A Simple and Effective Mechanical Status Indicator

Very high up on my list of things to avoid is being hit in the head by something heavy and rigid flying through the air. Like, say, a car’s trunk cover enclosure, a specimen of which you can see in the photo below.

It’s that pretty hefty bar below the headrests that runs across the full width of the car:

Station wagon's trunk with retracted trunk cover.

This enclosure houses a (horizontal) trunk cover — to shield whatever’s placed in the trunk from prying eyes — and a (vertical) divider net — to make whatever’s in the trunk stay in the trunk if the driver needs to brake hard.

Thanks to folding rear seats, this car’s cargo area can be extended. When you do so, the cargo cover needs to be mounted in a different location further towards the front of the vehicle.

To that end, the enclosure sports buttons on either side that, when pushed down, will disengage the enclosure from its bracket.

Push button on trunk cover enclosure.

When putting it back into its regular mounting position, it is essential that the enclosure properly snaps back into position in the brackets — lest it morph into that heavy and rigid flying thing mentioned earlier.

A feedback mechanism, literally

Whoever designed this part has come up with an ingenious method to unambiguously notify the user whether she has properly mounted the cover enclosure.

Note the bright red bar on the mounting bracket.

Trunk cover mounting bracket with a red bar on its inside surface.

When you press the unlock buttons on the cover, they will remain in the “pushed-in” position. Only when the locks are properly engaged, will they pop out again.

Consequently, the red bar remains visible until you fully push the enclosure into position so that its locks engage and the buttons pop up to cover the red bar.

Push button on trunk cover enclosure. The button is down, revealing the red bar on the enclosure's mounting bracket.

By cleverly utilizing the mechanics of the cover enclosure’s unlock buttons, the designer has created a very simple, very effective status indicator.

And it doesn’t even use electricity!

Let’s make it a design pattern!

The same approach is found in the handles for unlocking the folding rear seats: A part of the tumbler handle is colored red, and this part is only visible while the seat back is unlocked.

Handle integrated into the rear seat back in the unlocked position, revealing a red area on the handle.

Push the seat all the way back to engage the lock, and the tumbler handle will move into a position in which the red surface is hidden.

Hand on the rear seat back with two fingers inserted into the unlock handle and pulling the seat back towards the car's front.

Besides the clever status indicators, the seat back unlock handle’s mechanical design is note-worthy, too.

Two interactions for the price of one

Your hand’s natural motion for folding down the seat is to pull the seat back’s top edge towards the front of the car. The seat’s unlock handle is recessed into the top of the seat back, and the surface against which you have to push to operate the handle is the one towards the front.

That is, it lies directly in the path of that natural motion for folding down the seat, so to speak! Therefore, instead of operating the unlock mechanism with one hand and moving the seat back with the other, you place two fingers inside the handle and pull forwards. This one motion first unlocks and then moves the seat back.

IMG folding down rear seat back

Very simple, very effective, just like the “status indicators”.

More Hotel Room Observations

As I’ve stated before, hotel rooms are amazing places for interaction designers to explore. The people who stay here come from a range of cultural backgrounds, and their technical ability varies greatly. This makes designing user interfaces for this environment a formidable challenge, because all artifacts in a hotel room must be usable by every one of those guests.

Here are some fresh observations from a recent stay in Denver, Colorado, and related, useful design guidelines.

Don’t baffle me with wrong affordances!

One of the first discoveries when we walked into the room, was this knob on the night stand.

Night stand that, right below its top, features a knob that looks exactly like those on the TV console dresser

How neat: Looks like you can pull out a board to extend the nightstand’s surface! Only you can’t.

Although the knob looks identical to these two on a fully functional drawer, …

Front of the TV console dresser with three drawers, the top one of which sports two knobs

… the one on the nightstand does nothing. It’s pure decoration. And awful design, because things that look identical should work in identical manners.

Make devices physically easy to use!

Our room had a balcony, that you access through a sliding glass door. Its lock is a poster-child for visibility: Not one detail of its inner workings is hidden behind a cover.

Lock on balcony sliding door, consisting of two brackets connected by a U-shaped bolt

Although this makes it easy to understand how the lock works, it is painfully difficult to actually operate it.

The fit of the lock is very tight. Unless you manage to move the door to just the right position in which the friction between the bolt and the holes is minimized, it is simply impossible to pull the lock bolt out of these brackets.

The lack of a proper handle on the bolt only makes matters worse, and we managed to send the thing flying across the room more than once.

Provide useful instructions for non-simple devices!

Not all things in a hotel room are as simple as the balcony lock. Some of them, like this coffee maker, require instructions to make them work.

Small, two-cop coffee maker plus paper cups, coffee pouches, and condiments

Instructions should be easy to find, easy to read, and easy to understand.

The coffee makers instructions, however, are hidden on the inside of its lid, and nothing on, or near, the device points to that location.

The “manual” itself uses tiny low-resolution images, which are difficult to decode. For example, compare steps two and three: Can you make out the two disks representing the coffee pads inside the machine?

Lid of the coffee maker, lifted up, and displaying iconic brewing instructions on its inside

Why not place a placard next to the machine to make the instructions as easy to find as possible? This would also provide ample room for bigger, easier-to-decipher images, as well as plain text instructions.

The device’s user interface could also use a bit of attention.

The coffee maker from above with three buttons on the top

Its three buttons would benefit from higher-contrast labels, and coloring the more-important “Stop” button red would make it easier to distinguish between it and the “Brew” buttons.

Clue me in on how this thing works!

Speaking of easy-to-use buttons, this beautiful block of chromed metal is the toilet flush-lever. It does stand out from the off-white ceramics of the bowl, so it’s easy to find.

Its very clean rectangular shape, however, fails to provide any visual clues as to how to operate it.

Chrome toilet flush lever on the side of the tank

To trigger a flush, you need to push down on the rear (i.e., wall-side) end of the lever. A little indentation on the lever would remove any doubts about where to place your finger, and in which direction to move this control.

Help me find stuff quickly!

We prefer to fine-tune our rooms’ temperature, but sometimes it’s difficult to find the respective control panel.

See that little box on the wall to the right of the TV? That is the A/C control panel.

Wall of our hotel room, showing HVAC unit in the far corner and HVAC control panel close by, separated by a desk and TV console

The corresponding heater/AC unit is that large thing towards the far end of this wall, several meters away from the control panel.

It’s almost funny how unfortunate the control panel’s mounting location has been chosen, because when you enter the room, it’s hidden behind the narrow column on the wall that you can see near the photo’s right edge.

And when you lie down in bed, it’s hidden behind the huge-screen TV. In fact, my fiancée noticed the panel just when we were about to leave the room to check out …

To close this article on a positive note, something that is essential to us traveling geeks was wonderfully easy to find in this room: Power sockets!

Instead of rummaging around under desks, behind TVs, or inside fridge closets for precious electrons to recharge iPhone & Co, two empty sockets were in plain sight

Base of the desk lamp with the lamp's power switch and two 110V power sockets

Placed in the base of the desk lamp, they are easy to find, convenient to access, and provide power exactly where you will need it.

Yet more (if older) hotel room observations

If you find “hotel room usability” as exciting as I do, you will enjoy reading my observations on a radio alarm clock designed specifically for hotel rooms, a usability problem with hotel safes, an annoying shower curtain, a make-up mirror with a touch user interface, and even something as mundane as an elevator button panel.

A Somewhat Challenging Doorway

When you enter a building with multiple entrance doors, which door are you most likely to pick?

Your first attempt at entering will most likely be through the door that is closest to the bell button panel, and you will probably try to open that door by pushing against the edge that is next to the button panel.

Applied to the doorway in this photo, then, you’d try to walk in through the door on the right, and push against that door’s right side to open it, right?

Double-winged glass doorway shown from the outside with a button panel at the right. Both doors have identical handles that are located in the center of the doorway, and the right door's hinges are visible. A circular sign is posted on either door.

Wrong, alas!

Not your average doorway

The position of the door handles already gives away that you’d have to move the door’s left edge, the one away from the button panel.

And if you look closely at the right edge of the door frame, you can see the door’s hinges, which means that you have to pull, not push, the door to open it.

As if that wasn’t irritating enough already, you actually cannot get in through the right-hand door at all! A sticker on the inside identifies it as an emergency exit, and an alarm will sound when you open it.

The proper way to enter this building is to use the door on the left.

Giving visitors a sign

This entrance must have stumped quite a few visitors, because there are signs that indicate which of the doors is the entrance, …

Sign on the left-hand door with a green circle, enclosing an open door, a smiley, and arrow pointing through the door.

… and which is the emergency exit.

Sign on the right-hand door with a red circle, enclosing a frownie.

Although “home-made”, these signs take a few clues from traffic signs to convey their meaning. I wonder, though, how much cognitive effort and time it takes to understand those meanings due to the custom “icons”.

Why not use regular traffic signs instead? Their appearance is more common, so your brain can more easily recognize the signs and, consequently, make sense of them more quickly.

http://uiobservatory.com/media/2012/ChallengingDoorwaySignage.png” alt=”Traffic signs “Drive Straight Ahead Only” and “No Entry” plus plain-text instructions as replacements for the two signs mounted on the door.” border=”1″ width=”400″ height=”400″ />

Any remaining doubts or ambiguity as to the signs’ meanings can be addressed through explicit, plain-text explanations.

No such thing as add-on-later usability

Despite these two well-intentioned signs, I am convinced that a few visitors will still be trying to enter through the right-hand door.

With their visual and cognitive focus moving directly from the bell button panel to searching for the door handle, they will literally overlook the signs.

Fixing this doorway properly would at least require moving the bell button panel or even swapping out both doors. Both approaches would result in prohibitive costs and effort.

Which goes to show that you cannot easily make something user-friendly which has not been designed for good usability right from the start.

Update 2012-01-12: Two readers have commented on this article.

Ben Kennedy tweeted:

I would never expect to push on the button panel side. No pair of doors ever hinges in the middle.

Good point!

There is, however, a noteworthy difference between the entrance in this article and a “regular” pair of doors: This specimen features a vertical bar in the middle.

The vertical bar effectively divides the entryway into two separate single-leaf doorways — opening both doors will not create one double-width entrance.

It was this effect that made me assume that pushing on the side of the button-panel would feel more “natural”. After reading your comment, Ben, I’m not so sure about that anymore.

I wonder whether someone did actual user testing of double-leaf entryways. Unfortunately, I could not find anything on this topic so far.

I did, however, discover this blog post on The Evolution of Door Usability, which nicely complements what I wrote above.

My buddy, Ed Hodges, wonders:

I reckon the simplest solution would be to investigate declassifying the door as an emergency exit & just have it as a regular door, so that both work all the time. Do the fire regs really force you to have some doors alarmed?

I’m not familiar with these regulations, so I can’t answer your question, Ed. Maybe there are regulations in effect that even require the doors to be designed exactly as they are now.

Regardless of whether that is the case, though, the designer’s idea of how this entryway should work obviously differs from what some (most?) of its users are expecting.

If the designer’s and the users’ mental model matched, there would be no need for the signs in the door’s windows.