Design: Inexplicably Inaudible Announcements

While traveling several months ago I read Steve Krug’s book Don’t Make Me Think, Revisited, an updated classic in the web design field that provides the foundations upon which good user experience is built. I was so inspired by Krug’s work that when I found myself traveling to Portland, OR for the 2014 HighEdWeb Conference it was with Donald A. Norman’s 1988 tome The Design of Everyday Things in tow — one of Krug’s recommendations.

Though I’m reading the book with an eye for design principles that I can translate to the work I do online, I’ve been amazed at how it has made me acutely aware of the poor design I still see in the physical world around me. Even objects that Norman specifically identified as being poorly designed in 1988 are still being produced in ways today that frustrate and inconvenience their users.

For example: my clock/radio. With its umpteen buttons, flashing lights, crazy switches, and difficult-to-find-in-the-dark buttons, every morning is a fight with the darn thing! Or, the one that sticks out to me as most egregious: my stove. In 1988 Norman pointed out how ridiculous it was that the burners on most stovetops are laid out in a square arrangement, while the controls for those burners are almost always arranged in a straight line across the back of the stove. The result, of course, is that whenever anyone uses the stove, they must seek direction from the stove’s markings as to how to turn on the desired burner.

It is a minor annoyance, for sure, but one that doesn’t need to occur at all if stove designers would simply arrange the controls in a square pattern so that they naturally mapped to the arrangement of the burners they controlled!

All of this got me to observe the world around me with a heightened sense for poor design, and sure enough I was very quickly able to find some impacting me even as I was reading. It was in the form of public address systems.

As I began my return trip from my conference, I got on the TriMet train in Portland, headed for the airport. After going several stops without incident or concern, the train remained stationary at one stop for much longer than felt reasonable. As the minutes stretched on, some nervous travelers started checking the time and muttering.

Then, a noise (one could safely assume it was a voice) came over the public address system. I craned my neck upward and squinted in concentration, trying to decipher what was being said. Between the low volume and system’s static, I couldn’t make out a word of it. I then made eye contact with the girl sitting directly across from me. Her questioning eyes sought a translation from me, while my eyes asked the same of her.

I didn’t blame my inability to hear on myself. I knew the systems were bad. But at first I didn’t question why they were bad.

I shrugged. She shrugged. Eventually the train started again, and I dismissed the incident.

Fast forward several hours to a terminal in Chicago’s O’Hare airport. I was standing, waiting to board the final flight in my journey home, when I watched an airline employee pick up a microphone, and begin to speak. Again, I found myself straining to hear. This time I caught several words including “Syracuse,” and something about “boarding.” The rest was lost in a wash of ambient noise and poor audio quality.

And that was when the design failure hit me. Twice in one day I had found myself straining to hear what could have been vital information relayed to me by PA systems.

Unlike Norman observed of most users struggling with poor design, I didn’t blame my inability to hear on myself. I knew the systems were bad. But at first I didn’t question why they were bad. It didn’t strike me as odd that they were bad. After all, bad PA systems are so commonplace that they’re often satirized. (See the character Lily Aldrin in the show How I Met Your Mother and her ability “speak conductor” on the NYC subway system).

But why is this the case?

Public address systems are explicitly designed for the purpose of disseminating potentially important audio messages to groups of people. They are designed with advance knowledge that their environments will include a lot of hustle, bustle, and background noise. And yet, from two PA systems in a single day I was able to discern only two words.

Now, think about the noise conditions the last time you boarded a roller coaster at a nearby amusement park. There were likely kids yelling, people talking excitedly while waiting in line, gates slamming, belts buckling, and loud rides nearby that potentially even played music. That’s a standard, easily anticipated amusement park environment.

With technology that has existed for decades, wouldn’t it be really easy to put an easily understood audio system in place?

Now think about how the pre-ride safety message was delivered to you. In all likelihood, a high school-aged teen checked the safety belts of all the passengers, then walked back to some controls and picked up a mic. He or she then hurriedly spewed forth a safety message by rote memory for the 30th time that day into a low, static-plagued PA system. In all likelihood you could only comprehend a few words from this allegedly important safety message, and you didn’t even think twice about it.

But you really should stop, and consider the absurdity of that scenario. With technology that has existed for decades, wouldn’t it be really easy to put an easily understood audio system in place? And couldn’t the message easily be recorded, thereby ensuring that it is delivered at a pace comfortably understood by human ears? A recording would also have the potential to move lines quicker, as it could be played while the staffer was checking seat belts and safety gear, and it could improve the morale of the staffer, who no would no longer have to repeat the same lines dozens of times each day.

The status quo is really poorly designed. Yet it is bad design that is so ingrained into our collective conscious about how the world works, we don’t even question it.

If I’m learning anything from The Design of Everyday Things, it is that our world is imperfect in myriad little ways, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

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