28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XVIII

Drunk people are users too.

Products deemed to be potentially dangerous to the user or the surrounding environment, such as vehicles, weapons and chemicals, are tested under more strenuous conditions and held to higher engineering standards to ensure a level of personal and public safety. Cars are built with a large number of features meant only as a last resort to save lives during an accident, while household products which can’t have safety mechanisms added–bleach, for example–can only be fitted with safety switches and warning messages on their labels; of course, once the bleach has left the bottle, the label can’t follow it to warn of the dangers of its use.

Some cars are equipped with breathalysers, usually issued after a driver has already been caught inebriated behind the wheel, that won’t allow ignition unless the driver’s alcohol content is below the legal limit. Unlike seat belt, airbags and engine mounts that release the engine rather than crush passengers under their weight, the breathalyser is a precaution meant to prevent a tragedy from happening in the first place, much like the safety switch on a pistol. These all seem like common sense today, but not so long ago they were mere suggestions to the manufacturers.

Architecture is another field of design where safety is a primary concern–emergency elevators, backup stairways and fire escapes are all mandatory additions to large buildings and public spaces. But one place where safety is overlooked, sometimes to an obvious degree, is in the interior design that comes after the architects have finished their job.

Interaction design plays a major role in interiors, and in many cases, it seems, safety concerns are overlooked in the interest of artistic value. In this example, I have to again draw from my experiences at The Triple Door in Seattle. It’s not because I didn’t like it there, but because it seems the designers felt like product testing just doesn’t apply to interiors or architecture, which is unfortunate.

The upper level of the establishment is an upscale bar, complete with a giant fish tank, floor-mounted lighting and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, unmarked restrooms. There is a row of booths for private dining along one side of the bar, and surrounding these booths is a wall about chest high and perhaps five inches thick. The wall is topped with a smooth black finish, and happens to be the proper height on which to rest one’s drink while mingling, dancing, or searching for the restrooms.

In fact, the wall seems like it was meant to hold drinks. And why wouldn’t it? No sense letting that space go to waste. The only problem is that the smooth, slick finish is set at an angle–maybe 10 degrees–and does a really good job of holding a glass full of liquid just long enough to give the illusion that everything’s under control. After picking up the shattered remnants of one too many pint glasses to qualify as random user error, I discovered the angle of the wall wasn’t flat, and tested my own glass on its surface. The less liquid in the glass, the longer it would stay–an empty pint glass generally stayed indefinitely–but a full pint fell off within a couple seconds. A half-full glass was too sporadic to come to any conclusions, but more often than not, it would eventually fall in the time it would take most people to remove their coat.

And that’s considering the people weren’t already hindered by the effects of alcohol. Of course, I was sober when I did these tests–the glass I used was filled with root beer–but this being a bar, the designers should have taken into consideration the altered state of a drinker–not just your average tipsy patron, but the Friday night college student with no kids and no responsibilities. If there is a law in effect disallowing a bartender from serving outwardly drunk customers, establishments like this should put forth the effort to lessen the possibility for accidents and injuries that are amplified when alcohol is introduced. Drunkenness may be considered a corner case from an engineering perspective, but that doesn’t mean it’s less common, just less anticipated in most situations.

Interior interaction seems to fall through the cracks between the architectural and decorative stages, almost as if all safety concerns are expected to have been solved by the architects who are long gone before the next wave of designers step in. But to dismiss the safety aspects of any facet of design is to invite more hazardous situations–especially when a user’s behaviors might be altered by a factor such as alcohol. I’d go so far as to say it would be more responsible for a team of designers to hire drunk product testers to examine new interiors and user experiences at various degrees of inebriation. I’m sure there are people who would volunteer for just such a position.

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