28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXII

Dangerous products should be harder to engage and easier to stop.

Earlier this month, a four-year-old girl died after being trapped inside a front-loading washing machine which was turned on by her 15-month-old brother. The event stirred up a good deal of discussion involving the design and usability of certain washing machines in households with children.

Childproofing a home is never easy, and often quite expensive. Entire aisles of safety mechanisms are often available at retail stores in an attempt to guard children against numerous potential dangers: electrical outlets, drawers containing unsafe products, closet doors, sharp edges, hard surfaces and choking hazards, to name a few. As soon as a family expects its first child, it quickly becomes apparent just what a death trap some homes can be.

It’s impossible to remove every hazardous element from a child’s life, and attempting to do so only prolongs the encounter for a later time. When dealing with products and environments that can pose a threat to a child’s safety, it’s good to take advantage of the one safety mechanism built into all children: their size. Kids unable to figure out dangerous equipment start out with a very limited reach, and this should be utilized when designing products that can’t be simply kept away from children, such as washing machines.

According to news reports, the controls to the washing machine in question (a Kenmore 417 front load washer) are a mere twenty inches off the floor–well within the reach of a small child–and can be engaged easily. In top loading washers, the controls are usually set behind the door, and require a taller operator with an extended arm to start. With the advent of front loading machines, perhaps because clothes can now be folded or piled on top of the machine, keeping the controls where they were would have seemed like a bad idea, as access to the buttons might be blocked with no need to keep the top of the machine clear.

Years ago, a few medicine companies began advertising bottles that were easier to open, responding to elderly users having difficulties opening their medicine containers. Most childproof bottles feature caps which must be squeezed and forced open, or arrows which have to line up with one another before the cap will pop off. Both took considerable strength, and the arrows were small and hard to notice, making them harder for children to figure out. Obviously, these safety features cause problems for older users, who often have problems with both the strength and eyesight needed to open the bottles. To solve this problem, the new bottles have a long tab sticking up from their cap, making them easier to grasp, but still take a bit of strength to twist off. On these bottles, instead of the standard “Keep out of reach of children” warning, the label clearly states not to allow the bottle in any household with children–which is wonderful for older users, who are typically beyond the stage of having to worry about kids running around their homes.

The problem with this new style of washing machine isn’t only where the controls are placed, but the type of controls they use. As a user, I never really liked the push-twist-pull dial used to select the type of fabric and duration of the wash. Because the dial can only spin clockwise (a limitation I’ve never understood but have found on every dial I’ve ever tried), passing the desired setting means having to turn the thing around another rotation, and it isn’t always easy to know if the arrow is right on the correct setting or one click behind it. I’m always a bit uneasy about advancing an extra click when trying to select my setting, and because I’ve always used the exact same setting with all of my clothes, the fact that I have to turn the dial with every load does seem a bit pointless.

So the dial isn’t necessary, but eliminating it also gets rid of a helpful safety feature. How can a button-driven menu incorporate an equally effective feature? One idea could be to require two buttons, placed far enough apart to require two hands, to be pressed simultaneously. This will make it almost impossible to activate the machine accidentally, and still offer a simple way to get the machine started. Because the contents of the machine move around during the cycle, a release lever or button inside the machine isn’t possible, but in the interest of preventing another accident, unlikely as this sort may be, it would be possible to install a small microphone that halts the cycle if a loud noise, such as a scream, is detected when the tub begins filling with water.

Cases like these make us realize how important it is to analyze every possibility regarding household objects, products and situations, and at least try to prevent accidents before they occur. I wouldn’t say a recall is necessary on washing machines like this, but users need to understand the ease with which they can be engaged, and make the controls harder to reach by keeping the machines elevated or their rooms locked if there are children about. Like with the medicine bottles, manufacturers of these machines should make sure customers are warned of their inherent shortcomings as equipment easily accessible to children, by including printed warnings on boxes and in manuals that come with the products. When accidents like this happen, there is often no one branch of the user experience process the place the blame, as all parties–design, development, sales and even the user–may all have contributed to the unsafe conditions which led to the accident. That’s why it’s important to consider every step of the process when working to prevent future incidents.

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