August 2010 Archives

The phantom toll booth

While there's nothing wrong with toll roads, there's definitely something wrong with many toll booth operations. Requiring traffic to slow from expressway speeds to zero introduces a whole range of problems, since different drivers don't accelerate and decelerate at the same pace. And when traffic designers unwittingly introduce additional confusion into the equation, they're just asking for trouble. Note this photo from a toll plaza. Drivers are being asked to determine, from a distance, into which lane they should drive. The far left is for those with electronic transponders (often called something like "EZ Pass"). The next lane is for those with exact coins. The others are for drivers without exact change, or those who need receipts.

It's not bad enough that the signs are relatively small -- the situation is made worse by including a three-lane gap between "exact coins" and "change/receipts". Three lanes right in the middle -- all closed. That causes anyone who makes a mistake (or who can't read the signs from a long-enough distance) to have to make a dramatic swing across a wide gap of road, cutting into lanes that already have backups.

Worse yet, the only way a driver would know that the three lanes in the middle are closed is to see the red "X" at the top of the sign. You probably find them hard to read clearly in this photo, just as they were in real life. That's because the lane open/closed indicators are surrounded by a lot of other bright lights, and the closed lanes remain brightly lit, even though they're not available for traffic. Anyone who's traveled through a well-lit nighttime work zone knows it's hard for the eyes to adjust from dark nighttime highways to bright light. Asking those drivers to then use bright lights to make decisions that could require crossing three lanes of closed toll booths is nothing more than a recipe for trouble.

This awful approach to signaling drivers where to pay their tolls could be improved by (at the very least) closing the gap between the open and closed lanes, making the open/closed lane indicators wide strips of red or green light (instead of a single "X" or an arrow), and dimming the lights for those lanes that aren't open. By definition, the people using an expressway are oftentimes from out of town and not familiar with local geography. Why make it harder and more dangerous for them to use toll roads than it needs to be?
Anyone who's ever fought with one of those miserable long, single-column carriers for folding chairs will probably break down in tears of joy upon seeing this design. It's a magnificent and elegant solution to the problem of putting a bunch of folding chairs in a compact space. Not only does it offer two complete levels for stacking (itself a stroke of genius), it turns the chairs over and uses the leg cross-brace as a hanging point. This does away with so many shortcomings of the conventional chair trolley that it's almost impossible to overstate what a huge improvement this is. It requires less lifting, stabilizes the stacks by design, and is easier to maneuver without dropping chairs all over the floor while taking a sharp corner. Three cheers for the industrial designer behind this work of art.

Not the way to stripe a parking lot

Sometimes a parking lot isn't sized correctly to fit exactly the right number of cars and trucks, so what does a smart designer do with the extra space? Plant trees? Create a special double-deep row for vehicles with trailers? Whatever the right answer is, the wrong answer is to just create a third row between two other rows and draw boxes around each of the spaces. It's bound to confuse anyone the first time they see it, and inevitably someone will end up making the mistake of parking in that "middle child" set of spaces and end up completely boxed-in. How about tearing out the extra row and planting a few trees for shade instead? Or shifting all of the rows over by 10 feet and creating an extra pull-in row (for buses and RVs) perpendicular to the rest at the edge of the lot?

Emergency or just going up?

Elevator designers of the world: When you install a button to call the fire department or otherwise signal an emergency, do not -- repeat, DO NOT -- place it above the "Up" button, and then make it more prominent than the "Up" button itself.

People are often in a compromised state of mind when using an elevator -- rushing to get to work, visiting from out of town, or even drunk -- and the natural instinct is to press the most obvious button. In this case, the most obvious button is the one that is backlit and circled with a big black ring. The "Up" button here, by comparison, looks like it's much less important and much less likely to result in a ride anywhere.

All of this is compounded by the fact that it's natural to expect "UP" to be, you know, ON TOP.

This is a terrible example of non-intuitive design. Every signal being sent to the user is to press the wrong button.

Bad design: Chicago police vests

Chicago police officers can be seen walking around the city in what are obviously their bulletproof vests. Many, though not all, uniformed officers are seen wearing these vests on the outside of the uniform shirt. What makes it a design failure?

Watch any of these officers for more than about three minutechicagopolicebulletproofvest.jpgs on any moderately warm day, and the officer can be seen lodging his or her thumbs behind the vest, lifting it just slightly off the chest. Perhaps it's an all-weather condition, perhaps it's not. But it certainly looks like the vest is either too hot or too bulky, making the thumbs-in-the-armholes maneuver almost universal.

Thus, instead of leaving the officer's hands free to do whatever they should be available to do (guard a weapon, guide traffic, or help a little old lady to cross the street), the design of the vest causes many an officer to stand in a completely unnatural and un-ready position for action. The vest acts like a giant pair of armpit-high pockets.

A well-designed vest would accommodate the need for officer safety while leaving the officer comfortable enough at all times that constant adjustment of the vest would be unnecessary. Like a miner's helmet with a lantern attached, the protective clothing should free the user's hands from having to do something, not require them to do more.