, in two days, and I dread going through the doors. I feel like a complete technological dinosaur when I go near the doors. Why? Because the designers made it so complex. What was the goal? To control access and to ensure that two people don't get in at the same time with one swipe. They accomplished their goals, with one small problem. They made it painful for the user of the door by making the lights tiny, putting the card reader a little away from the doors, and putting three doors that give identical beep noises next to each other. There go your basic feedback mechanisms. Also, the doors take their own time moving, so it's a slow process when you have many people trying to get in or get out. Maybe the system functions so well because no usability testing was done. Applause please. Tomorrow morning I get to try adventures in door-opening again. If you see someone standing sheepishly near a door, it may just be me. Come and say Hello. I promise not to bite your head off. Unless, you're the one that designed the doors.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Bad keystroke leads to $251M stock buy

A Taiwan stock trader mistakenly bought $251 million worth of shares with a misstroke of her computer keyboard, meaning her company is looking at a paper loss of more than $12 million and she is looking for a new job.
One wrong keystroke and it cost the person her job. I have heard that stock brokers (especially the high-end ones) deal in millions of dollars, but isn't there some sort of a reality check? $251 million? That's quite a bit isn't it? I wonder if the software had any mechanism to prevent such transactions. Was it the usual (read: lazy) confirmation dialog box: Are you sure you want to continue? Blink. Clicked Enter without even thinking about it. Alan Cooper talks about creating software that lets you undo actions and maybe this was one of those cases where an Undo would've helped save someone's job. Yes, I am aware that there might be some complexity in programming this kind of undo. I am also aware that mistakes should not be so costly.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Stable bottoms

I manage to drop my liquid handwash soap dispenser ever so frequently, I'm beginning to think that I have a gift. The liquid soap containers come in different shapes and sizes. Some are circular at the bottom. Some are elliptical. Some are rectangular-elliptical. Thank goodness that they are mostly flat. (Don't even think of going there.) Pretty much every single one that I've used so far has been unstable as hell. You tap the thing, it either falls down or it slides down. (It's a good thing that they decided to make them out of plastic.) I don't think much thought that goes into the design of these plastic dispensers. The testing probably happens in labs where the whole surface is flat, on those lab tables or whatever. Memo to designer -- Bathroom sinks are rarely flat. How about even a rubberised grip on the bottom? That would help. Quick-fix I know, but I'm tired of picking up the dispenser. I think that The Design of Everyday Things (Don Norman) should be made mandatory reading for every designer. Heck, make it compulsory for anyone who manufactures anything that people use. There are a heck of a lot of things that need to be designed better. (Don't get me started on doors and taps.) I think I need to go wash my hands now. Right after I pick up the dispenser of course.