Elevator logic

28Apr08

From what I’ve read, modern elevator design generally focuses on how to make elevators more efficient. In other words, engineers try to group passengers by their destination floor, reducing average wait times. With that said, I came across a design blunder in Chicago’s John Hancock Center that makes me wonder if elevator designers have really mastered the more basic aspects of their trade.

The stage was set as follows: my party wanted to get from the lobby level to the Signature Lounge. Depending on which sign you believed, this was either on the 95th or 96th floor. When we entered the elevator, the designers seemed to have done all the work for us. There were two separate buttons, one for the Signature Room and one for the Signature Lounge. Great, I thought, they’ve made it easy, so I pushed the appropriate button. However, nothing happened: no lights, no beep, no elevator action.

Figuring the button was just broken, I tried the one on the other side of the door. Same result. Another person in the elevator tried as well, to no avail. Finally, I figured it out: you had to press the button for the Signature Room first, and then after it lights up, you could press the button for the Signature Lounge. Nowhere did the facility provide any tips for navigating this counterintuitive process. Perhaps most ironically, the two venues are connected by a series of staircases once you leave the elevator, so it really doesn’t matter which one you select in the first place.

This experience tells me that at least one set of elevator designers has a lot to learn about making easy-to-use interfaces. Prior to today, I didn’t think anyone could screw up a simple “choose your floor” menu, but now I know better. Of course, if the designers had done some user testing after those buttons were installed, or even asked their friends to try out the button layout, the process for getting to the 96th floor — and taking in the spectacular views — would be a whole lot easier.