Riding an elevator shouldn’t require an instruction manual

03Sep10

I consider myself fairly savvy when it comes to riding elevators. I mean, there’s really not much to it: go to the right bank of elevators, step inside the elevator car, choose your floor, and try not to get in the way of other passengers. But I ran across an elevator setup at a local hotel that left me baffled, even after years of riding elevators on a regular basis.

Apparently, the hotel decided to upgrade their elevator system to a high-tech version. Instead of getting inside and pressing the floor number, you use a touchscreen panel in the lobby area to choose the name of the floor you’re going to. In fact, there’s no buttons inside the car, which surely confuses people who follow another passenger in and never had the opportunity to choose their own destination. Plus, only some of the elevator cars have the touchscreen panel — leaving other cars with the traditional buttons for each floor number.

Sound complicated? It certainly is. And I’m quite certain that a lot of people have been confused by the approach that this particular hotel used. Why am I so sure? Well, they put up a large, surprisingly well-designed instructional poster in the elevator area. This instruction manual had a chart to help people figure out which type of elevator they would be riding, and how to control it. Although the poster was nicely done, the very presence of that sort of instructional aid suggests that something is very wrong with the picture.

In short, if you’ve taken an interface that everyone already knows how to use, and “improved” or “enhanced” it so much that people need an instruction manual to figure out the new version, you’re fighting an uphill battle. When early testing or customer feedback indicates that the new version is too confusing or complex for people to use, you need to think about incorporating visual cues or other elements to help people better associate the old way with the new way. And if it’s too late to make those changes, you may end up having to awkwardly pair up the product with a how-to poster or other instructional tool. Of course, this approach is just a band-aid on top of the design problem, but at least it can serve as a reminder that there’s no substitute for making your products intuitive and usable from the start.



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